This chapter illustrates one aspect of The Lord of the Rings which sets it apart from many of its brethren: It commits to showing the arduous process of healing the wounds of war.
Slowly the lights of the torches in front of [Merry] flickered and went out, and he was walking in a darkness; and he thought: ‘This is a tunnel leading to a tomb; there we shall stay forever.’ But suddenly into his dream there fell a living voice.
‘Well, Merry! Thank goodness I have found you!’
He looked up and the mist before his eyes cleared a little. There was Pippin! They were face to face in a narrow lane, and but for themselves it was empty. He rubbed his eyes.
[…] ‘Poor old Merry! How glad I am to see you again! But you are worn out, and I won’t bother you with any talk. But tell me, are you hurt, or wounded?’
‘No,’ said Merry. ‘Well, no, I don’t think so. But I can’t use my right arm, Pippin, not since I stabbed him. And my sword burned all away like a piece of wood.’
Pippin’s face was anxious. ‘Well, you had better come with me as quick as you can,’ he said. ‘I wish I could carry you. You aren’t fit to walk any further. They shouldn’t have let you walk at all; but you must forgive them. So many dreadful things have happened in the City, Merry, that one poor hobbit coming in from the battle is easily overlooked.’
‘It’s not always a misfortune being overlooked,’ said Merry. ‘I was overlooked just now by – no, no, I can’t speak of it. Help me, Pippin! It’s all going dark again, and my arm is so cold. […] Are you going to bury me?’ said Merry.
‘No, indeed!’ said Pippin, trying hard to sound cheerful, though his heart was wrung with fear and pity. ‘No, we are going to the Houses of Healing.’
What’s particularly interesting is how much of a role mental illness plays here. Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry (plus many other soldiers) all suffer from the “Black Shadow”, a malady that comes from contact with the Nazgûl which seems to begin with a sleep filled with dark dreams, then progresses to silence and then death. These three are our only case studies, and each has symptoms of some mental disorder besides severe physical injuries (with the exception of Merry, whose only hurt came from stabbing the Witch-king).
At first the healers of Gondor are at a loss for how to go about treating the Black Shadow, until one of the women recalls a certain “old wives’ tale”.
Then an old wife, Ioreth, the eldest of the women who served in that house, looking on the fair face of Faramir, wept, for all the people loved him. And she said: ‘Alas! if he should die. Would that there were kings in Gondor, as there were once upon a time, they say! For it is said in old lore: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. And so the rightful king could ever be known.’
And Gandalf, who stood by, said: ‘Men may long remember your words, Ioreth! For there is hope in them.’
Of course, for a day or so Aragorn was still busy mopping up the remnants of the battle, and he’s understandably reluctant to enter the city itself while Denethor is the steward, certainly not to claim the kingship just yet – although they’ve defeated an army, they all know that there’s plenty more where that came from, and he doesn’t want to attempt anything so potentially divisive until (and unless) their victory becomes certain. But since Denethor is dead and Faramir is out of commission for the foreseeable future, Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth, a relative of Denethor’s long-dead wife (and the primary Gondorian captain in the battle), assumes temporary leadership. So once Éomer finds out that his sister is still alive, the Prince hears about what happened with Denethor, and Gandalf fetches Aragorn (under the guise of a “mere” Captain of the Rangers), they all converge on the Houses of Healing.
Once Aragorn assesses the patients, he asks for athelas (the same herb he used to help Frodo after he was stabbed), but they don’t actually keep any in the Houses of Healing anymore, since the only use people seem to have for it anymore is an air freshener or a cure for headaches, but they manage to acquire some from “some old man of less lore and more wisdom”.
Now Aragorn knelt beside Faramir, and held a hand upon his brow. And those that watched felt that some great struggle was going on. For Aragorn’s face grew grey with weariness; and ever and anon he called the name of Faramir, but each time more faintly to their hearing, as if Aragorn himself was removed from them, and walked afar in some dark vale, calling for one that was lost.
Faramir is in the worst shape of the three, partly because he was more badly wounded, but mostly because he had suffered under the Shadow the longest: He first fell “ill” during the retreat from Osigiliath, and getting shot in his subsequent suicide mission only made matters worse. But more than that, he suffered because of the stress and anxiety and guilt that his father had been foisting on him ever since they found out about Boromir. The arrow he got might actually have been a good thing, since its stopped him from exerting himself anymore and putting himself in even more danger.
Suddenly Faramir stirred, and he opened his eyes, and he looked on Aragorn who bent over him; and a light of knowledge and love was kindled in his eyes, and he spoke softly. ‘My lord, you called me. I come. What does the king command?’
‘Walk no more in the shadows, but awake!’ said Aragorn. ‘You are weary. Rest a while, and take food, and be ready when I return.’
‘I will, lord,’ said Faramir. ‘For who would lie idle when the king has returned?’
Faramir seems set on the road to recovery now that he has a renewed purpose (although nobody’s told him about his father’s death yet). It certainly helps that he’s no longer torn between health and duty, which is a terrible environment for anyone to live in.
Then we get to Éowyn, the one who’s been battling her own darkness for a long time.
‘Alas! For she was pitted against a foe beyond the strength of her mind or body. And those who will take a weapon to such an enemy must be sterner than steel, if the very shock shall not destroy them. It was an evil doom that set her in his path. For she is a fair maiden, fairest lady of a house of queens. And yet I know not how I should speak of 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 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?’
‘I marvel that you should ask me, lord,’ he answered. ‘For I hold you blameless in this matter, as in all else; yet I knew not that Éowyn, my sister, was touched by any frost, until she first looked on you. Care and dread she had, and shared with me, in the days of Wormtongue and the king’s bewitchment; and she tended the king in growing fear. But that did not bring her to this pass!’
‘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 a 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 dishonoured dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on.’
This sounds an awful lot like depression, which helps explain both how she survived her encounter with the Witch-king and why it’s so hard for her to heal. She’s accustomed to darkness, but she’s lived with it for so long that she may have even forgotten what it’s like to be healthy and whole.
‘I saw also what you saw, Éomer, Few other griefs amid the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man’s heart than to behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned. […] And yet, Éomer, I say to you that she loves you more truly than me; for you she loves and knows; but 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.
‘I have, maybe, the power to heal her body, and to recall her from the dark valley. But to what she will awake: hope, or forgetfulness, or despair, I do not know. And if to despair, then she will die, unless other healing comes which I cannot bring. Alas! for her deeds have set her among the queens of great renown.’
Then Aragorn stooped and looked in her face, and it was indeed white as a lily, cold as frost, and hard as graven stone. But he bent and kissed her on the brow, and called her softly, saying:
‘Éowyn Éomund’s daughter, awake! For your enemy has passed away!’
And despite Aragorn calling her repeatedly, it’s not until Éomer starts calling her that she actually wakes up.
‘Éomer shall stay here for a while. But do not speak yet of war or woe, until you are made whole again. Great gladness it is to see you wake again to health and hope, so valiant a lady!’
‘To health?’ said Éowyn. ‘It may be so. At least while there is an empty saddle of some fallen Rider that I can fill, and there are deeds to do. But to hope? I do not know.’
She’s already accomplished great deeds, yet she still sees no point in regaining health except to continue fighting. It’s not for her uncle (or at least not anymore), or even for “renown”, she simply doesn’t see any other path for herself.
Merry, meanwhile, is far quicker to respond to treatment, even if he may still have scars.
‘Do not be afraid,’ said Aragorn. ‘I came in time, and I have called him back.He is weary now, and grieved, and he has taken a hurt like the Lady Éowyn, daring to smite that deadly thing. But these evils can be amended, so strong and gay a spirit is in him. His grief he will not forget; but it will not darken his heart, it will teach him wisdom.’
‘I am hungry. What is the time?’
Because of course the first thing he asks about is food!
‘Then I would like supper first, and after that a pipe.’ At that his face clouded. ‘No, not a pipe. I don’t think I’ll smoke again.’
‘Why not?’ said 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 ever be able to smoke again without thinking of him, and that day, Pippin, when he rode up to Isengard and was so polite.’
‘Smoke then, and think of him!’ said Aragorn. ‘For he was a gentle heart and a great king and kept his oaths; and he rose out of the shadows to a last fair morning. Though your service to him was brief, it should be a memory glad and honourable to the end of your days.’
While this isn’t Merry’s first taste of loss (he witnessed Boromir’s death, too, not to mention Gandalf), I think it’s safe to say this was the first death that really hit home for him, since he had come to love Théoden even in so short a time. That combined with his truly terrifying encounter with the Nazgûl would naturally be a traumatic experience, even if he is able to rebound fairly quickly. That’s the sort of thing you never really forget.
‘But at least, Pippin, we can now see them, and honour them. It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about it or not. I am glad that I know about them, a little. But I don’t know why I am talking like this. Where is that leaf? And get that pipe out of my pack, if it isn’t broken.’
Then we end the chapter on some Jesus parallels for Aragorn!
At the doors of the Houses many were already gathered to see Aragorn, and they followed after him; and when at last he had supped, men came and prayed that he would heal their kinsmen or their friends whose lives were in peril through hurt or wound, or who lay under the Black Shadow. And Aragorn arose and went out, and he sent for the sons of Elrond, and together they labored far into the night. And word went through the City: ‘The King is come again indeed.’ And they named him Elfstone, because of the green stone that he wore, and so the name which it was foretold at his birth that he should bear was chosen for him by his own people.
Next time: The last debate…