The Tolkien Society puts on a themed reading day every March 25th (the day that the ring was destroyed and Barad-dûr fell if you didn’t know that already), and this year’s theme is Tolkien and the mysterious. Since Tolkien wrote a full-sized, believable world, there is plenty that is and will be mysterious in Middle-Earth. So there’s plenty to choose from. My personal favorite on this theme is Théoden’s healing by Gandalf, some of which I’ve excerpted below:
‘Now Théoden son of Thengel, will you harken to me?’ said Gandalf. ‘Do you ask for help?’ He lifted his staff and pointed to a high window. There the darkness seemed to clear and through the opening could be seen, high and far, a patch of shining sky. ‘Not all is dark. Take courage, Lord of the Mark; for better help you will not find. No counsel have I to give those that despair. Yet counsel I could give and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them? They are not for all ears. I bid you come out before your doors and look abroad. Too long have you sat in shadows and trusted to twisted tales and crooked promptings.’
Slowly, Théoden left his chair. A faint light grew in the hall again. The woman [Éowyn, by the way] hastened to the king’s side, taking his arm, and with faltering steps the old man came down from the dais and paced softly through the hall. Wormtongue remained lying on the floor. They came to the doors and Gandalf Knocked.
‘Open!’ He cried. ‘The Lord of the Mark comes forth!’
The doors rolled back and a keen air came whistling in. A wind was blowing on the hill.
I’m skipping ahead a little because of copyright reasons. I’d love to quote the whole thing, but I can’t. May I suggest reading the book?
‘Now, lord,’ said Gandalf, ‘look out upon your land! Breathe the free air again!’
From the porch upon the top of the high terrace they could see beyond the stream the green fields of Rohan fading into the distant grey. Curtains of wind-blown rain were slanting down. The sky above and to the west was still dark with thunder, and lightning far away flickered among the tops of hidden hills. But the wind had shifted to the north, and already the storm that had come out of the east was receding, rolling away southward to the sea. Suddenly through a rent in the clouds behind them a shaft of sun stabbed down. The falling showers gleamed like silver, and far away the river glittered like a shimmering glass.
‘It is not so dark here,’ said Théoden.
There’s more, of course, and I’d write it all for you if I could. So why this passage for the theme of Tolkien and the mysterious? Arguably, one of the most mysterious things in Tolkien’s legendarium is the power that words have in Middle-Earth. If oaths are made, they have to be kept, and, somehow, words have the power both to harm and to heal given the right circumstance. In this context, the thing that’s poisoning the mind of Théoden, in addition to his leechcraft, is Grima Wormtongue’s counsel. His words. And Gandalf’s healing comes, again, with counsel and with words. Even the beginning of Gandalf’s work here starts with him asking if Théoden will listen. If you pay attention, references to words are just littered throughout the passage. Wormtongue’s name is a great example, of course, but there are more subtle references than that.
What makes the mystery is how all of this works. Tolkien never set about to write a magical system that is all-encompassing, but what he did believe in (being a linguist and all) was the power of words. I’ll admit that this is not the single most mysterious thing in Tolkien’s legendarium, but it’s an interesting thing to notice that, most of the time, any magic in Tolkien’s works is either confined to objects, like the one ring or Andúril, or to words like we see in this passage. What’s interesting to note here as well is that Théoden’s healing happens in a sort of call and response. Gandalf offers the word, but Théoden also has to listen. You get the feeling that a great choice was made and Théoden’s choice to listen is what pulls him out of the darkness.
What I think Tolkien is doing here is getting us to share in some of his own appreciation of language. Obviously, in the real world, words have no magic to them, but they can harm or they can heal. Maybe not physically, but emotionally and spiritually, certainly. This passage is Tolkien inviting us in to share in enjoying that mystery with him. Personally, I think it’s always worth considering what words can do, how they can shape you, and how they can definitely hurt or heal depending on their intent and the person speaking those words. Maybe Wormtongue is just the ultimate bad advice guy, but maybe he’s also the representation of how some folks just try their hardest to bring everyone down with what they say.
I hope you all have an excellent Tolkien reading day!