The Lord of the Rings – Book 5, Chapter 8: “The Houses of Healing”

The battle for Gondor is over.

Merry accompanies the procession of the fallen Lord of the Mark into the city, where he is reunited with Pippin.  Pippin sees that Merry is injured, Merry reports that his arm is numb after stabbing the Witch-king.  Pippin determines to get Merry to Houses of Healing, and he does so with Gandalf’s help.  Gandalf’s makes a comment here about how in convincing Elrond to let Merry and Pippin join the Fellowship in the first place, far worse tidings were staved off this day.  Once more, Gandalf spells out for the reader that he is the master chess player when it comes to making large plays for destiny by moving around the least likely of pieces on the board.  Tolkien spends some time in this chapter reminding the reader of how far we’ve come on this journey when he makes callbacks such as this one, and it’s only the first such callback in this chapter.

Following the battle, Aragorn puts away his banner and orders a camp outside the city.  His war is with Mordor, he says, and he will not claim the throne for good or ill until that war is done.  His fight is not with the Steward or the people of Gondor, and he will remain until the Lord of Minas Tirith grants him entry.  When news of Denethor reaches Aragorn, he names Imrahil to act as interim leader of Gondor, though all agree that Gandalf is their true leader for the remainder of the war.  And thus at Gandalf’s request, Aragorn enters the city, not as king, but as Captain of the Dúnedain.

Merry, Faramir, and Éowyn continue to worsen from their wounds inflicted by the Enemy’s weapons.  It is here that we learn from one of the nurses a bit of lore that tells us, “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.”

There is something about this chapter that, for me, reads closely in style to Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.  I can’t help but think that’s intentional — if not directly inspirational — on Tolkien’s part.  Between the prophecies fulfilled and the miracles offered, Aragorn comes across as an Arthur here.  And why not when he has his own Merlin in Gandalf?  The parallels for me are too great to ignore.  In the Arthurian sagas, the land and the king are one.  For Tolkien, the people and the king are one, and so the king has the power to heal, which we’ve already seen Aragorn do with Frodo and the Kingsfoil plant… the other great callback to all we’ve seen on the road so far.

The call goes forth to find this bit of seemingly useless herb, which Aragorn proves that in the hands of the king heals great wounds.  By scent alone when brewed as a tea, Faramir wakes, immediately acknowledging Aragorn as his king.  Éowyn and Merry are likewise returned to consciousness via Aragorn’s touch and kiss.  It is a scene right out of the great fairy stories that inspire Tolkien, one with Biblical overtones to it as well.  Like Jesus, Aragorn goes forth throughout the city, healing the wounded with his touch.  Word spreads of the return of the king and his healing hands.  It’s so very Arthurian, the uniting of Christian and pagan themes under the banner of a single king.

Aragorn picks his house name as Strider, but the people call him Elfstone, or Elessar, after the green gem at his neck given him by Galadriel, as foretold in prophecy at Aragorn’s birth.

As always for this book, where there is a rhyme of lore, there is The Tolkien Ensemble.  The lore of Kingsfoil, or “Athelas,” is offered in the book, recited here by the great Christopher Lee.

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