(Updated on 2/2/16)
It is the aftermath of the battle, with Tolkien immediately moving to create a sense of devastation, with imagery of destruction, jetsam of battle, death all around. “Tears”, “weariness”, “wreck”, “fire”, “ruin” and “stench” are the kind of words that promulgate the opening sentences. 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 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, 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 seems 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, as grim as some of the stuff still to come regarding Frodo. His question of “Are you going to bury me?” is a shocking thing to confront. 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, 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, though the battle remains unwon technically, to being a messenger and stretcher-bearer. He takes the opportunity 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 “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, and that’s terrifying.
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 necessary and glory-filled, though this chapter’s stark opening has already pointed to war as something less beneficial than it has otherwise appeared. Apart from that, Ioreth is here mostly for some comic relief, and as the intro-person for the main point of the chapter. It’s also fair to say that a huge part of the readership really, really hates her, and it’s not hard to see why, but I won’t belabour the point. 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, 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. Tolkien throws it in here as his own air-tight way to prove that Aragorn is the rightful King of Gondor.
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: “…I have no mind for strife except with our Enemy and his servants”.
That being said, the process has already started. His raised the Kings banner and has beaten the bad guys, saved the day. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that Aragorn is the heir of Isildur, as Eomer and Imrahil point out. They warn of a confrontation with Denethor, that we know will never take place, and the signs that Aragorn has already been accepted by all those currently in charge – Gandalf, Imrahil, Eomer – are there. And Aragorn, while content not to push it, is still mindful enough to claim at least the title of “a captain of the Rangers”, worthy of respect.
Théoden lies in state at the top of the city, Tolkien still giving him much quiet and respectful glory, as the old man becomes his own “King under the mountain”, described as being almost asleep, not dead, having found a measure of peace in his demise: “The light of the torches shimmered in his white hair like sun in the spray of a fountain, but his face was fair and young, save that a peace lay on it beyond the reach of youth”. Here, Eomer, his blooddrunkeness 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. I kid, but the more modern world of George R.R. Martin dominated fantasy is bound to have an effect in perceptions.
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: “And they agreed upon that”. 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 misplaced, comedy, as Gandalf and Aragorn spend 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 sequence, 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 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, eventually, 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 with it:
“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.”
He wins out, 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, now that Faramir, (whose acknowledgement of Aragorn as King almost immediately seems a little forced to me) is out of danger, it’s time to focus on Eowyn. We get a fairly long discussion on her problems, which go far beyond what the Witch-King did to her. She’s had a fairly awful and lonely 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 evillest 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”. Gandalf enunciates Eowyn’s dep seeded depression with remarkable skill: “But who knows what she spoke to 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?”
Eomer, for so long away from his sister and perhaps incapable of understanding the roots of her unhappiness, is stunned by this apparent revelation, but has a part to play in bringing her back from the brink now. 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 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. Eomer can help to give her that, in a way Aragorn can’t.
In the end, the Aragorn/Eowyn sub-plot is ended at this point as, when it comes to the crux of it, Eomer is the 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, it is made clear, despite his well-presented and sincere grief at the death of Theoden, Merry clinging to the memory of their first meeting, “… when he rode up to Isengard and was so polite.” 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, allowing Aragorn to respond in an elongated sarcastic way, albeit good natured. 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. His part in the chapter ends with a nice conversation with Pippin, and a surprisingly effective enunciation on the benefits of him going on this journey, despite the heart-ache.
“’We Tooks and Brandybucks, we can’t live long on the heights.’
‘No,’ said Merry. ‘I can’t. Not yet, at any rate. 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 some 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 them or not. I am glad that I know about them, a little.”
Aragorn has done what he set out to do, and more than that, he proves 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. When the new day comes without Aragorn’s claim being formally resolved, his presence in Gondor is likened to a dream, one that could easily be snatched away. Denethor let Minis Tirith stagnate and practically gloried in the death he was able to give himself and his son. Aragorn brings life, and renewed hope.
This chapter is a cooldown from the previous one, designed to act as the first part of a transition to the final climactic moment of Book Five. Three key characters have been left terribly wounded by their efforts to save Gondor from destruction, and they must be saved before the narrative can move forward. This drama allows for a reintroduction to Aragorn, last encountered properly in “The Passing Of The Grey Company”, and for him to take on even more of the mantle that he has already begun to claim with his actions in the last chapter. His is a solemn responsibility, that allows for closing of his relationship with Eomer and the restoration of Merry. Where “The Houses Of Healing” falls down is in its strange moments of comedy, that simply do not fit in, tonally, with everything else that is going on. The chapter also stutters a bit with its blasé approach to the question mark over Minis Tirith’s leadership, that Tolkien seems to barely want to acknowledge as an issue. But there is also time for some really stunning imagery, such as in the individual descriptions of Aragorn’s healing work:
“…like a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which the fair world in spring is itself but a fleeting memory.”
“…a keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars, or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam.”
“…like the scent of orchards, and of heather in the sunshine full of bees.”
Overall, it’s an effective enough slow-down of the narrative after the action-orientated series of chapters that have come before, but is also simply something to get out of the way before the far more plot relevant and interesting happenings that will take place in the next chapter.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.