Sam’s Deep Breath: The Exquisite Ending to the LOTR

Sometimes a man gets up from his dinner
And walks outside and walks and walks and walks —
Towards a Church, that stands in the East.

And his children bless him as if he were dead.

And sometimes a man, dying in his house,
Remains inside, remains in dish and glass,
So his children are drawn out into the world
Towards the Church that he forgot.
(Rilke, Book of Hours, 2.19)

Frodo and Sam have been ones who walked and walked to the end of the quest. Since any adventure ends either in death or in a return to less adventurous reality, the chapters that ensue after the completion of the quest inevitably feel like an anticlimax in comparison to all the heroic action. Frodo is saved from the anticlimax of living by being given a special destiny in the ethereal West, but Sam has to come back down to the hobbit house of dish and glass, chair and baby. Many have felt the ending to The Lord of the Rings to be not only anticlimactic, a disappointing descent for Sam’s high aspirations — but also terrible, because in consigning him to his new domestic role Frodo has in fact abandoned Sam to a half-life in which all his rich yearning will have to be suppressed in the face of incomprehension. He apparently ends up as the third kind of person, who is not in Rilke’s poem: the one who went out, came back, and is now imprisoned for life in dish and glass. Everything depends on how we read the very last line of the novel — which, as I hope to show in this essay, is the fitting and true climax to the story, carrying the full force of the preceding thousand pages.

And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
   He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.

Rose is the mother-figure who swallows him back into comfort and domesticity. If the book had ended with this action — and put little Elanor upon his lap — we would have been left hanging in the air: we need Sam to say something, to show us where he is, to prove his commitment, otherwise the lacuna will be filled only with the reverberating grief of Frodo’s departure. What is in that “deep breath,” and what is meant when someone says “well, I’m back”?

   The final chapter takes place firmly in Sam’s point of view: The clearing up certainly needed a lot of work, but it took less time than Sam had feared. (301) For the most part it continues so, with Sam trying to make sense of what is happening:  It was a fair golden morning, and Sam did not ask where they were going: he thought he could guess. (307)  The only exception is when Frodo has a fit while Sam is away doing forestry work, but presumably the narrative gives this to us because Sam is later told about it by Farmer Cotton, who was the one who found Frodo in his fit. Three times in this short chapter the phrase “torn in two” comes up between Sam and Frodo. The first time, Sam is bringing up his dilemma of wanting to live with Rosie and Frodo at the same time:  ‘I feel torn in two, as you might say.’ (304) This is a problem with an easy practical solution, but it masks a deeper dilemma, which is not about how to live with two people, but about how to live in two worlds:

‘I wish I could go all the way with you to Rivendell, Mr. Frodo, and see Mr. Bilbo,’ said Sam. ‘And yet the only place I really want to be in is here. I am that torn in two.’
   ‘Poor Sam! It will feel like that, I am afraid,’ said Frodo. ‘But you will be healed. You were meant to be solid and whole, and you will be.’ (306)
We saw in The Fellowship of the Ring that the special thing about Sam is that he is a fusion of two opposite perfections. On the one hand he is supremely practical in taking care of people, animals, and plants; he is well suited to being the gardener of the Shire, an earthy and affectionate statesman. On the other, he is also the most lyrically rapturous of the hobbits, with his mind and heart constantly in the realm of song and legend — as when, in Lothlorien, he feels himself to be inside the song. He has two worlds, and the blessing of the quest is that for a thousand pages at least, and by the side of Frodo, he is able to inhabit them simultaneously. But how will he do that back in the Shire? Frodo understands  Sam’s torn heart, and it is striking that he interprets it as a wound: “you will be healed.” What does he mean by this? He cannot mean that both worlds will become integrated in Sam’s life in the Shire — because if that were possible, Frodo himself would not have to leave. And he cannot mean that time will take its course and sooner or later Sam’s ties to the story and to Frodo will be superseded by familial absorption; he knows all too well that Sam is governed by unshakeable loyalty, that his yearning is profound, and that if that absorption were to happen it would mean that the Sam we knew has died inside. Could Frodo’s words be mere empty consolation, based on nothing more than faith and hope? The consolation is repeated and amplified a few pages later:

‘And I can’t come.’
   ‘No, Sam. Not yet anyway, not further than the Havens. Though you too were a Ring-bearer, if only for a little while. Your time may come. Do not be too sad, Sam. You cannot be always torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.’
   ‘But,’ said Sam, and tears started in his eyes, ‘I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire, too. for years and years, after all you have done.’
   ‘So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. But you are my heir: all that I had and might have had I leave to you. And also you have Rose, and Elanor; and Frodo-lad will come, and Rosie-lass, and Merry, and Goldilocks, and Pippin; and perhaps more that I cannot see. Your hands and your wits will be needed everywhere. You will be the Mayor, of course, as long as you want to be, and the most famous gardener in history; and you will read things out of the Red Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone. so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more. And that will keep you as busy and as happy as anyone can be, as long as your part of the Story goes on. (309)
From the perspective of legend, it would be right for all the Ringbearers to leave together, and Sam must have accompanied Frodo with this possibility in mind. This moment echoes the moment when Éowyn turns up in armor and ready for battle, only to be told to stay behind; and her acceptance of Faramir instead of Aragorn, and a healer’s life, raises the same questions as Sam’s return: is she forced into domesticity, does she surrender, or does she assent? Frodo’s consolation to Sam is that he will be needed and also surrounded by love, and that there is greater growth for him along that path — whereas the sojourn in the West is a kind of final stasis and happy embalming, with no prospect of movement or growth. Frodo knows that while he himself has been completed, finished, by the quest, Sam is not and has more work to do, which he can be happy in. 

    When Frodo leaves, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are filled with a sadness that was yet blessed and without bitterness. (309) What kind of sadness is this? There is sadness at anything good coming to an end or being lost, but most endings and losses are confused, entangled, unresolved. This one is a clean finish, with nothing left undone, and with the chance to bid a real farewell. And yet the sadness is profound.

But to Sam the evening deepened to darkness as he stood at the Haven; and as he looked at the grey sea he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West. There still he stood far into the night, hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart. Beside him stood Merry and Pippin, and they were silent.
   At last the three companions turned away, and never again looking back they rode slowly homewards; and they spoke no word to one another until they came back to the Shire. but each had great comfort in his friends on the long grey road. (311)
To understand what Sam is feeling, we have to search into our own experience and remember a time when we actually stood for hours in silence lost in emotion. I recall once, as I lay on the top bunk of a Chinese train compartment, noticing how the old man in the opposite bunk lay there gazing for six hours at a small photograph held between thumb and index finger of his right hand, his face without expression, his body absolutely still. Such is the remembrance of a person who is saying goodbye not to a person or a thing but to a whole essential history; it is almost a farewell to life. The grand story that he has been part of, the great love that he has felt, now has to reside far inside him: hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart. The three hobbits know that they have concluded this part of their lives, and that it is definitively gone; this is why they never again look back. 

   Thus Sam returns with full heart, and Rosie — if she loves him — must know it, and also understand why he isn’t beaming to be home. She has to settle him back into his role physically. He drew a deep breath: he doesn’t only take a deep breath; rather, the drawing is effortful, deliberate, a slowing down of emotions and heart, a self-settling and reorienting.  This is not easy for him. Part of him had not expected to return, after all. Well, I’m back — not just I’m back. The well is like a sigh, a gasp, expressing surprise and discovery. It is acknowledgement that he might also not have come back, and also that miraculously he has found a reason to be back. If you have ever experienced the temptation to walk away from everything and then, to your own puzzlement, nonetheless refused the temptation and returned, you yourself will have drawn that deep breath and said Well, I’m back, if only to yourself. But Tolkien is not done: the last words are he said. Sam has to utter the thought before he can truly be back, for the words are a commitment. Tolkien’s phrasing could be taken to mean “Well, I’m back” was what he said, suggesting that there are things that Sam isn’t saying and perhaps will never say, at least to these people. 

   Sam’s torn nature is his peculiar completion. Whereas Frodo’s completion renders him unable to live in the Shire, Sam can live because he has two worlds and is well established in each of them. He will never be fully here, but perhaps the other world in the background can be sublimated in his earthly work — growing plants with magical elf-dirt, for example,  and being keeper of the legends for his community, and raising his children with stories from “the church in the East.” The novel’s last line gives perfect expression — in soothing iambic pentameter — to the mystery of Sam, who — like Tolkien’s readers — have no choice but to find a way to occupy two worlds, the one we imagine and the one we have to live in. 


For Éowyn, a Trammel?

A hutch to trammel some wild thing in: this was Gandalf’s description of the life that had been assigned to Éowyn. In her heroic vanquishing of the Witch-King she seems to have broken out of the hutch, at least for a while. But what happens after the war? She cannot have the man she has loved for most of the book, she has lost Theoden, her shield arm is crippled, and she might have to settle for a life that is second-rate to her. Thus, when within the space a page she switches her love from Aragorn to Faramir, decides that she now has to be healer and not warrior, and sheds her desire for queenship, it is tempting to wonder if the author — in his concern not to leave her broken and unresolved — has forced her into a new captivity — a more insidious one, because this time she submits voluntarily. It turns out that Gandalf’s mixing of metaphors in combining a hutch with a trammel may be precise and appropriate after all: a tramnel is a finer-meshed, secondary net designed to trap fish that manage to escape from the main net. 

   There is a lot at stake in Éowyn’s sudden change of heart. Is it possible to relocate such an intense love-yearning so easily? Is it possible for a fierce, stubborn character like her to do so? Does Tolkien understand her? Does Tolkien understand sexual love? The questions are important because in general women are poorly or simplistically portrayed in The Lord of the Rings, and Eros — not only in its physicality, but also in the spirituality of its yearning — is practically absent, except in the figure of Éowyn. Aragorn’s ethereal love for an elf-lady doesn’t count, and we are told very little about why Arwen gives up elfdom for him. At the other end of the spectrum, there is also no Eros in the Shire. The closest we come is Sam’s cozy domestic partnership with Rose, and even though they must have sex they do not have Eros. If there is no room in Tolkien’s  world for Eros, then that world is painfully limited, with significant parts of the heart and the body amputated. In such a world, where even the strongest willed people let themselves be molded to the demands of the ruling order, there is no such thing as intractable nature, no radical mismatch of nature and state, and hence no possibility of tragedy. If Éowyn can be Éowyn and is allowed to love who and what she loves, there will be a price to pay but there will be life in this world; but if Éowyn can simply douse the fire of her yearnings and willingly finds a place in the new order by turning herself tepid, she will be confirming that in Aragorn’s realm there is really no such thing as an unruly, disordered heart. This would make Tolkien’s book a work of pure but desiccated fantasy. 

   We have seen that Tolkien can be awkward with romance, and even amidst the very beautiful exchanges between Faramir and Éowyn there are sentences that a sensitive person cannot read aloud without wincing:

‘Then, Éowyn of Rohan, I say to you that you are beautiful. In the valleys of our hills there are flowers fair and bright, and maidens fairer still; but neither flower nor lady have I seen till now in Gondor so lovely, and so sorrowful.  (238)

And so they stood on the walls of the City of Gondor, and a great wind rose and blew, and their hair, raven and golden, streamed out mingling in the air. (241) 

Engineering a romance between Faramir and Éowyn was surely one of Tolkien’s most difficult tasks as a writer. On the one hand, in Éowyn he has a strong, intransigent character who, both as male and female, seems incapable of backing down. Coming from a stock of the harsh warriors, who sing as they slay and who ruthlessly hunt down the indigenous Wild Men, Éowyn gives voice to a pure warrior ethos: ‘And it is not always good to be healed in body. Nor is it always evil to die in battle, even in bitter pain. Were I permitted, in this dark hour I would choose the latter.’ (236) She is, moreover, in love with a man whom she views as the ultimate warrior. Faramir, on the other hand, does not love fighting:

`For myself,’ said Faramir, ‘I would see the White Tree in flower again in the courts of the kings, and the Silver Crown return, and Minas Tirith in peace: Minas Anor again as of old, full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens: not a mistress of many slaves, nay, not even a kind mistress of willing slaves. War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Númenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.’ (“The Window on the West,” ch.5, The Two Towers, 280)

He loves civilization, beauty, and goodness — which are quite possibly things that leave Éowyn cold. But we have seen the gentle, tactful perceptiveness of his interrogation of Frodo, and have reason to think that if any man can find a way to relate to Éowyn it will be Faramir. He says that he is interested in her because of her beauty and her sorrow, but why would she be interested in him?

   In the build-up to her conversion, we can see how she becomes interested in Faramir:

‘Then if you will have it so, lady,’ he said: ‘you do not go, because only your brother called for you, and to look on the Lord Aragorn, Elendil’s heir, in his triumph would now bring you no joy. Or because I do not go, and you desire still to be near me. And maybe for both these reasons, and you yourself cannot choose between them. Éowyn, do you not love me, or will you not?’
   ‘I wished to be loved by another,’ she answered. ‘But I desire no man’s pity.’

He shows to her first that he sees precisely the main reason she will not go: he knows that she knows that if Aragorn were to summon her it would be out of pity, and the one thing she cannot endure is a man’s pity. But then he ventures a bold surmise: because I do not go, and you desire still to be near me. Why would he think that her desire to be near him might equal her feelings for Aragorn? Has she given any prior indication of such feeling? The tense of her response — I wished — suggests that he is not far off the mark: does she mean “I used to wish,” “I once wished,” or “I wished and still wish”?

   A few pages before this we saw their first meeting:

‘Do not misunderstand him, lord,’ said Éowyn. ‘It is not lack of care that grieves me. No houses could be fairer, for those who desire to be healed. But I cannot lie in sloth, idle, caged. I looked for death in battle. But I have not died, and battle still goes on.’
   At a sign from Faramir, the Warden bowed and departed. ‘What would you have me do, lady?’ said Faramir. ‘I also am a prisoner of the healers.’ He looked at her, and being a man whom pity deeply stirred, it seemed to him that her loveliness amid her grief would pierce his heart. And she looked at him and saw the grave tenderness in his eyes, and yet knew, for she was bred among men of war, that here was one whom no Rider of the Mark would outmatch in battle. (237)

I cannot think of another instance in this novel when there is the reciprocal looking of two characters trying to fathom one another, and seeing perhaps what the other sees. This meeting of two perspectives is the essence of the novel as an art form, and it is rare in Tolkien to get two perspectives merged in one paragraph. In what immediately follows, we have another novelistic moment: one character, now invested in another’s point of view, imagines, perhaps accurately, how she would be seen by him, and this imagining actually changes her. For the first time she doubted herself.

‘What do you wish?’ he said again. ‘If it lies in my power, I will do it.’

‘I would have you command this Warden, and bid him let me go,’ she said; but though her words were still proud, her heart faltered, and for the first time she doubted herself. She guessed that this tall man, both stern and gentle, might think her merely wayward, like a child that has not the firmness of mind to go on with a dull task to the end. (237)

Even characters as sensitive as Frodo and Sam never enter into another’s perspective like this. Perhaps Frodo does it with Gollum, but their relationship remains enigmatic. Gandalf does it when he gives his account of Éowyn’s unhappiness, and Aragorn tries to understand. But only Faramir and Éowyn nake a continuous effort to get under each other’s skin. It could be that between two people connected in this way, a look is sufficient to prove the bond — and the narrative emphasizes that they are always looking and intensely concerned with what the other is thinking.

‘Seven days,’ said Faramir. ‘But think not ill of me, if I say to you: they have brought me both a joy and a pain that I never thought to know. Joy to see you; but pain, because now the fear and doubt of this evil time are grown dark indeed. Éowyn, I would not have this world end now, or lose so soon what I have found.’

   ‘Lose what you have found, lord?’ she answered; but she looked at him gravely and her eyes were kind. ‘I know not what in these days you have found that you could lose. But come, my friend, let us not speak of it! Let us not speak at all! I stand upon some dreadful brink, and it is utterly dark in the abyss before my feet, but whether there is any light behind me I cannot tell. For I cannot turn yet. I wait for some stroke of doom.’

  ‘Yes, we wait for the stroke of doom,’ said Faramir. And they said no more; and it seemed to them as they stood upon the wall that the wind died, and the light failed, and the Sun was bleared, and all sounds in the City or in the lands about were hushed: neither wind, nor voice, nor bird-call, nor rustle of leaf, nor their own breath could be heard; the very beating of their hearts was stilled. Time halted.

   And as they stood so, their hands met and clasped, though they did not know it. (240)

Her words hold much for a lover to ponder on. Is the phrase “my friend” a way of keeping Faramir at arm’s length, or does it signal a new warmth and trust? What does she mean by her obscure statement? — I stand upon some dreadful brink, and it is utterly dark in the abyss before my feet, but whether there is any light behind me I cannot tell. For I cannot turn yet. I wait for some stroke of doom.’ While in Faramir’s response the “stroke of doom” might refer both to the outcome of the great battle being fought and to the prospect of being rejected by her, her statement encompasses both of those things and also expresses her terror at the thought of leaving her old self-image and supposed vocation behind as she leaps, or falls, into an uncertain new identity. It would suggest that for days she has been thinking of the prospect of a future very different from what she has spent her life imagining. If he has any inkling of this crisis in her, Faramir wisely leaves it unspoken; we have already seen in his conversations with Frodo that he is a man who doesn’t need to say everything he is thinking or force the other person into utterance. He has the capacity of Sam and Gandalf to wait for the moment of ripeness.

   When the fruit is ripe, it falls from the tree. When enough snow piles onto a leaf, at one moment the leaf bends and the snow slides off. There is no deliberation or intention involved, and action emerges spontaneously from a natural rightness. This is in fact what the Daoists would call non-action. And as they stood so, their hands met and clasped, though they did not know it.

   Has she in effect discovered that she already has a communion with this man? Returning to the conversation we started with, we see not only that he can understand why she might love an Aragorn but also that he is strong enough to acknowledge it calmly to her. Without saying it explicitly, he is getting her to see that she was in love with an idea. And where is she looking as he says all this? — down, to the side, or internally?   

‘That I know,’ he said. ‘You desired to have the love of the Lord Aragorn. Because he was high and puissant, and you wished to have renown and glory and to be lifted far above the mean things that crawl on the earth. And as a great captain may to a young soldier he seemed to you admirable. For so he is, a lord among men, the greatest that now is. But when he gave you only understanding and pity, then you desired to have nothing, unless a brave death in battle. Look at me, Éowyn!’
   And Éowyn looked at Faramir long and steadily; and Faramir said: ‘Do not scorn pity that is the gift of a gentle heart, Éowyn! But I do not offer you my pity. For you are a lady high and valiant and have yourself won renown that shall not be forgotten; and you are a lady beautiful, I deem, beyond even the words of the Elven-tongue to tell. And I love you. Once I pitied your sorrow. But now, were you sorrowless, without fear or any lack, were you the blissful Queen of Gondor, still I would love you. Éowyn, do you not love me?’

His Look at me, Éowyn! shakes her out of the sleep of her idealism. Look: be present, see what is before you. At me: behold the living, real man in front of you. Éowyn: I see who you are and understand you. Her response is sincere and deep, reflecting her grasp of the meaning of his words: And Éowyn looked at Faramir long and steadily. The time is ripe for his most romantic and audacious effusion, spoken like a warrior taking the greatest risk of his life: Even if you married Aragorn and were high above my hopeless love, I would still love you. Éowyn, do you not love me? Is this a real question, or an expression of granite certainty? He seems to have seen her before she sees herself.

   Now what happens in the moment of conversion? I think the climactic sentence only works if we have read the preceding four pages slowly and patiently, and have allowed them to unfold. It is because he can reflect her to herself and she is capable — through loving trust — to see herself reflected in him, that she can awaken to the recognition of feelings she didn’t know she had. 

   Then the heart of Éowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.

The phrase or else at last she understood it reveals an emotional sophistication rare in this book: it shows Éowyn to have been an idealist poorly attuned to the movements of her own heart, and that being an idealist, her heart changes only as her understanding changes. Faramir, being the more emotionally empathic of the two, happens to love this about her. Characteristically, like the warrior she is, her transformation is expressed in a vow of action and mastery — and she looks at him as she renounces her old self.

“I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun, she said; and behold the Shadow has departed! I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.’ And again she looked at Faramir. ‘No longer do I desire to be a queen,’ she said. (242)

   The romance is accomplished over a mere eight pages. If, believing that the destruction of the Ring is the climax, we rush over these pages to get to the end, we will have missed the delicacy of one of Tolkien’s triumphs as a writer. A rapid reading will give the impression of artificially hurried romance, and Éowyn’s change of heart will seem forced — a subtle trammel. But each section of this book has its own rhythm, and this one is slower than the “Mount Doom” chapter. Even so, at important points in the story Tolkien tends to be laconic, as if inviting us to enter into the tale and dwell in it. If we take our time and let the relationship flower slowly in the time that it needs, we will be partaking in Faramir’s gentle wisdom as he allows Éowyn to find her own heart. Like Frodo and Sam, especially at the end, Éowyn is a character who has needed a life dilemma: she is princess and warrior, woman and man, in love with the unattainable and loved by the attainable. She is radically torn, and on the horns of her dilemma she cannot live a happy, fulfilled life. It is only a character like Faramir who can get her to resolve, because he has the empathy and intelligence to see who she is and love her for it, and because they can both look at each other. Their relationship is not a trammel, trapping her back into domesticity; instead, with him she is finally free to be Éowyn.

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.