Diagnosing Black Breath

Of all dangers and maladies in Middle Earth the Black Breath is perhaps the most mysterious. Tolkien does not describe the condition extensively in The Lord of the Rings, but what little he provides is highly specific. The workings, symptoms, and healing of this sickness are largely left up to the reader’s interpretation of key clues, the vast majority of which are found in “The Houses of Healing.”

This chapter closely chronicles the cases of Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry, revealing different aspects of the Black Breath in each. Outside this chapter, the only other clear examples are Frodo and Sam, and perhaps Theoden. With regards to treatment and cure, more detail may be drawn from “The Steward and the King,” the end of Book One (Frodo’s initial bout), “The Field of Cormallen” (Frodo & Sam), “Homeward Bound” (Frodo’s phantom pain), and “The Grey Havens” (Frodo’s continuing illnesses). Most of these scenes, however, deal with the highly unique case of Frodo, which is justifiably the most virulent case, incurable by normal means. Therefore, in order to study the curse in its more typical form, this post will be limited to the three cases of this chapter.

Little is told of Merry and Éowyn’s hurts, beyond the physical, immediately following their confrontation with the Witch King. Rather, their supernatural wounds are slowly revealed as they are brought to the Houses of Healing. In this journey, Merry’s ordeal demonstrates the early stages of the Black Breath and its apparent symptoms. His exhaustion may be easily explained away as a byproduct of the battle and the physical trauma he’s experienced, but other cases refute this simplistic view. There are many other cases of the ‘Black Shadow,’ as it comes to be known in the city, whose progression is marked by a slow descent “into an ever deeper dream…[passing] to silence and a deadly cold” followed by death (LotR 842). To Merry, the climb to the Houses is a “hateful dream” in which the light slowly fades, leaving him “walking in darkness…leading to a tomb” (LotR 840). Whether it be the fall into unconsciousness due to shock, exhaustion, and pain or the sleep of the Black Breath is unclear, but for the last thought. This macabre fantasy is mentioned by Merry twice: first with reference to the encroaching darkness and finally when he asks Pippin if he is “going to bury” him (LotR 841). These thoughts horrify Pippin, leading him to enlist Bergil’s help in what is now understood to be a dire situation.

This episode demonstrates the dual nature of the Black Breath. It attacks its victims physically and psychologically, pulling them into the darkness of either realm.

Another detail, seen earlier with Frodo, is the deadening of limbs caused by contact with the Nazghul. Merry’s right arm no longer functions; it is lifeless, and cold. Éowyn’s sword-arm is similarly afflicted. Upon examining his patient, Aragorn notes that this “is the chief evil” (LotR 848). It is implied that this symptom is more dangerous than any other and is the chief cause for the continued decline of each of the patients.

The Lady of Rohan and the hobbit often speak in their troubled sleep, seemingly indicating some level of delirium or fever dream, though no fever is noted for either. Notably, Faramir burns with fever, but unlike the other two, does not speak. Each fall into silence, and a “grey shadow [creeps] over their faces,” much like Frodo’s earlier near fall into the wraith realm (LotR 842). Again, the easy or skeptical response is to deem these symptoms as the typical results of trauma: of one falling into unconsciousness or coma. This conclusion is perfectly justified given the level of injury each character has suffered, but ignores what is revealed by the treatment of Aragorn.

Upon studying Faramir, Aragorn notes the wound inflicted by the Southron dart is healing. So too, observing Éowyn, he finds her “arm that was broken has been tended with due skill” (LotR 848). Aragorn is here to treat something else altogether.

Aragorn treats each of his patients following the same pattern: calling to them by name, bathing their hurts in hot water steeped with athelas, and having each breathe deeply of its vapors. In each case, the treatment has an immediate effect.

Faramir wakes suddenly, acknowledging Aragorn as his lord and king (LotR 848). Though he is weak from long illness, the danger is largely past. Éowyn wakes only after Éomer calls her, but immediately questions her cure, desiring the “saddle of some fallen Rider” to fill and “deeds to do” but denying hope or life (LotR 850). Her case is particularly dangerous. Merry is treated in the same manner, and immediately awakes asking for food and the time. In typical hobbit fashion, he speaks lightly and jests with Aragorn and Pippin. He, in large part, is fully healed but for the physical wounds that need time. When advising the Warden, Aragorn predicts the hobbit will be up and about, though needing help, as early as the following day (LotR 852). Whether by virtue of his limited contact with the Witch King or his unique physiognomy or cheerful demeanor, Merry’s is the easiest case.

With Faramir and Éowyn, however, it is necessary to study both Aragorn’s advice to the Warden and the discussions at their bedsides.

Faramir has been suffering under a tremendously high fever for at least two days. It is questionable when he contracted the Black Breath. He has lived under the shadow of Mordor in Ithilien as a Ranger, fought in both Osgiliath and the causeway forts and the long retreat across the Pelennor. He has also had to contend with his father’s moods and demonstrative lack of affection. All of these factors are listed by Aragorn as contributors to the virulence of the Black Breath (LotR 846). This indicates, that much like the Ring, the Black Breath functions in some part by increasing negative emotions, desires, and fears in those infected. It is also implied that long exposure to the Nazghul or similar corrupting forces leads to a long incubation and deeper fall into the abyss.

This is proven in the case of Éowyn, where Wormtongue’s twisted truth is shown to be but another form of the Black Breath. She has suffered at the side of Theoden, watching hopelessly has he falls into ruin, while she can do nothing, stuck in “the body of a maid” but with the “spirit and courage” to match her brother’s (LotR 848). She has lived a life of duty, denying her own desires, while seeing her efforts fail and the kingdom rot before her. Wormtongue’s bile is as much for her, as it is for Theoden. Yet Theoden is healed by Gandalf, and Éowyn left in shadow. The darkness is already there when she fights the Witch King. She leaves Rohan “without hope…[searching for] death,” believing that her only worth may be found by spending herself utterly (LotR 785). Because of this Aragorn greatly doubts his ability to heal her.

Éowyn’s physical wounds may be healed in the House of Healing, and her mind recalled by Aragorn, but if she wakes to despair, “then she will die” (LotR 849). The wound runs much deeper, and has only to be exploited by the Nazghul. Further, Aragorn warns the Warden not to tell Faramir immediately of his father’s madness and death. Both these factors, as well as the apparent ease with which Merry recovers, indicate another necessary component in the healing process: having the will to live. Granted this is critical in any recovery, but seems doubly so in this case as the malady attacks each psychologically.

Looking at these three cases, the Black Breath appears to trap its victims within their heads. They are left with the darkest aspects of their existence, drained of hope and will. There may be physical attributes caused by actual contact with the Nazghul, however the numbness of these cases is merely a reflection of the interior creeping numbness, rather than the chief danger. Also, certain people, as with most diseases, are predisposed, leading to particularly lethal cases. Ultimately, it is a disease that is only curable in those who hope, and love, and will to live.

P.S. Curiously, if Theoden’s cure is studied, it follows the same pattern as those described above. He is called by name by Gandalf out of the close darkness of his halls. Then he is instructed to “breathe the free air” (LotR 504). Much like the three cases above, Theoden awakes enervated, noting that “it is not so dark here” and his dreams have been dark (LotR 504). Though, at this time, Theoden has not had any contact with the Nazghul, many of the hallmarks of the disease (explored above) are clearly evident. The primary difference in his cure is the lack of Athelas and the healing hands of the king.

The Hobbit: TDoS…Initial Impressions: Extended Edition, Part I

Thoughts have settled and emotions calmed, and I remain of two minds on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The movie is excellent, while also being deeply troubling. I’ve gained a bit of clarity, however, with regards to each of these qualities; they cannot be blanket statements, but reference many specific points of the film. Given that, it seems proper now to explore spoiler territory.

Firstly, let it be stated that the visuals for The Desolation of Smaug are tremendous. Any concerns for the high-frame rate, 3D, or the CGI have been dealt with. Visually, it is an arresting film. Aurally, Howard Shore triumphs again, though, with all the action, I was not able to pay as much attention as I would have liked. As usual, Shore has created a score which marches arm in arm with the events on screen, perfectly playing with our emotions to evoke the wonders and fears of Jackson’s Middle-earth.

***Beware, here be spoilers!***

The film opens with the meeting of Gandalf and Thorin at the Inn of the Prancing Pony in Bree. This scene felt a little off due to the obvious antagonism of some men towards Thorin; but the reality is that this is the first of many small choices that are an invitation for contemplation. In just a few glances and furtive gestures, Jackson establishes the racial tensions pervading Middle-earth, and further the superstitious isolationalism which pervades prior to the reestablishment of the united kingdoms of Gondor. It is the first of many scenes, some drawn from the Appendices and some invented, which hint at a broader world, inciting speculation of the deeper and more mysterious elements of the tale.

The first scene serves many purposes. It reveals Gandalf’s (and Tolkien’s ultimate) agenda in the Quest for Erebor, while also introducing the threat of an ancient power; a power capable of controlling and using Smaug for its own ends. It is the first of several links that work to bind the Hobbit trilogy, particularly the second installment, to the LotR trilogy.

The inflation of the Arkenstone’s importance continues through this conversation, and later becomes central to Bilbo’s purpose in the Company. We are told the stone is essentially the mark of the kingship of the throne of Durin, needed to unite the Dwarves. In some sense it is becoming the White Tree of Durin’s folk. It is an extension and expansion of its textual nature, which I personally find distasteful, but does work fairly well for a cinematic conceit.

After this brief and rather calm interlude, we are thrust back into the action, directly following where AUJ left off. The company is still being pursued by Azog and Co., with a new addition in the form of Beorn in bear form. Seeking cover, the company flees to Beorn’s home. They “break in,” stay the night, and are greeted by Beorn, in man-form, in the morning. The entire sequence exemplifies a couple common themes of this adaptation.  It cleverly and somewhat plausibly abridges the chapter ‘Queer Lodgings,’ which probably felt too much like the ‘Unexpected Party’ (as it should). It briefly introduces Beorn, in both bear and man form, concisely establishing his hatred of orcs and distrust of dwarves, as well as his general decency and love for all living creatures. It also starts a trend whereby the protagonists are made more dumb, bumbling or foolish, this time for supposed tension, and perhaps comic relief. It is quite apparent there is a latch on the door when the company arrives at Beorn’s house, why must they be so abysmally blind?

In some ways this is the least and most innocent of these ‘tension builders;’ they continue, and worsen, as the movie progresses. It is the same misguided trope used in TTT and RotK, which make them near unbearable: the film-maker’s inexplicable need to create tension through either incompetence, self-doubt or arbitrary obstacles where no tension is needed (Aragorn’s fall case in point). In most cases, simply following the book would create the necessary obstacles and tension. Interestingly enough, these are the scenes that seem to be cut (a trend that was also rampant in TTT and RotK).

From here, the company heads to Mirkwood, and Gandalf departs to investigate the High Fells.

Mirkwood is gloomy, haunting and creepy. Though there is no enchanted stream, and therefore no evident hardship in the loss of supplies and the need to carry Bombur, I found it rather intriguing how the confusion and enchantment of the stream (and to some degree the magic of the wood elves) is shown in the trippy disorientation of Bilbo and the Dwarves. Here is comic relief I can support! It doesn’t follow Tolkien’s written word, but it felt consistent, and it felt natural, subtle and unforced. Again, it is a clever weaving of story, abridging the tale, yet plausibly building up the enchantment of the forest and bringing the Dwarves to leave the path. Frankly, I don’t know that they needed much help losing the path, as it seemed so crazily windy and relatively concealed!

Next comes one of the few instances where Bilbo is built up, rather than diminished. Rather than being forced, it is his idea to climb the tree to see the sun above. The scene unfolds basically exactly as written, and it was gorgeously done (excepting the chronic geographical compression). Immediately following comes the spider attack. Though I would have loved the elven feasting to be shown, particularly as it pertains to the antagonism shown by Thranduil towards the dwarves, I found this transition to be another exceedingly clever abridgement, which heightened the tension of the moment tremendously.

Bilbo saves the day, though in shorthand. He does hear the spiders speak, though only while wearing the Ring; it is a conceit which plays beautifully. The spiders are tremendously creepy, and on a whole the entire sequence is terrifically done.

Bilbo cuts the dwarves loose, yes. He also slays his first spider, and names Sting. But then we are bludgeoned over the head with another groan-fest ‘created obstacle:’ the Ring is knocked from Bilbo’s hand and falls to the ground, so of course he must find it and completely ignore his friends. The purpose of this is obvious, to make the ring of The Hobbit the Ring of The Lord of the Rings. Even though Bilbo has scarcely worn or born the Ring, he is already apparently well within its grasp. The whole thing felt silly, and extremely overdone. That hand was played too soon, and may have felt more appropriate later in this film or better yet in the third.

The second oddity here is how the dwarves, once cut free from the trees, somehow escape their web bindings and fight off the spiders as if nothing had ever happened. Forget the poison. Forget the fact that they just fell from what looked like a great height. It’s time to fight! As I recall, this is the first true fight scene, and has the same feel as all the others. They are a lot of fun, actually reminding me of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but they all felt overdrawn and largely gratuitous; there for the sake of action, wild acrobatics and creative methods of fighting. Now, unlike what I had feared based on early-revealed merchandise, the elves capture the dwarves immediately after this battle; though there are a few token spiders yet remaining. Again, it was a fairly natural progression.

At this point we meet Tauriel. Generally speaking, I approve of her addition, now that I’ve seen her. She acts as the perfect foil to the sort of insularity and common apathy of Thranduil and the wood elves at large. She is also the other extreme helping to form Legolas, with Thranduil, his father, at the other end. And it doesn’t hurt that this she-elf can fight! In the end, she ends up being rather plausible.

What I abhor, however, was the ham-fisted love triangle portrayed between Tauriel, Legolas, and Kili. It hearkened back to the pointless and poorly-executed love triangle of Aragorn, Arwen, and Eowyn, which at least had some basis in the text. The plausibility of the entire thing is completely suspect, and generally felt forced, particularly as the film progressed.

I digress.

The gates of the Elven-king’s halls and the bridge were gorgeous, and felt perfect. The chamber beyond, however, seemed far too grandiose for my taste. As I watched, I actually thought this setting more closely matched the cavernous grandeur of Nargothrond, not Thranduil’s halls. It is the same problem I have with both Erebor and Goblin town: they are too open, too cavernous. I understand that these sort of spaces present better on screen, but they do not feel authentic. And to a certain degree, I’m glad of it. The vision of my imagination remains largely untarnished for these places. I did find the cell-block area rather interesting, though. Of all places, this and the cellar felt most right to me.

Thranduil knows Thorin on sight, which fits with the apparent ‘homage’ sequence of AUJ’s prologue sequence. He also has a stated desire for white gems, to be used as ransom for the dwarves’ release. Thankfully, he does state the Elven-king’s suspicion that the dwarves are merely vagabonds and robbers up to no good, but the entire would have felt more comfortable had he not known their identity or their quest. That ship sailed, however, with the aforementioned prologue. The distrust and anger brought on by that betrayal negated the need for the disruption of the wood elve’s feasting. It also gives greater background to the enmity between elves and dwarves without needing information found in text they don’t have rights to.

While imprisoned, Tauriel comes to visit, and spots Kili tossing a talisman. While I do not approve of their love triangle, this begins one of the most beautiful, and Tolkienesque conversations of the film. Tauriel and Kili discuss the nature of star-light and from a philosophical and phenomenological point of view the conversation is stunning and was definitely a highlight of the film for me. I think Kili and Tauriel’s relationship should have remained as it is portrayed here, as a sort of empathetic curiosity; an attraction to the beauty found in the other (similar, in a sense, to the love of Gimli for Galadriel).

After a brief period of exploration, Bilbo discovers the way out and frees the dwarves. They do show some level of gratitude, but also the confusion and curiosity they should. However, when told of the proposed method of their escape, they do not enter the barrels until Thorin tells them to. This diminishes Bilbo’s character and standing among the dwarves, and I found it a distasteful trend that continued throughout the remainder of the film (that and Bilbo’s near disappearance from sight, becoming almost a sort of prop until ‘On the Doorstep’).

To Be Continued…