It is the aftermath of the battle, with Tolkien immediately moving to create a sense of ruin, with imagery of destruction, jetsam of battle, death all around. You can almost smell the lingering smoke in the air, and that dreadful anti-climactic feeling as the victorious warriors come down from the high of winning to realise that they are now surrounded by death. Minis Tirith, the lower parts of it anyway, is in ruins, its gate in tatters, its people fled to higher levels or dead. This chapter is going to be all about counting the immediate cost of victory and it starts right from the off.
Poor Merry is utterly shell-shocked from his experience out on the field of battle, trudging alongside the body of Théoden as if he is in a dream, barely aware of the world around him. It’s really good stuff here, as Tolkien just lays out the aimlessness of the hobbit, who has gotten in way over his head, has paid the price, and is now acting like someone who is little more than a mindless robot, the heart sucked out of him.
This harsh look at the results of the battle gets alleviated by the re-uniting of Merry with Pippin, the duo that the universe just cannot keep apart. The contrast here is fairly large: Pippin is the enthusiastic, well-dressed Gondorian soldier full of cheer, with Merry the depressed, death-obsessed walking wounded. The death wish of Théoden and Eowyn is almost infectious, with Merry convinced he’s heading into a tomb, and going into this vision with an eerie willingness. Pippin’s appearance gives the narrative a much needed burst of optimism, but Merry’s condition makes for grim reading. He’s clearly in a bad way, and the references to the temperature of his sword-arm cannot mean anything other than the Wraith effect, which did the same to Frodo way back in “Flight To The Ford”. Pippin is reduced to the role of an ineffective matron here, simply holding his friend close while waiting, with a clear sense of growing desperation, for help to arrive.
The help comes in the form of Gandalf, who seems to have been relegated, in the aftermath of the battle, to being a messenger and stretcher-bearer. He takes the opportunity here to go on about how he has been proved right over Elrond, in his conviction that it was the correct thing to bring Merry and Pippin along for this trip. Bit of an odd moment that, doesn’t really seem to be the time for this bit of self-congratulation, but Gandalf is a master of his own propaganda.
This chapter is set around the three wounded characters of the last few pages, all suffering from the same illness – a vaguely defined “the black shadow”, the closest thing to a title that the Nazgul effect ever gets. It’s some sort of strange disease that makes the sufferer lapse into a coma and expire, though with a theme of coldness rather than fever. It’s quite bad that the Gondorians healers are well used to this ailment, to the extent that the gloomy sense in the air is very believable. There isn’t anything they can do.
We get our introduction to Ioreth, the stereotypical matron, who provides a reasonably believable voice as someone who actually hates war and what it has done to her charges. That’s rare to see in this book, which generally treats war as something that is all kinds of awesome and glory-filled. Apart from that, Ioreth is here mostly for some comic relief, and as the intro-person for the main point of the chapter. Somewhat randomly, she comes out with the statement that what they really need is a King, since King’s have mystical healing abilities.
This kind of thing has a basis in history. Kings always had divine associations, and for a time in the 15th and 16th centuries, this was believed to extend to miraculous healing abilities through the use of “the Royal touch”. This thinking was mostly confined to England and France though, whose Monarchs would, with surprising regularity, meet people afflicted with ailments, mostly skin deformities, just to touch and bless them. Supposedly, many were cured. Supposedly.
So, Tolkien throws it in here as his own air-tight way to prove that Aragorn is the rightful King of Gondor. Right.
Aragorn is out on the field of battle still, wisely deciding that now is not the best time to march into the city and claim the throne. It’s not exactly a difficult decision to reach, but it shows that Aragorn has some political savvy at least. The confusion and heartache of a battles aftermath is just not the best time to start making a bid for power.
That being said, the process has already started. His raised the Kings banner and beaten the bad guys, saved the day. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that Aragorn is the heir of Isuildur, but at least he isn’t making a song and dance about it yet.
Théoden lies in state at the top of the city, Tolkien still giving him tonnes of quiet and respectful glory, as the old man becomes his own “King under the mountain”, described as being almost asleep, not dead. Here, Eomer, his blooddrunkeness finally ended, is finally informed that his sister isn’t quite dead yet. The reaction here is really good, a rare bit of genuine emotion for that character, as he lurches from shock, to hope, to fear very quickly, having gained a thin straw to grasp at that could slip away all too easily. In fact, “The Houses Of Healing” is probably the best chapter, in terms of character depth and development, that Eomer will have, even though his dialogue is, as always, limited.
Things are looking grim for Faramir, Eowyn and Merry, but suddenly, Aragorn turns up, once more in “Strider” guise, answering the plea from Gandalf. Time to do some more unintentional throne claiming! One wonders if he and Gandalf aren’t just plotting all this showmanship the whole time.
Well, that might be a stretch. What is strange is how Aragorn, with surprisingly little resistance, gets all present to accept Gandalf as their leader in the coming days. What? Where’s his Kingly pedigree? His right to power? As outlined, Dol Amroth and Eomer should be the ones in charge, but everyone just seems to go along with Aragorn here, as if giving supreme command to the wizard is something they haven’t the slightest problem with. It’s all done so quickly too, with barely a paragraph acknowledging this decision.
Aragorn takes a moment to acknowledge his roots, deciding there and then that the name of his house will be the Elvish form of “Strider”, which is a really nice touch, if a little out of place in this scene.
Anyway, it’s time for some, maybe a little mis-placed, comedy, as Gandalf and Aragorn send several pages trying to get some simple herbs out of Ioreth and the “Herbmaster”, only to run into brick walls of fancy words and “herblore”. This really is a strange moment, as Tolkien plays all this up for laughs, in what should really be an otherwise serious hospital scene. I mean, Faramir is quite close to death by all accounts, and the healing staff seem to content to faff around talking about curing plants they don’t have on them. I mean, it is a little funny alright, but not exactly what the story needs right now.
Anyway, Aragorn gets his cure, the athleas plant, and goes into what I could only describe as some sort of psychic fight with the “black shadow”, seeming to actually physically struggle in a battle of wills with it. He wins out of course, and Faramir comes back to the land of the living. Of course, it seems to be the plant that has done most of the work here, not Aragorn, but that little fact is a bit awkward to the overall theme I guess.
Anyway, not that Faramir, (the rightful ruler of the city now, but we won’t let that stop Gandalf’s power grab) is out of danger, it’s time to focus on Eowyn. We get a fairly long discussion on her problems here, which go far beyond what the Witch-King did to her. She’s had a fairly crappy life, and it’s all affected her in a bad way. Lost her parents young, forced to look after an ailing old man, perved on by Wormtounge, an absent brother, falls for a guy who isn’t interested, gains a death-wish, then fights one of the most evil entities to ever exist. Harsh.
As Gandalf and others lay out, it’s the fact that her life is, in her eyes, wasted and pointless that is the real problem, not the “black shadow”. Basically, Aragorn can cure her physically but she needs a reason to live. A little hammy perhaps, but it fits with the character, who is one of most self-destructive in the story.
Poor Eomer has been given a harsh introduction to all this, seemingly unaware that any of this was eve going on. Well, he’s a mournful brother now, the poor guy. I wouldn’t really blame him too much, I mean, he had his own responsibilities to look after the whole time, but Eowyn has clearly lacked that strong male presence in her life, and the result is that she is a little stunted in that regard.
Aragorn is also sorrowful, essentially for leading her on, though I really don’t think he did much, other then turn up in her life and not be an old man.
In the end, the Aragorn/Eowyn sub-plot is ended at this point as, when it comes to the crux of it, Eomer is one to call her back from wherever her mind is. Eowyn is back in the land of the living, but she’ll have to find something other than Aragorn’s love to live for, Family, in the form of Eomer, is part of that. But she is going to need something more.
Last of the three to be healed is Merry, who Aragorn treats almost lackadaisically. He seemingly is the least injured and the rightful King gets him awake fairly quickly. Poor Merry has been through the ringer alright, but his innate “hobbit-ness” should probably see him through. In a much more effective and well-placed bit of comedy, Merry gives a somewhat sarcastic apology to Aragorn that he tagged along on the adventure at all, before looking for his pipe. Of course, he still has scars, as he outlines his grief for the death of Théoden. Rather like Hawk-Eye, Merry is swinging between joking and morose rather quickly. But, he’s leaning decidedly more towards jolly anyway.
Aragorn has done what he set out to do, and more than that, he proving his claim to the general population. He spends his night curing and visiting the sick, performing miracles. The Aragorn character has been likened to the “King of Kings” aspect of Jesus, and here he takes on a further Christ-like role: that of the miracle healer.
The movie basically cuts this whole chapter out entirely, it being not very necessary to the overall story.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.