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Éowyn, Faramir and the Houses That Healed Them

An original Tolkien-inspired artwork by Miriam Ellis of Faramir and Éowyn at the Houses of Healing.
"Faramir and Éowyn at the Houses of Healing" - Miriam Ellis

It takes a special kind of eucatastrophe to bring about any alleviation of trauma, and in J.R.R. Tolkien's writing of Éowyn and Faramir, we witness a sort of miracle: two people whom the world has treated harshly find themselves still capable of choosing love.

In the Middle Ages, religious pilgrims took incredible journeys to reach sunny and sainted Rome in hopes of cures of all sorts of physical and spiritual ills. In The Lord of the Rings, the ice-bound White Lady of Rohan travels to the place Tolkien's letters identify with Italy - Gondor - where her self-protective armor of frost will melt and her winter will pass away in the company of a fellow being whose heart has remained steadfastly warm despite the stony coldness of his father, his city, and the tenor of his perilous times.

I can't go any further in this piece without first extending the great warmth of my own heart to Prancing Pony Podcast host and co-host Alan Sisto and Dr. Sara Brown for their outstanding discussions of these two beloved characters. If you treat yourself to episodes 320 and 321, you'll come away with an exceptional level of insight. I've never found a reading of the lives and the love of Éowyn and Faramir which has satisfied me more, and I owe a debt of gratitude to the podcast for helping me more fully see the most active woman in The Lord of the Rings and the one man in the story with whom the author most closely identified. I owe part of this article to ideas sparked by Alan Sisto and Dr. Brown and sincerely thank them both!

Past Hurts

By the time Éowyn reaches the Houses of Healing, she has lost her parents and her cousin. She has witnessed her foster father fall to the deceits of the Enemy and has been haunted by the king's wicked counselor. Her home, her people, and her life have been under terrible threat.

And while her fulfillment of the prophecy of Glorfindel in the defeat of the Witch-king of Angmar is a triumph, she is only able to carry this out by deceiving those who ought to know her best and riding to war as Dernhelm. All her life, her family has expected her to deny who she really is in order to fulfill their visions of who they think she should be. She becomes a caged creature and it is little wonder that Aragorn sees her as a flower whose sap has been turned to ice by frost.

The Enemy's deceits have also stolen Faramir's father and brother from him and he has been sadly motherless since the age of five. And while there is love between Boromir and Faramir, it must have needed to be a hardy plant to flourish amid the chilly favoritism upon which Denethor builds his method of parenting. Like Éowyn, Faramir has experienced having to live in hiding, albeit physically, in the secret stronghold of Henneth Annûn.

By the time he reaches the Houses of Healing, his father has nearly killed him, he's been wounded in battle, and it is a true wonder that his heart has remained so merciful, tender, and concerned for the needs of others. Like J.R.R. Tolkien, Faramir has not allowed the harshness of his youth to deprive him of the power to respond to the world with love.

A Garden In A Stony Waste

Image of Legolas and Gilmi painted by Miriam Ellis
Detail from "Fellowship" - Miriam Ellis

''They need more gardens," said Legolas. "The houses are dead, and there is too little here that grows and is glad. If Aragorn comes into his own, the people of the Wood shall bring him birds that sing and trees that do not die." - Book Five, Chapter 9,'The Last Debate' - The Return of the King

I confess that, as an artist, I've never had a very warm feeling about Gondor, given Legolas' description of it coupled with the state of decay and war in which we see Minas Tirith. The battlefield surrounding it would have been dreadful, and the city, itself, greatly scarred. I tend to paint the beauty of Middle-earth, and wondered how I could faithfully illustrate this important place as part of my ongoing study of "recovery, escape and consolation". Then I remembered the garden and I was back on my native heath.

Amid the rubble of war in the colossal stone city, we find Faramir and Éowyn walking together on green lawns and sitting under trees in the grounds of the Houses of Healing. And given that this is the realm of the Herb-master and folk of good lore, I realized that it was likely they grew an herb garden to supply their work with the sick and wounded, just as Medieval monasteries did.

And given Professor Tolkien's references to Gondor as being akin to the Mediterranean, I took joy in planting this garden with southern perennials with specific medicinal virtues. For example, lavender is thought to be a purifying herb, long associated with the washing away of grime like that which must have polluted the war-torn city. Rosemary not only strengthens memory (and both characters have recently lost dear ones whom they wish to remember), but according to historic Italian herbals, heals wounds. An elixir of thyme in vinegar was said to relieve lethargy (which could be useful in aiding ongoing recovery from the Black Breath). The sages hint at Faramir's extraordinary powers of merciful sagacity and the thorny white roses are a tribute to Éowyn. The arbutus tree speaks to the future and the fruitfulness of their coming union. Details matter a great deal to me and I hope they are a source of repeat reflection for people looking at my work, with always something new to notice and think about.

But the most vigorous growth we find in this sunny herbacious retreat is in its two patients rather than its plants. As Dr. Brown helped me notice in her guest appearance on my favorite Tolkien podcast, whereas stern Aragorn (whose heart already belongs to another) notes the iciness of Éowyn, only sensitive Faramir truly sees and hears her and she begins to melt under his loving gaze.

"She did not answer, but as he looked at her, it seemed to him that something in her softened, as though a bitter frost were yielding at the first faint presage of Spring."

And while I love Aragorn dearly for his nobility and selfless service to the hobbits, it is Faramir who has been my favorite of all the Men of Middle-earth since childhood, because of his saintly rejection of the lures of the Ring and his merciful treatment of poor Frodo and Sam on their terrible quest.

This same care and concern for others - this quality of sub-created holiness - is what enables Faramir to offer Éowyn what no one has ever offered her before: a recognition of her whole self and as a person worthy of making her own choices in life. A close reading of all Faramir says to this woman whom he so admires and esteems reveals his continuous deference to her wishes and needs. It is a beautiful thing to witness, and healing of many kinds is kindled in both lovers by a series of acts of being treated with true consideration.

I offer this video short of this first day on which Éowyn and Faramir speak to one another in the garden:

The Hands of a Woman Will Be The Hands of a Healer

I must again particularly thank Dr. Sara Brown for her insightful refutation of the claim I've often heard regarding this particular passage which occurs when Éowyn realizes that she can return Faramir's love:

"I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders...I will be a healer, and love all things that grow..."

Some readers see in this transformation the author putting a woman "in her place", reducing her from the status of premiere warrior to mere "women's work", tending an herb garden and treating the sick. I zestfully agree with Dr. Brown that this interpretation overlooks the magnificent role of healers in Middle-earth. By becoming a healer, Éowyn will be classing herself amongst the ranks of some of the most powerful beings in all of Tolkien's works:

Image of Glorfindel, Elrond and Aragorn by Miriam Ellis
Illustrations by Miriam Ellis

No one would make little of Glorfindel, whose very touch acts as an instant pain reliever to Frodo's arm, nor of the master healer Elrond, who brings Frodo back from the brink of death, nor Aragorn whose kingship is revealed in his healing hands. Éowyn's immense power, channeled into wellness rather than war, could end up bringing her even more fame and love in Ithilien than she has already earned in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.

Other critics point to the character of Ioreth as a person of low status in the Houses of Healing and even as a figure of mere comic relief, but it is my own thought that she is Tolkien's hidden-in-plain-sight retort to all the academics who eschewed fairy stories as mere "old wives' tales" and felt that philologists like the Grimms were beneath their notice.

Has any author in the history of the world loved Faërie more than Professor Tolkien or paid their debt more handsomely to all the old wives who remembered the ancient tales? I think he delighted in Ioreth and all readers know the high regard in which the author held all manner of plants. Trees, flowers, herbs...these were famously dear to Tolkien's heart, and by placing Éowyn amongst them, he is promising her a role amidst things he greatly honored for their beauty and power. Far from being reduced, Éowyn's future will be exalted.

I have just mentioned Aragorn, and it is worth the time to spend a moment considering the limitation of his healing powers. Via his use of the herb athelas, he is able to bring both Éowyn and Faramir back to life, if not to wholeness. He readily admits to Éomer that while his sister can be healed in body, her mind is another matter. Éowyn and Faramir have experienced serious trauma, and I think it would be a mistake to understand from the scenes by the garden wall that they heal one another.

As many sufferers of trauma assert, some wounds never go away, but must be cared for from within, day by day, throughout life. Neither the king nor the young couple can work a magic trick to undo everything that has happened. Rather, their healing arts of herb-lore, compassion, empathy, understanding, trust, revelation and other small miracles open paths in the garden of healing for other wanderers in tree-tangled Middle-earth to take.

As much as the kindness and wisdom of caring souls can help us along the way, we must each be our own House of Healing, our own Lore-master, drawing on inner powers for change such as reckoning, storytelling, and faith. We count up the hurts of the world, and can hopefully choose love, anyway.

Éowyn's matchless courage enables her to trust she will be loved for who she is by her bridegroom, despite having walked unseen in her family of origin, and Faramir's undervalued goodly heart will finally come first with someone he loves, amid the flowering herbs of new gardens in Ithilien.


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