In J. R. R. Tolkien’s world of Arda names bear a great significance. Characters, objects or places are called what they are for a reason, and that is rarely a coincidence: names accurately describe the nature of whatever or whoever they were given to. The healing plant athelas is no exception.
Athelas was brought to Middle-earth by the Númenóreans in the Second Age. By the time of the War of the Ring it had become very sparse and remained growing only near the places of the Númenóreans’ former camps or dwellings. Its preferable area was thickets, rather than bare hills. The Men of the West valued the long leaves of athelas for their potent healing properties, which had been largely forgotten in the Middle-earth of the Third Age save for some of those wandering in the Wild.
In Minas Tirith athelas is not used for healing, and neither Ioreth, nor the herb-master of the Houses of Healing knows anything of its virtue. So when Aragorn asks for athelas, they do not even recognise the plant at first, and when he calls the herb by its rustic name kingsfoil, they are rather puzzled by his desire to have it.
Ioreth knows that athelas can sweeten the air or drive away heaviness, while the herb-master adds its ability to cure headaches to the list of the known properties. Moreover, Ioreth does not even seem to treat it as a serious healing herb: she believes that the humble-looking, long-leaved plant is not fit to grow in the kings’ gardens and seems to have received its title by mistake. Thus she understands the name kingsfoil: a plant for royal gardens. The name, however, refers to something totally different.
Kingsfoil means “king’s leaf”. Tolkien modelled it on the names of such plants as cinquefoil, where the element –foil stands for “leaf”. The word came into English via Old French from the original Latin folium. Kingsfoil is called so not because it is supposed to be planted in kings’ gardens, but because in the hands of a legitimate king its healing properties become truly wonderful. This is supported by the plant’s Quenya name asëa aranion. It supposedly means “beneficial of kings” (as does, presumably, the Sindarin name athelas), and this shows that the plant does not only work exceedingly well in a royal ruler’s hands, but that its wondrous application for healing belongs to kings legally and lawfully.
This is supported by the old rhyme that the herb-master dismisses as nonsense:
When the black breath blows
and death’s shadow grows
and all lights pass,
come athelas! come athelas!
Life to the dying
In the king’s hand lying!
(Return of the King, p. 160)
While the herb-master is not right in calling the rhyme a doggerel, he hits the nail on the head by saying that many repeat it without real understanding. Far from being nonsense, these lines cast light on the true nature of athelas: they show the potency of the plant in the hands of the rightful king.
If common people of Minas Tirith might use athelas to sweeten the air or to cure headaches, in the hands of Aragorn it brings the sick from the brink of death back to the world of the living. It is very powerful and potent against the Black Breath or other negative effects caused by the evil servants of Sauron, including wounds by the Morgul blade. By using athelas, Aragorn helps Faramir, Éowyn, Merry and, much earlier in the tale, Frodo and Sam recover from the wounds of various degree of grievousness, not all of which are physical or gained in battle.
When crushed and put into hot water, athelas gives out the smell that is unique for every person, but that is always the scent that brings reassurance, wholesomeness, pleasant memories and exactly what is fit and needed for the sick individual in question. In all cases the scent is the embodiment of freshness, calmness, clarity and renewal as opposed to the darkness, chaos and despair brought by the Morgul fear.
Sparsely growing, humble-looking and forgotten by most Men of the Third Age, athelas is a powerful antidote to evil wounds and influences when used by a legitimate king. It brings healing to bodies and souls and becomes a counterblow to the devices of the enemy.
A few years ago I wrote an essay on athelas for a wonderful blog Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings run by Stephen Winter. You can read it here.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- The Oxford English Dictionary
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