Merry and Pippin reunite. The war has changed both hobbits; Merry, in fact, is experiencing a physical after-effect-since stabbing the Witch King, he is unable to use his right arm. “Help me, Pippin! Its all going dark again, and my arm is so cold.” (Readers may recognize the parallel to the wound Frodo received at Weathertop in Book I, Chapter 11).
Merry, Farmir, and eowyn are all placed in the Houses of Healing to recover from their various wounds, physical and psychic. Ioreth, an old woman who serves in the Houses, finds hope for the wounded and sick in ancient lore: “For it is said in old lore: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer.” And, indeed, when Aragorn arrives he asks for a plant which the learned herb master of the Houses does not know, but which Ioreth is able to identify. Aragorn uses the athelas, or kingsfoil, to restore Faramir to consciousness, to awaken eowyn-although he does not know whether she will awake to hope or despair, given the death of her uncle and her unrequited love for Aragorn-and to “call back” Merry from the brink of death.
The failure of the herb master to identify and procure the plant Aragorn requires symbolizes a dichotomy that has often occupied Western literature: the relative authority of experience versus “book learning.” The herb master does not keep the plant in the Houses for “it has no virtue that we know of.” Ioreth, in contrast, may not know exactly why the plant is valuable but is nevertheless one of the “old folk” who knows that it has some salutary effect. In Gandalfs words, “[F]ind some man of less lore and more wisdom.” Academic “wisdom” can sometimes stand in the way of true wisdom, which can be found in unlikely sources, even “doggrel. garbled in the memory of old wives.” It was precisely to such lore as this that Tolkien, as a disciplined philologist, paid attention.
This chapter also offers vivid examples of Aragorn in action as a messianic figure. Note the language he uses when restoring Faramir to consciousness: “Walk no more in the shadows, but awake!” The words ring with biblical overtones and can evoke the New Testament stories of Jesus, whom Christians such as Tolkien claim as king, as a healer. (His awakening of eowyn, for instance, explicitly mirrors Jesus raising of a young girl in the Gospels [e.g., Mark 5:41].) The king as healer motif also recalls myths of the Fisher King. Granted, in those myths, the king himself is wounded and must be healed in order for health to return to his land; even so, Aragorn demonstrates a connection between kingship and health, authority and life that also runs throughout those ancient stories.