Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Importance of Being a Healer

One topic we briefly touched on that I feel deserves some more attention is the significance of being a healer. Throughout Tolkien’s works, we see numerous examples of characters acting as healers on several different levels. Before discussing these scenes in more depth, what exactly does being a healer mean? The word heal comes from the Proto-Germanic word “hailjan” which means “to make whole.” As a result, a healer is one that makes things whole again. When one begins to think of a healer in this way, rather than simply one who heals a sickness, a greater depth behind this role is revealed. This definition also implies that in order for healers to exist, something needs to be broken or rather no longer be completely whole. In LOTR, each character is affected by this condition in both a personal and private manner. On a large scale, everybody is working together in order to restore peace to Middle-Earth and in order to achieve this goal, each character becomes a healer in his or her own unique way.

A similar topic that we discussed is what is a hero? If we look to a dictionary definition, a hero is “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” However, I do not think that this is the complete definition that Tolkien had in mind. His characters seem to have an additional aspect rather than simply completing a task or quest in order to obtain glory. Rather, the heroes Tolkien envisioned are actually all healers; each one displays courage, has noble qualities, and accomplishes outstanding achievements in order to make Middle-Earth whole again. In order to see this more fully, we need to look past the traditional picture that comes to mind when thinking about healing.

It is obvious that Aragorn is a healer because he fulfills the old lore about possessing the hands of a healer in addition to healing other various wounds such as Frodo’s injury on Weathertop (LOTR 862, 197). However, he is a healer on a different level as well. Aragorn helps to make Gondor whole again after he assumes his position as king. Being the healer of a kingdom is not nearly as evident as being the healer of wounds. Éowyn contributes to the cause by stepping out of the role that has been designated to her and ends up being the only one capable of killing the Nazgûl (842). By eliminating such an imposing threat, Éowyn helps to restore order to the great battle and becomes a healer in her own right. Sam is also one of the greatest healers and heroes throughout the LOTR. Obviously Sam plays an enormous role in aiding Frodo in the journey to destroy the Ring, therefore healing Middle-Earth, but he also makes the Shire whole again, which was the ultimate goal for the Hobbits. He is in charge of replanting all of the trees and gardens in addition to reshaping laws and policies as mayor (1023). Frodo accomplishes the most significant task towards making Middle-Earth whole again by carrying the burden of the Ring all the way to Mt. Doom. Even though Frodo did not physically destroy the Ring himself, it never would have made it to that point without him and all of Middle-Earth would not have had hope to being restored again. Merry is a healer in very subtle ways throughout the story. As Zimmer Bradley points out, Merry is responsible for making the entire journey possible by readying the ponies, gathering supplies, and developing plans (Zimmer Bradley 79). By performing these functions, Merry is continually making the group whole and therefore being an effective healer. Finally, while we do not see Pippen performing feats quite on the same level as the healers above, he still plays a part in making the Shire whole once again. Pippen also helps to make relationships whole again by swearing fealty to Denethor in order to make up for Boromir’s death as well as proving to Gandalf that he has indeed grown up since they first set out from the Shire (LOTR 756).

As is evident in all of these examples, each character demonstrates courage in their own way on their journey to accomplishing a numerous amount of noble tasks, making each one a hero. These deeds are accomplished through various acts of healing on many different levels, making each one a healer as well. However, I think a distinction between being a hero and being a healer must be made. A hero is a subset of healers, meaning that all heroes are healers but not all healers are heroes. There are plenty of instances where a healer is needed but they are not necessarily heroes. For example, the herb-master in the House of Healing can make injuries and illnesses whole again, but he is not considered a hero (LOTR 865). On the other hand, somebody is recognized as a hero because they accomplish a particular feat in a time of disarray. There is no need for a hero to come forth if everything is already whole and perfect. The hero’s quest is then to restore everything that is out of place and make them whole again; therefore they become heroes because they were great healers. However, what is the underlying motivation causing these characters to become healers?

Ultimately, each hero within Tolkien’s universe is motivated by love. Whether it is a particular person, place, story, or any other material product, each character is fighting for what they love; they want to keep these things as whole as possible. As a result, it appears as though the main element Tolkien instills in each of his characters is unconditional love. This love is pushing each character into the role of a healer since that is what they must be if they want to keep everything preserved. Once each character becomes a healer, they tend to accomplish great deeds and therefore become heroes because if they were to fail on these quests, then they risk losing that which they love. Therefore each character summons up enough courage to become a hero and ultimate make whole again those things that they love.

One last point is that Tolkien created such a diverse group of characters that work together in order to accomplish these epic feats of healing. Through all of these physical differences and the tasks each must complete, it appears as though Tolkien is attempting to send a subtle message to his readers. These characters demonstrate that anyone is capable of becoming a healer and possibly even a hero if they truly possess unconditional love for something. In other words, everyone can be become a hero when healing that which they love.

--Will Long

Works Cited

Marion Zimmer Bradley, “Men, Halflings, and Hero Worship,” in Understanding The Lord of the Rings, eds. Zimbardo and Isaacs, pp. 76-92.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings  (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004)


  1. Dear Will,
    Thanks for your post pressing upon the potential dichotomy of healer and hero, and showing their common grounding and motivation in love. I appreciate your attempt here to uncover the universality of healing among many prominent LOTR characters.

    However, your strong claim: “All heroes are healers” seems to have some problems. Are there no heroes that fail to heal, and might do the opposite? Tolkien seemed attracted to the heroic individual who inadvertently or misguidedly brings tragedy: Turin Turambar slew the dragon and led his troops to many victories, but was also the cause of much harm and wounding (fall of Nargothrond, &c). Even Beren and Luthien, who brought back the silmaril, began a chain of events leading to the fall of Doriath, with the awakening of the Doom of Mandos. So, I think we face an up-hill battle to make the case effectively that ‘all heros are healers.’

    I like how your brought the discussion back to the font of love that motivates each healer. And while I appreciate your resistance to the potential dichotomy between hero and healer, I also worry that if we apply the category of ‘healer’ to every benefactor, we would effectively empty its meaning. While I have now a greater appreciation for Merry’s role, I doubt that his organization and thoughtful service is that of a healer.

  2. I think a crucial aspect of healing as it is presented in Tolkien’s universe is that it is necessarily iterative and temporary. As Flieger points out in citing Humphrey Carpenter’s assessment of Tolkien’s reaction to his mother’s death, “nothing is safe; nothing will last; no battle will be won forever” (Splintered Light 163). Heroes are not heroic for being able to effect permanent healing, but for working to heal in spite of the fact that their efforts will ultimately be undone. This conception of heroism through healing is consistent with Sayers’s discussion of free will and evil and our recurring conversation around Tolkien’s understanding of subcreation; as Sayers argues, the project of the Good is to redeem Evil through creation, “enrich[ing] the world with a more and more varied Goodness than would have been possible without...evil interference” (The Mind of the Maker 107).

    The commitment to healing despite the ultimate ineradicability of evil is made particularly poignant through the character of Sam. (For more on him, see Phoebe’s post!). Sam, perhaps more than any other character, is portrayed as choosing his part in the quest–unlike Frodo, who agrees to carry the ring without fully comprehending the weight of his decision, Sam takes the ring from Frodo’s apparently-dead form with the intention of carrying out their quest after having already witnessed its destructive capacity (Zimmer Bradley, 87). Sam’s replanting of the party tree at the novel’s conclusion seems an iconic act of heroic healing. Sam cannot ensure that the tree will never be destroyed again; the fact that he is even able to commit himself to healing after having seen the evil wrought by the ring is remarkable. Sam’s ability to sustain hope in the face of despair and to transmute that hope into acts of healing and love are some of the most basic substances of heroism within Tolkien’s imagination.


  3. I like the “nothing is safe” quote Ariadne brought up in thinking about a question that I thought about while reading this blog post: Are heroes capable of healing themselves? After all the battles are won, Frodo still has deep wounds that no one on Middle Earth can heal. If heroes are considered to be super healers, then one could jump to the false conclusion that they are able to heal anything and anyone. But at the end of the day, both the Shire and Middle Earth are saved and every hero seems to have a happy ending. Despite this, Frodo is still unable to be fully happy, “nothing is safe”. While he is wounds have healed enough for him to continue living in Middle Earth for several years, “no battle will be won forever” and thus the wounds were never fully healed. “Nothing will last”; Frodo must leave everything he sought to protect. While Frodo was able to perform the defining act in defeating Sauron and healing the land of his destruction and deceit, neither he nor the other heroes of the LOTR are able to heal Frodo’s wounds, and thus Frodo must go West.

    --Emily Berez

  4. I found your discussion on the relationship between the healer and the whole fascinating (probably because I am fascinated by the idea of the Whole in general...). While I agree that the Healer is not found in all heroic characters, I feel it is an important property that separates "true heroes" from just heroic deeds (I think we would agree that Turin Turambar and Aragorn are not the same kind of heroes?). Taking courageous actions is one thing to be praised, but the insight into what all the fighting and wars will bring is another level. Like we have discussed in class, the healing property found in our heroes during the War of the Ring gives a justification for conducting violence, which is not supposed to be found in Arda if it is not marred by Melkor. I think healing in particular is hailed in Tolkien's world because it is consistent with the purpose of the creation of Men and Elves—the Healing of the Arda Marred (if we take the Elven narration of Eru and Creation as the orthodox interpretation of the universe). I don't really know a lot about Christianity, but the characterization of a healer strongly echoes the imagery of Christ to me. I think all healers deserve the praise from their people (that is why the House of Healers has a special social status in Gondor?), and a "true" hero on the level of Aragorn is the kind who combines healing properties with heroic actions and brings the elevation of not just himself from obscurity to glory (what heroic actions like killing a dragon would do) or just of one or few other individuals from sickness to health (like an ordinary healer or "doctor" would do), but the elevation of a people. And the greatest healer is the one who brings the salvation of the world.

    "And to the Warden of the Houses Faramir said: 'Here is the Lady Éowyn of Rohan, and now she is healed.'
    And the Warden said: 'Then I release her from my charge and bid her farewell, and may she suffer never hurt nor sickness again. "
    (Book VI, Chapter V "The Steward and the King")

    I think the conversation between the Warden and Faramir illustrates that healing ends with discharge of the person. “To make whole” is to restore autonomy to the person, enabling the person to realize his or her potential in doing what he or she can. Heroes have long been associated with fertility, but the prosperity of a people and their offspring is not physically brought by one hero or one king, but rather achieved through creation of a collective effort. The hero initiates the process by creating a suitable environment that everyone can be a creator and a healer of some past hurt. We have talked about the ennoblement of the humble, and I think heroes in Tolkien's world are also ennobling the humble mass so it can bring out its innate best. Eru gives Men (and Elves) this creative potential as the medium to heal Arda, but the Darkness in both the environment and the heart often shadows it. The ultimate healing is to restore every individual back to the purpose for which he is created.

    1. (Oooooops getting too long...)
      I really appreciate how you recognize the hero in Frodo. Frodo gives up his chance of becoming "a hero" and accepts the wounds that would never heal, so others could become healers who can in turn heal many others. We have discussed in depth how Sam is the one who mirrored Aragorn at the end of the story, but without Frodo as his Master and as the one taking the Ring, he would not have his set of guiding "rules" and would not become Master Samwise himself. If a hero of the best kind is indeed also a healer, then enabling others to become healers is the best kind of ennoblement. I think this kind of discharge is almost isomorphic to how Eru releases His Creation into free will, and indeed in the act of discharge the healer shows the likeness of the Creator in the His Creation... (remember that Tolkien is the ultimate Creator and he ennobled his characters). The success of Aragorn and Sam is established on the resignation of Frodo. It is almost asking a subcreator to carry out the task of the Creator, perhaps a burden the subcreator cannot bear (that is why it is usually done by a semi-god like Gandalf?). The Creator could be the “hero” by becoming a dictator of Good Will, but instead He resigns His omnipotent power to the free will of His Creation… I am wary of going into the realm of allegory, but I do see an imagery of Christ and his followers here……perhaps the similarities are a necessary consequence of similar principles and world view…

      Perhaps that also partially explains why Tolkien would characterize his creative process as “the story writing itself”… as the author’s arbitrary power should give place to the momentum of the internal consistency—the “will” of his creation… Perhaps this then necessarily leads to the union of reason and will, which is also a theory both medieval and modern……….?