Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Tolkien and the Mysterious. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring guest posts and interviews!
This is exciting! I’ve admired Krysta and Briana’s site for ages and having the chance to write for their Tolkien Reading Event 2019 is an honor. However, this was also an intimidating post to write. I am a casual Tolkien reader at best – not reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time until I taught it (and when I say “it” I mean “the films” but I read the books before I taught it so only judge me half as much as you were going to when I said “films”) to my Youth Group about ten years ago. Reading this site has given me a far deeper appreciation for not only the brilliance of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work but also the devoted nature of his fans. So I know I’m writing for readers who know their Tolkien. Yikes. But I’m always up for a challenge and this gives me an avenue to write about something profound I found in the pages of The Return of the King when I first read it all those years ago – the Houses of Healing.
The Houses of Healing comprise a relatively short part of Tolkien’s work. However, this scene struck me more than anything else in the entire story when I first read it. It was the part which left the most vivid impression on me, too. I think of it often. I am in awe of the brilliant allegorical work Tolkien accomplishes here. Obviously, as a Catholic and someone who has spent the last seventeen years – his entire adult life – studying and teaching theology, Tolkien has my respect in a special way. Tolkien’s faith greatly influenced his life and work, producing one of the most thoughtful and expansive examples of Christian allegory in all of literature with The Lord of the Rings. For me, the most powerful example of this allegory occurs at the House of Healing.
In The Return of the King, while the Battle of Pelenor Fields rages, Gandalf arrives at the Houses of Healing. As he’s there, the healers are struggling to help the people brought to them, “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.” As the people grow sicker and sicker, Gandalf waited and he watched. “Then an old wife, Ioreth, the eldest of the women who served in that house, looking on the fair face of Faramir, wept, for all the people loved him. And she said: ‘Alas! if he should die. Would that there were kings in Gondor, as there were once upon a time, they say! For it is said in old lore: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. And so the rightful king could ever be known.’”
BOOM. But it gets better!
Aragorn arrives and when he comes to the Houses of Healing he instantly begins his work. He heals Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry using his hands, herbs, and his voice – calling them back to him. Then, despite his desire to rest, he hears the calls of the people and continues his work:
“At the doors of the Houses many were already gathered to see Aragorn, and they followed after him; and when at last he supped, men came and prayed that he would heal their kinsmen or their friends whose lives were in peril through hurt or wound, or who lay under the Black Shadow. And Aragorn arose and went out, and he sent for the sons of Elrond, and together they laboured far into the night. And word went far through the City: ‘The king has come again indeed.’”
BOOM. What makes this – Aragorn being the one able to heal Faramir, Éowyn, Merry, and all the others – so profound isn’t simply the fact that Aragon is the king but rather that he is one of Tolkien’s central Christ figures in the story. A Christ figure isn’t literally Christ but rather the character(s) who symbolically represents Jesus Christ in some way, shape, or form. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien gives his readers three central Christ figures in Frodo, Gandalf, and, of course, Aragorn. But of all the theological allusions in this story, all the Christological moments, it is this one which is the most significant (at least as far as I’m concerned) because it ties so directly into Jesus’ ministry.
I remember a professor of mine once saying, “What we know for certain about the Historical Jesus could fit on the back of a post card.” It was not an original insight on his part but rather an oft repeated remark meant to underscore while we know a lot about Jesus, there is very little we can say with absolute certainty as being historically factual. (Granted, the majority of the truth of scripture doesn’t hinge, and was never meant to, on it being historically factual. Humanity’s greatest and most profound truths often come clearest in metaphors.) But one of the things we do know with absolute certainty is that Jesus of Nazareth had a reputation as a mystic healer. We see reference to Jesus’ healings in the Christian scriptures, obviously, but we also see references to them in Jewish and Roman sources. This is important from a historical standpoint as Jewish and Roman writers had no need to try to prove Jesus the Messiah or God.
As Historical Jesus theologian Marcus Borg puts it, “He was a remarkable healer: more healing stories are told about him than about anybody else in the Jewish tradition.” Speaking of Jesus’ technique, theological scholar Albert Nolan writes, “There was certainly a spontaneous concern to make some kind of physical contact with the sick person. He touched them, took them by the hand or laid his hands on them.” The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. By invoking this connection between healer and king, by having Aragorn enter Minas Tirith and immediately begin healing the sick, Tolkien is directly connecting him to one of the most significant and historically verifiable aspects of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
We even see Aragorn employing some of Jesus’ healing techniques. He lays his hands on Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry and he also speaks to them, calling them back and telling them it will be alright. While less anchored in historical certainty, this too is something we see highlighted quite clearly in the Gospels. In both the raising of Lazarus (John 11:43-44) and the raising of Jairus’s daughter (Luke 8:54-56), for example, Jesus calls to the one who has died and they come to him, alive and healthy. He wakes them with his voice, just as Aragorn does in the Houses of Healing.
To illustrate Aragorn’s kingship in the act of healing is to tie him with knowledge and nuance to the very heart of who Jesus was. It shows both the depth of Tolkien’s knowledge of his faith and his care in presenting it, placing an appropriately important spotlight on healing in a story of spectacular battles across bloody battlefields. Obviously, loving this scene the way I do, I was disappointed it didn’t make it into Peter Jackson’s adaptation (there was one extended scene that didn’t even try to present it accurately! (and the movie’s like a zillion hours long! couldn’t they give me fifteen minutes of this??)) but I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the book is always better and when it comes to expertly weaving deeply theological threads through a narrative, no one can do it quite like J.R.R. Tolkien.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002), 871.
 Ibid., 876.
 Ibid., 878.
 Ibid., 879.
 Ibid., 881.
 Albert Nolan, Jesus Before Christianity, (New York: Orbis Books, 1976), 43.
 Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 31.
 Nolan, 37-8.
About the Author
Michael Miller writes and rambles about comic books and comic book movies (not to mention Doctor Who and Star Wars and whatever else randomly pops into his head) on his blog My Comic Relief. He teaches theology at Mercyhurst Preparatory School in Erie, PA – including classes on Star Wars as modern mythology and the intersection of comic books and social justice. Should it be your thing, you can also find him on Twitter @My_ComicRelief.