David Cofield - The Hands of a King
Copyright: Reprinted from 'Beyond Bree', Newsletter of the Mensa Tolkien Special Interest Group, issue of July 1986.
"The hands of a king are the hands of a healer," said Ioreth, wisewoman of Gondor. In recalling this bit of lore from her country¹s past, Ioreth helped to save the lives of some of the most prominent characters of The Lord of the Rings. She also voiced a belief which was once widespread in some areas of western Europe as well as in Middle-earth.
During the Middle Ages the monarchs of France and England were believed to possess the divine power to heal scrofula, a term then applied to various skin diseases and infections. Indeed, another name for scrofula was "King¹s Evil." The power to heal scrofula was believed to descend on the rulers at their coronations when they were anointed with holy oil. French monarchs claimed this ability from the time of Clovis in 481 A.D. through Louis XVI, who was beheaded in 1793. In England the practice evidently began with King Edward the Confessor before the Norman Conquest and lasted until the death of Queen Anne in 1714. "Bonnie Prince Charlie," the Stuart claimant to the English throne, maintained the custom as late as 1745.
Curing scrofula as practiced by the European monarchs bore a close resemblance to modern faith healing. Queen Elizabeth I first prayed, then "pressed the sores and ulcers" of the suffers "boldly and without disgust." Queen Anne touched hundreds in large ceremonies, while on Easter Sunday in 1686 Louis XIV of France touched 1600 people. Possibly there were some "cures" or at least temporary improvements among subjects who had been touched, but most were probably like Samuel Johnson, who bore scrofulous scars for the rest of his life despite having been touched by Queen Anne in 1712.
J.R.R. Tolkien was undoubtedly aware of the old belief in monarchic healing powers, and he gave Aragorn, Heir of Elendil, a similar but greater ability as part of his royal inheritance. Tolkien linked Aragorn¹s powers to his position as one of the "children of Lúthien" (Letters, 200).
Lúthien may have received this power from her mother Melian, a Maia who served Estë, healer of hurts and weariness (Silmarillion, 28, 30). Other descendants of Lúthien inherited it as well. Ioreth's lore held that the Kings of Gondor were known for their healing abilities. Elrond, a much closer descendant of Lúthien, saved Frodo's life and soul by removing the poisoned Morgul fragment from his shoulder, and his daughter Queen Arwen Undómiel saw and offered the cure for the Ringbearer's physical and emotional wounds.
However, Tolkien's royal healers were quite different from the European monarchs, who relied on their subjects' faith in their divine connections for any cures they may have achieved. Tolkien wrote that Aragorn's healing might be regarded as a "blend of magic with pharmacy and "hypnotic' processes" (Letters ,200). In other words Aragorn and his royal forebears, as well as Elrond and other children of Lúthien, had certain healing powers which could only be described as magical. In addition, they apparently had medical knowledge which was passed on from healer to healer. Some of this information once may have been general knowledge which was lost as men forgot their Númenórean wisdom. Also, the children of Lúthien may sometimes have used ordinary materials which acquired extra or special powers in their hands. The herb-master of the Houses of Healing was contemptuous of the slight virtue athelas or kingsfoil possessed when used by common folk. Aragorn's royal touch awakened the plant's higher powers.
How did Aragorn achieve his healings? Certainly not by the mere "laying on of hands" as practiced by medieval European royalty and modern day faith healers. When Frodo was wounded at Weathertop Aragorn first sang over the knife-hilt, perhaps to exorcise any remaining evil spells, and then bathed the wound with athelas-steeped water. Frodo's pain lessened temporarily, and the rest of the group's minds cleared as well (I 210-11). Aragorn next used athelas to tend Sam and Frodo after their escape from Moria (1 350-1). This time the wounds were less severe and no further aid was needed. On both occasions the only obvious healing power Aragorn exerted was his royal calling forth of athelas' greater healing properties. When Aragorn went to the Houses of Healing he again used athelas, this time combining it with what Tolkien called "hypnotic processes." He called Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry back from the shadows, seemingly curing them more with his voice than by any physical action. After this success Aragorn was so deluged with pleas for more healing that he was obliged to send for the sons of Elrond to help (III 141-47). Frodo and Sam's recovery after their rescue from Mount Doom was brought about by Aragorn, who again used "hypnosis" to send them "into the sweet forgetfulness of sleep" (III 234). Aragorn's by then well known healing powers were cited as additional proof of his right to the kingship at his coronation (III 245).
Despite the great gulf between the European monarchs' "touching for the King's Evil" and Aragorn's undoubtedly healing abilities, similarities exist. The Kings of England and France held their thrones "by the grace of God." They were protectors and defenders of the established faiths of their realms. These religious duties and titles, as well as their supposed power over scrofula, were the last remnants of the distinctions held by their distant predecessors who combined the offices of king and high priest. Also, ancient kings were often considered not only high priests but divine themselves, with all the attributes and capabilities of gods. After Christianity ousted the older pagan religions the monarch's role as god was less open. Instead, such doctrines as divine right, which held that that the king was a special representative of God, gradually developed in its place. Thus a Queen Anne or Louis XIV who touched scrofulous subjects was not merely attempting to do good. He or she was reaching back to their earliest forebears' roles as religious leader and divinity in order to help legitimate their present political power.
The same priest-king concept appears in Tolkien. Man led by the king had worshipped Eru in Númenor. Only the king might speak on the hallowed summit of the Meneltarma. When the kings rebelled against the Ban of the Valar and ceased to lead the people to the hallows, worship of the One God ceased for most Númenóreans (Unfinished Tales 166). After the Fall of Númenor and the establishment of the Kingdoms in Exile it would seem that the Houses of Isildur and Anárion resumed the religious role of priest-king. A new hallows was set up on Mindolluin and probably in Annúminas and Fornost as well. Again, when the kings failed all but a few vestiges of Eru-worship died out in Gondor (Letters 206-7). Aragorn's healing hands in Minas Tirith were a sign to the people of Gondor that the priest-kings, semi-divine through their descent from Lúthien, had returned. After his triumphant coronation, Elessar's healing powers set him apart, not only from ordinary mortals, but from other monarchs like King Éomer of Rohan as well. Elessar Telcontar indisputably had what many European monarchs sought as they touched for scrofula, religious as well as political legitimacy.
[References to The Lord of the Rings are to the Allen and Unwin Revised Second Edition. References to The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales are to Houghton Mifflin first editions. Non-Tolkien references include: William Rose Benet (ed.) : The Reader's Encyclopedia Carolly Erickson: The First Elizabeth James G. Frazer: The Golden Bough David Green: Queen Anne Saul K. Padover: The Life and Death of Louis XVI.
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