I always laugh a bit that the final volume of The Lord of the Rings is called The Return of the King. It makes it seem a simple thing. But in the text, Aragorn makes his return in so many different stages (dwarfed only by the number of names he’s accumulated along the way). We’ve already seen him swoop in to save the day with the fleet of Pelagir, the arrival of a military hero. Here we seem him make his entrance into Minas Tirith itself, the arrival of a healer. And there will be more to come. It’s a nice nod to the complexity of the situation—while we know Aragorn, Minas Tirith doesn’t. Heirs apparent have been rejected before.
More than that, though, it’s an acknowledgement from Tolkien on the complexity of kingship. Aragorn saved the day last chapter. But only kind of. After the eucatasrophe on the Pelennor, things are ugly and cracked and precarious. Tolkien’s landscape essentially shouts it.
Fire and smoke and stench were in the air; for many engines had been burned or cast into the fire-pits, and many of the slain also, while here and there lay many carcasses of the great Southron monsters, half-burned, or broken by stone-cast, or shot through the eyes by the valiant archers from Morthond. The flying rain had ceased for a time, and the sun gleamed up above; but all the lower city was still wrapped in a smoldering reek.
There’s a distinct lack of glory in it, a sense of exhaustion and rot. That’s only accentuated by the fact that Merry, our first viewpoint character, is suffering from what is, in Kate Nepveu’s words, “magical PTSD”.
To Merry the ascent seemed age-long, a meaningless journey in a hateful dream, going on and one to some dim ending that memory cannot seize. Slowly the lights of the torches in front of him flickered and went out, and he was walking in a darkness; and the thought: “This is a tunnel leading to a tomb; there we shall stay forever.”
When he finally finds Pippin, who helps him towards the Houses of Healing, Merry asks if Pippin is going to bury him, one of the more viscerally sad moments in the whole trilogy. The good guys won the battle, but the cost seems brutally high. Théoden and Denethor are dead, Faramir and Éowyn are dying. Merry seems to be on the road to following them. So Aragorn—in a move that seems to win him more goodwill than his dramatic battle arrival—becomes a healer.
Aragorn and the Royal Touch
Ioreth casually mentions to Gandalf, as they helplessly watch their patients in the Houses of Healing, that “the hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.” It’s an old saying and an old idea, both in Middle-earth and reality. The royal touch was a relatively prevalent idea in late medieval and early modern England and France (peaking around the 1700s). Associated primarily with scrofula, it was believed that a touch by the king himself—or sometimes just a gold coin touched by the king—could bring relief and remission from the less-than-pleasant disease.
It’s unclear where the practice got its start (in a historical twist that will surprise no one, the French and English fought even over the right to claim precedence in shoddy medical practices). In any case, the practice reached its apex when Charles II of England supposedly touched 92,000 scrofulous Englishmen and Englishwomen. He was also called by one of his biographers the “playboy monarch” so no doubt the dude had a wild ride of a life. And the practice was well-known enough that it even makes a little cameo in Macbeth, when King Edward of England makes use of the royal touch:
Ay, sir; there are a crew of wretched souls
That stay his cure. Their malady convinces
The great assay of art, but at his touch—
Such sanctity hath heaven given his hand—
They presently amend.
Frankly, between this and the Ents, Lord of the Rings is just Macbeth fan fic at this point?
As Aragorn starts healing though, it’s interesting to see how personally good at it he is. While his military actions throughout The Return of the King have been admirable—dude mind-wrestled Sauron and recruited an army of ghosts—he often felt like a force more than a person. He was the heir of Gondor! Shit like that makes things fall into place, sometimes.
And that’s true here as well, of course. Aragorn has magic king powers that let him use a magic king weed to make nice magic breezes blow through the window. But as this all plays out, it becomes more and more apparent that Aragorn’s skill here goes beyond his inherited talents and are built on the foundation of his insight and his consistent willingness to receive advice and support.
Faramir’s recalling from the edge is the first and least complex of Aragorn’s three healings. The spotlight is on the athelas—before its arrival Aragorn’s healing is portrayed as a trying struggle, afterwards a nice breeze of “a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which he fair world in Spring itself is but a fleeting memory” flows through the room. But in the context of the latter healing we can see that something else is at play.
First, Aragorn’s healings are individualized, specific. He doesn’t just walk into the room and slap everyone in the face with a magic plant. Instead, he follows another path that would be well known to medieval kings and clerical leaders (at least in theory): to guide or lead each in accordance with their need. Faramir is brought back from despair with the scent of nostalgia-hued springtime but also through a sense of duty and purpose. When he opens his eyes, he already knows who Aragorn is, and he is already to serve his new king. Aragorn knows this: he tells Faramir to rest and to eat, but also to “be ready” for his return (again! Aragorn is always returning). He can heal Faramir, and bring him back from despair, because he understands him and what he needs.
This, unsurprisingly, becomes more complicated when he gets to Éowyn. Because Aragorn is not quite sure who she is, what she needs, or what to make of her.
“She is a fair maiden, fairest lady of a house of queens. And yet I know not how I should speak to her. When I first looked on her and perceived her unhappiness, it seemed to me that I saw a white flower standing straight and proud, shapely as a lily, and yet I knew that it was hard, as if wrought by elf-wrights out of steel. Or was it maybe a frost that had turned its sap to ice and so it stood, bitter-sweet, still fair to see, but stricken, soon to fall and die? Her malady begins far back before this day, does it not?”
Éomer, the good-hearted bro of Middle-earth, essentially shrugs and says he didn’t notice anything wrong with his sister until the arrival of Aragorn at Meduseld maxed out poor Éowyn’s unrequited love meter. I was so, so ready to shoot some side-eye at Éomer for this, but GANDALF HAD MY BACK:
“My friend,” said Gandalf. “You had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields; but she, born in the body of a maid, had the spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean, dishonored dotage; and her part to her seemed more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on… Who knows what she spoke in the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?”
I mean… rock on, Gandalf? Thanks, buddy? I’ll have more to say about this down the road when we get to “The Steward and the King.” But for now, this section is primary interesting to me because it demonstrates another of Aragorn’s strengths: his ability to take advice with wisdom and discernment. While Gandalf’s explanation of Éowyn’s mental state is much more nuanced and insightful than Éomer’s, neither are wrong—and Aragorn realizes this. Éowyn was deeply distressed by Aragorn’s departure, and she did love him. But as Aragorn notes, “in me she loves only a shadow and a thought: a hope of glory and great deeds, and lands far from the fields of Rohan.” Her love and heartbreak was predicated on the broader context of disappointment and injustice in which Éowyn lived her life. Aragorn realizes this and blends his own insight with those of the people around him.
And finally, we have Merry. Merry’s healing is by far the easiest for Aragorn. If we know anything by now we know that hobbits are hearty folk, slow to despair. And there is also simply that fact that, at this point, Aragorn knows Merry very well.
Merry’s healing happens largely offscreen—his athelas breeze has the very Shire-y scent “of orchards and of heather in the sunshine full of bees”—and Aragorn only proves his quality once Merry is awake and largely fine. He awakes in a suitably hobbit-y way, asking for food literally as soon as he opens his mouth. But it quickly becomes clear that sadness is still weighing on Merry once he suggests a smoke with Pippin.
“No, not a pipe. I don’t think I’ll smoke again.”
“Why not?” asked Pippin.
“Well,” answered Merry slowly. “He is dead. It has brought it all back to me. He said he was sorry he had never had a chance of talking herb-lore with me. Almost the last thing he ever said. I shan’t be able to smoke again without thinking of him, and that day, Pippin, when he rode up to Isengard and was so polite.”
It’s a bittersweet moment, sad on the surface but also a nice reminder of Merry’s sensitivity and his sweet relationship with Théoden. And Aragorn responds with advice to smoke away: Théoden was a good man, and his legacy deserved commemoration. It’s a solid point, and one that Merry seems to take. So he asks for Strider to go and get him some pipe weed—his is off somewhere in his pack, god knows where—so that he can “smoke and think.” And Aragorn teases him, in a delightful little passage, for the hobbit audacity to ask the new king to go fetch him some weed when he hasn’t slept in days. “I am frightfully sorry,” Merry responds.
“Go at once! Ever since that night at Bree we have been a nuisance to you. But it is the way of my people to use light words at such times and say less than they mean. We fear to say too much. It robs us of the right words when a jest is out of place.”
“I know that well, or I would not deal with you in the same way,” said Aragorn. “May the Shire live forever unwithered.”
It’s a lovely moment for Aragorn and those around him and another indication that Aragorn’s many talents (knowledge, discernment, at the ability to tease!) have their place on the road ahead. And it’s a good close to a chapter that’s often warm and funny after many chapters that have been anything but. “The Houses of Healing” could—I mean, you’d be wrong, but could—be said to be an instance of Tolkien’s tendency to over-end a book, to undercut a climax. I think (hope) it’s a charge lobbed more often at the films than the books. But for the books, I think it’s a largely baseless criticism. Battles have always been unfortunate necessities in The Lord of the Rings rather than end points. What comes after matters more. And more on that later.
- We’ve talked a bit about Aragorn and his bit-by-bit return. But the return that matters the most to me is the return of Strider as the king of unnecessarily-dramatic reveals. It’s been a long way from Bree, where the hobbits didn’t like the look of him! There he manages to burst out of the shadows three different times in one night. Here, he manages to restrain himself to simply hiding his face in a cloak until Éomer asks where he is. He then flings back his cloak, refers to himself in the third person, and becomes the king he was born to be. I had missed this Aragorn very much. His Pelannor fleet reveal was the true culmination of his character, I guess.
- I also enjoy that Aragorn’s teasing of Merry shows how far he’s come in his understanding of hobbits. Back in Bree, Pippin attempted to joke away Strider’s moody assertion that his, err, rugged appearance worked against him. Replying to Pippin’s cheerful assertion that a few weeks of sleeping in ditches would leave anyone worse for wear, Strider replies that his lifestyle would leave Pippin worse for wear… but also dead. Now he just trolls Merry!
- Part of me does wish we could have seen the version of this story where Aragorn arrives at Minas Tirith as a battle hero with a claim, but with Denethor still standing in the way as Steward.
- I’d love to hear comments on Ioreth. It pains me a little to have one of the few women who talks in the books be an annoying chatterbox. But she’s also shown to be quite competent and initiates (if accidentally) Aragorn’s entrance into Minas Tirith? It’d be a non-issue if there were simply more women in the story. But absent that I feel ambivalent about her.
- In any case, she gives a rare glimpse into “regular life” in Middle-earth outside of Hobbiton. We’re told Gondorian medicine is pretty good! But it’s also called “leechcraft” so maybe let’s not get too carried away in praising the glory of old Númenor. I did enjoy the reference that their medical skill could heal pretty much anything “save old age only.” Just keep trying, guys! I mean, really, what’s the worst that could happen.
- Got a very big kick out of Éomer and Imrahil being lightly scandalized by Pippin’s greeting of their king, which amounts to a “hey! my dude! knew you’d make it 😉 ”
- Tolkien’s merciless assault on the linguistics-obsessed herbmaster—“If your pack has not been found, then you must send for the herbmaster of this House. And he will tell you that he did not know that the herb you desire had any virtues, but that it is called westmansweed by the vulgar, and galenas by the noble, and other names in other tongues more learned, and after adding a few half-forgotten rhymes that he does not understand, he will regretfully inform you that there is none in the House, and he will leave you to reflect upon the history of tongues”—is just a hardcore self-trolling, yeah? Or at least some self-adjacent trolling of academics.
- Prose Prize: A bad choice, but I couldn’t pick anything over Aragorn just, like, annihilating that poor, pompous linguist. A better choice is Gandalf’s Éowyn monologue. Who knew he was such a fan.
- Contemporary to this Chapter: We are essentially covering the tail end of the Battle of Pelennor Fields and the following night (as Frodo and Sam are trudging towards Mount Doom). After presumably none-to-not-much sleep, everyone will meet up to talk strategy in “The Last Debate.”