Athelas: A Cure for Spiritual Sickness


What is the nature of the disease that only the herb athelas can cure, and what is the nature of the cure? The disease is clearly more than an adverse phytomolecular reaction, and Aragorn’s healing of it much more than a feat of aromatherapy.

But now their art and knowledge were baffled; for there were many sick of a malady that would not be healed; and they called it the Black Shadow, for it came from the Nazgûl. And those who were stricken with it fell slowly into an ever deeper dream, and then passed to silence and a deadly cold, and so died.  (136)
The malady appears to be a paralysis or atrophy of the will to live, and evidently feels like a “black shadow” because it consists of a gradual withdrawal and fading into nothing — a dwindling away, from the all too pressing world of light and color. We have all faced something of this kind — for example, in an experience of something so negative, stifling, and disheartening that we temporarily lose all faith and hope in life, become indifferent to joy and suffering, and can willingly lie down and die. With the sting of the Nazgul, the affliction is not temporary, and it takes something more than natural to heal it.

   Just as the ailment amounts to total possession by a Spirit of Negation, the cure has to be an evocation of goodness strong enough to dispel the darkness:

Then taking two leaves, he laid them on his hands and breathed on them, and then he crushed them, and straightway a living freshness filled the room, as if the air itself awoke and tingled, sparkling with joy. And then he cast the leaves into the bowls of steaming water that were brought to him, and at once all hearts were lightened. For the fragrance that came to each was 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. But Aragorn stood up as one refreshed, and his eyes smiled as he held a bowl before Faramir’s dreaming face. (141-42)

It is a fragrance 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 memory of a memory, an evocation of an evocation, scent of something long gone and perhaps never existent in this world. In fact, it is not even a scent, but a more ethereal kind of influence:

Then, whether Aragorn had indeed some forgotten power of Westernesse, or whether it was but his words of the Lady Éowyn that wrought on them, as the sweet influence of the herb stole about the chamber it seemed to those who stood by that 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. (146)

  In the first passage we are reminded of some eternal spring, with its promise of new growth and a fresh start: the beauty of our own earthly spring is itself a shadow of this more real but inaccessible spring, a secret spring that lies deep in our hearts and that we know about but cannot directly experience. The second passage attempts to express it with a different version of newness — this time, not a season, but a boundary to human experience, some threshold beyond which the world has remained pure and untainted by human touch. The shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam are reminiscent of the “magic casements, opening on the foam /Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn” to which Keats’ nightingale leads us. Whereas in Keats’ poem we are abandoned on this remote, transcendent shore, in Tolkien’s narrative we stay here, and it is the breeze from the phantom shore that reawakens us to this life and makes it livable again. 

   Tolkien’s description of the effect of athelas is very much like Wordsworth’s account of the effects of early experiences of nature on later life. When as adults we find ourselves in hardship and depression, our childhood immersion in nature can be 

The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
(From “Tintern Abbey”)
Such memories can protect our sanity and our faith in life. Wordsworth, in the Prelude, refers to them as “spots of time,” which can come in unexpected forms and irradiate seemingly ordinary experiences with a light that is not of the senses:

         There are in our existence spots of time,
          That with distinct pre-eminence retain
          A renovating virtue, whence–depressed 210
          By false opinion and contentious thought,
          Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
          In trivial occupations, and the round
          Of ordinary intercourse–our minds
          Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
          A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
          That penetrates, enables us to mount,
          When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.
          This efficacious spirit chiefly lurks
          Among those passages of life that give 
          Profoundest knowledge to what point, and how,
          The mind is lord and master–outward sense
          The obedient servant of her will. Such moments
          Are scattered everywhere, taking their date
          From our first childhood. I remember well,
          That once, while yet my inexperienced hand
          Could scarcely hold a bridle, with proud hopes
          I mounted, and we journeyed towards the hills:
          An ancient servant of my father’s house
          Was with me, my encourager and guide: 
          We had not travelled long, ere some mischance
          Disjoined me from my comrade; and, through fear
          Dismounting, down the rough and stony moor
          I led my horse, and, stumbling on, at length
          Came to a bottom, where in former times
          A murderer had been hung in iron chains.
          The gibbet-mast had mouldered down, the bones
          And iron case were gone; but on the turf,
          Hard by, soon after that fell deed was wrought,
          Some unknown hand had carved the murderer’s name. 
          The monumental letters were inscribed
          In times long past; but still, from year to year
          By superstition of the neighbourhood,
          The grass is cleared away, and to this hour
          The characters are fresh and visible:
          A casual glance had shown them, and I fled,
          Faltering and faint, and ignorant of the road:
          Then, reascending the bare common, saw
          A naked pool that lay beneath the hills,
          The beacon on the summit, and, more near, 
          A girl, who bore a pitcher on her head,
          And seemed with difficult steps to force her way
          Against the blowing wind. It was, in truth,
          An ordinary sight; but I should need
          Colours and words that are unknown to man,
          To paint the visionary dreariness
          Which, while I looked all round for my lost guide,
          Invested moorland waste and naked pool,
          The beacon crowning the lone eminence,
          The female and her garments vexed and tossed 
          By the strong wind. When, in the blessed hours
          Of early love, the loved one at my side,
          I roamed, in daily presence of this scene,
          Upon the naked pool and dreary crags,
          And on the melancholy beacon, fell
          A spirit of pleasure and youth’s golden gleam;
          And think ye not with radiance more sublime
          For these remembrances, and for the power
          They had left behind? So feeling comes in aid
          Of feeling, and diversity of strength 
          Attends us, if but once we have been strong.
          Oh! mystery of man, from what a depth
          Proceed thy honours. I am lost, but see
          In simple childhood something of the base
          On which thy greatness stands; but this I feel,
          That from thyself it comes, that thou must give,
          Else never canst receive. The days gone by
          Return upon me almost from the dawn
          Of life: the hiding-places of man’s power
          Open; I would approach them, but they close. 
          I see by glimpses now; when age comes on,
          May scarcely see at all; and I would give,
          While yet we may, as far as words can give,
          Substance and life to what I feel, enshrining,
          Such is my hope, the spirit of the Past
          For future restoration. (The Prelude, Book 12, 208-286)

In Wordsworth, the “spots of time” are always particular and subjective: yours may look very different from mine, and there is absolutely nothing stereotypical about them. That is to say, “spots of time” bear no characteristic “mark,” and are always unwilled and unpredicted. One such “spot of time,” in a poem by Coleridge, finds a focus not only in an individual blue clay-stone, but the dripping edge of it. 

The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep, 
And only speckled by the mid-day sun; 
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock 
Flings arching like a bridge;—that branchless ash, 
Unsunn’d and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves 
Ne’er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still, 
Fann’d by the water-fall! and there my friends 
Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds, 
That all at once (a most fantastic sight!) 
Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge 
Of the blue clay-stone. 

(“This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison,” 10-20)

   In both Wordsworth and Coleridge the healing images are nearly always an individual’s memory of particular experiences in a specifiable place and specifiable time — for the universal manifests itself in the local, and this one moment in time is the intersection of our little lives with eternity. It restores us, because it lifts us out of our temporal unhappiness and opens us up again to the vastness beyond us. 

   Tolkien’s athelas does much the same thing, yet the images he uses to describe it are more generic, less particularized — more Keats than Wordsworth. First he tries to get at it by suggesting the essence of spring, which is new life and resurrection — but spring also suggests a seasonal cycle, and the inevitability of succumbing once again to winter. Perhaps the spiritual cosmos of Middle-earth is in fact more pagan than Christian, and victory and defeat are destined to repeat themselves forever. Not wanting this desolate connotation but wishing instead to draw out more the sense of an eternal spring not available to the physical senses, he resorts to the imagery of mountain peaks and distant shores to convey the limits of our sensory experience and the Great Beyond from which athelas draws its virtue. Aragorn could have awoken Faramir and Eowyn with particular memories of their childhoods in blossoming palace orchards or moonlit rides over mountain meadows, but I think Tolkien wants the athelas to stir up a generic spiritual memory that is recognizable to everyone in the room. For Wordsworth the eternal irrupts through historical particularity, but for Tolkien it comes through fairy tale imagery that expresses universal yearning for renewal, purity, and innocence.

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