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.


In Review: Rob Inglis reads The Lord of the Rings

audio_lotr_cd_bookontapeOver the course of the last month, I’ve had the pleasure of listening to the audio book version of The Lord of the Rings, as read by Rob Inglis. I highly recommend it if you have the opportunity. What I particularly found interesting is how listening to LR causes the experience to change. Not only that, but how different the experience is compared with The Hobbit.

The Hobbit is eminently suited for the audio book format. It is after all meant to be an epistlary book. Though, being part of the Red Book of West March, LR is also a diary of sorts, in truth it is more of a historical account in character and tone. In a sense this makes it less suited for listening; or should I say, casual listening?

The Lord of the Rings, both in print and in audio form, challenge the reader or listener. It is not a passive endeavor. Hearing the tale only reinforces this quality.   I’ve found listening to the tale allows it to take on a much more philosophical and thoughtful tone…or at least causes my mind to wander down strange paths more than usual.

That being said, I was drawn this time around to the meeting of Strider and Frodo (and later in their room) at the Inn of the Prancing Pony. I particularly noticed that throughout, though Strider’s true name is mentioned, he is almost exclusively refered to as Strider except for a few memorable moments. His naming as Elessar in Lorien, his naming as Aragorn/Elessar son of Arathorn and heir of Isildur at the Argonath, and his meeting with Eomer, where he is also named Wingfoot. What is interesting here is how Tolkien uses names to convey different aspects of Aragorn’s character and personality, as well as indicating the way in which others regard him.  There is a noticeable difference, for example, in how Aragorn holds himself, speaks and even looks as opposed to Strider.

To continue the discussion of names, I was also struck by Treebeard’s reaction to Merry & Pippin’s giving of their names and request for his. His true name is long and tells the story of who he is. It is truly its own lexical device. The same is also true of the hill on which they meet. In Entish particularly a name is a powerful thing, telling of the true nature of a person or thing and as such grows and develops as time passes.

One of the truly awesome parts of Robert Inglis’ performance is the fact that he is able to create a voice and a personality for each character. Not only that, but I could recognize the speaker (character) even before Inglis stated who was speaking. And to make it that much more awe inspiring, he keeps this up across the entire trilogy for close to sixty hours of reading! It made for a pleasant addition, which was only improved by Robert Inglis’ acting skills. Using only his voice, tone and pace, he is able to evoke such emotion. This was particularly true at the Mirror of Galadriel, the Pass of Cirith Ungol and throughout the entirety of The Return of the King. I don’t know if it was Inglis’ reading or just the freedom afforded by listening rather than reading, but for me many passages were intense emotional roller coasters.

Recently, over at the Grey Havens Group, we had a discussion regarding our favorite parts of the Lord of the Rings. Jokingly, it was mentioned how this seemed to change constantly for some of us. Well, now it’s happened to me yet again, and will continue with each new reading.

We often talk about wishing we had the opportunity to relive our first experience. To read LotR again for the first time. In some ways the varied applicability of our current state in life allows this with rereading. However, listening to the LotR is a new first. I realized many things I never noticed before and I discovered favorite characters and events I’d never known were so dear to my heart.

For instance, listening to the Two Towers and the Return of the King, I realized how much I love Theoden; his goodness, his courage, and his ability to cast aside doubt and despair and do what he must even if it should cost him his lift. It is much the same as my love for Treebeard and the March of the Ents. When asked in the past who my favorite character was from Tolkien’s work, I’d usually respond Gandalf. However, I think deep down it has always been Theoden, and it wasn’t until I listened to the tale that this struck me. I spent the majority of The Two Towers and the beginning of The Return of the King looking forward to one single line:

“Sometimes where the way was broader he (Merry) had ridden at the king’s side, not noticing that many of the Riders smiled to see the two together: the hobbit on his little shaggy grey pony, and the Lord of Rohan on his great white horse. (775)

I also made an observation regarding the structure of the book, which I had largely overlooked in previous readings. Particularly in The Two Towers, the narrative is really a tale of tales. The TT represents the many meetings of cultures in Middle Earth; where the first meet and are described. The interesting thing is how much is told about the character of each place and people by their tales. Eomer’s haunted tales of the “Lady of the Golden Wood…net-weavers and sorcerors” is mirrored and opposed by Faramir’s wistful reverence for “Hidden Land.” So too the twin warnings of Galadriel regarding Fangorn and Treebread’s opposing agreement, say much about the character of each land. The references to tales and trading of them is pervasive in The Two Towers, culminating in Sam and Frodo’s discussion of their own tale and the realization that is nothing more than the continuation of the great tales which came before.

Another thing I noticed is the great pairing of Theoden and Denethor. They act as foils for each other, in many ways reacting to the same events and forced to make the decided how to act in the same situations. Both are a lesson in hope and despair. Theoden rises out of despair into hope, even though the hope is slim. It is better to strive and fail than to sit idly by. Theoden is woken up, reborn to health and grim joy in life, and ready to sacrifice it for his people if need be. Denethor too must face this decision, and ultimately fails in the test. The true parity of these two characters is never more striking than at the swearing of fealty by the hobbits Merry and Pippin. One is an occasion for joy and love, the other a grim matter, dominated by duty and pride.

I have always found The Lord of the Rings to be an emotional experience, but I was surprised listening to the Return of the King how much it toyed with my emotions. Tolkien’s imagery in this part of the book is particularly strong, and often brings a lump to my throat, whether in joy or sadness. Aragorn phrases it wonderfully during the Last Debate:

“We come now to the very brink, where hope and despair are akin. (862)

Whether it’s the coming of the Outland armies, or the horns of Rohan in morning, or the death of Theoden or the death of the Ringwraith lord or the final moments before the Black Gate and at the Cracks of Doom, emotions are exceedingly high. And often it is hard to tell whether it is hope or despair that is felt, for they are two sides of the same coin.

So after much rambling, let’s return to the discussion of audio book. I unequivocally recommend it. It includes the prologue, read at the end of FotR, and Concerning Hobbits and Appendix A. If you are looking for a new way to experience The Lord of the Rings, nothing gets better than this! (It’s great for listening in the car, if you travel a lot)

The virtue of Courage

Courage is one of the most potent and sometimes overlooked theme of Lord of the Rings.  Courage does not require the absence of fear; courage is the act of surmounting that fear.  It is the acknowledgement of our fears but the drive and perseverence to continue on in the face of it…no matter the veracity of our fears. 

When you think of the ents of Middle Earth, what comes to mind?  Trees, shepherds, slowness, sadness, anger, peace?  All of these are possible answers, but I now see courage at the forefront.  In the book, the march of the ents is the most potent and heart-wrenching example of courage; and one I feel is undervalued.

People who have seen the movies may think the ents are unaware and uncaring of the outside world; unwilling to give any aid.  They seem slow.  Not only in the entish way, but slow of mind as well.  They lack the depth of knowledge and wisdom which should be there.  They lack the kindness towards all living creatures, except for trees.  They are turned into mindless, tree obsessed trees.  It is unthinkable that the hobbits could trick Treebeard to go to Isengard.  It is unthinkable that the devestation around Isengard would be the first indication to the ents of Saruman’s treachery.  If they were truly ents, truly shepherds of trees, they would have been aware.  The shepherd guards the flock, and will protect it from the wolves.  So too do the ents.  The movie mangles their race, their purpose and their being.

When Merry and Pippin meet Treebeard on the hill in Fangorn, they are greeted by a kind and wise ent.  He is cautious, yes, but gentle.  He also shows great wisdom, if only through his eyes at times.  He is Fangorn.  He is the Ent.  He is most definately not a lackey of Gandalf as the films seem to indicate.  Also, the ents of the films seem positively hasty, I’m sure no ent in his right mind would want that!

What the films mar so utterly is the magnificent courage of the ents.  They know that the world is nearing a turning point.  They realize their own end may come if they do nothing.  They are not separate from the world, the conflict will and has reached them.  They also know that if they go to war, most likely they will die. 

Treebeard’s words describe it much better than mine:

“Of course, it is likely enough, my friends,” he said slowly, “likely enough that we are going to our doom: the last march of the Ents.  But if we stayed at home and did nothing, doom would find us anyway, sooner or later.  That thought has long been growing in our hearts; and that is why we are marching now.  It was not a hasty resolve.  Now at least the last march of the Ents may be worth a song.  Aye,” he sighed, “we may help the other peoples before we pass away.” Tolkien p 475

This is the great courage of the Ents.  To fight, knowing no aid can come to them, knowing their lives will be changed forever.  If ever you read LotR, read closely the chapter Treebeard.  You will find both profound courage and saddness. 

As a side note:

One of the reasons for this post is my disgust at the treatment of many characters in the films.  They are corrupted and mangled beyond repair.  Ranting about it doesn’t do anything, I know…and the movies are better than any Tolkien fan could have dreamed.  But I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard people pass up an opportunity to read the book because they have seen the movies.  They are not interchangeable…they cannot even be placed on the same level.  While I like the movies, this is the main reason I loathe them as well.  It is something that is increasingly evident in our culture: laziness and not reading.  People now a days would rather watch a movie or listen to tapes than read a book.  I think it is a sad trend.

PS.  Thanks for reading my rant. ;p