When the black breath blows
and death's shadow grows
and all lights pass,
come athelas! come athelas!
Life to the dying
In the king's hand lying!
Kingsfoil, or Athelas, was a plant with healing powers that grew in Middle-earth nigh to the ancestral kingdoms of the Dúnedain. It was brought to Middle-earth by the Númenóreans and in later years was little known by the lesser men that supplanted them. Those of you who have read The Lord of the Rings will remember that Aragorn used Kingsfoil to tend Frodo's stab wound near Weathertop and in the Houses of Healing. When steeped in water its fragrance was at once sweet, wholesome, floral and redolent of some fair memory of dewy mornings of unclouded sun in a springtide long ago; and it seemed that the very air itself was quickened, filled with a living freshness, and sparkling with joy. The scent of the plant also seemed to vary between those standing by. Ioreth said that the fragrance reminded her of roses; to those who stood by Eowyn it seemed that a keen wind blew through the window with no scent at all, but was as of an air wholly clean, a new wind from snowy mountains or from silver shores washed by sea foam never before breathed by living things; to those stood by Merry the scent came as the scent of orchards and of heather in a sunshine full of bees.
The staves quoted (above) by the herb-master, garbled in the memory of old wives, are reminiscent of Ioreth's prophecy: "Would that there were kings in Gondor, as there were once upon a time, they say! For it is said in old lore: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. And so shall the rightful king be known." This is clearly influenced by the tradition of the Royal Touch. The Royal Touch was a tradition of the English and French kings and a sign of divine favour and dynastic legitimacy. In England it was begun by St Edward the Confessor and maintained by the Plantagenets. Henry VII revived the tradition after Bosworth Field in order to legitimise his claim to the throne. The tradition survived the Reformation and saw a significant revival during the reign of Charles II. Bad King Billy had no time for such "popish superstition" but Queen Anne continued the tradition and it was last performed in 1712. The sick, generally those with scrofula, fever or blindness, were brought into the King's presence. The King would make the Sign of the Cross over the sick, he would touch them while reciting verses of scripture, he would then place a medal around their necks and prayers were said by the King's attendants. Probably the ceremony had a liturgical structure akin to the Expulsion of Publick Penitents on Ash Wednesday, and the tradition was inextricably linked up with the Coronation Service, again an obvious connexion to legitimacy. Unlike the Royal Touch of our own Kings, there was no ceremony involved in the Houses of Healing (there are, strictly, no ceremonies in Tolkien's legendarium as he writes principally of a pre-Christian era). Aragorn simply went to the bedside, touched the forehead of the afflicted, call him by name, and then steeped the Kingsfoil in water and departed; but the connexion between his right to reign and the tradition of our own Kings remains. I was very moved when I read this:
"Suddenly Faramir stirred, and he opened his eyes, and he looked on Aragorn who bent over him; and a light of knowledge and love was kindled in his eyes, and he spoke softly. 'My lord, you called me. I come. What does the king command?'" (The Lord of the Rings, Book V, Chapter VIII).
Indeed, one of Aragorn's names in the high tongue of old was Envinyatur, the Renewer, an allusion to his doom to revive many old traditions in himself in Gondor as much as to heal the sick. Kingsfoil was, in this sense, a token of his return and the renewal of Tradition.
I have established here an unlikely connexion between Kingsfoil, the Royal Touch and the liturgical use of basil on Holy Rood Day but I thought it was worth thinking about.
Art: 15th century manuscript depicting the Frankish king Clovis I touching the sick at his Coronation. The second image is by the Tolkien illustrator Ted Nasmith and depicts Faramir and Eowyn in the greensward amid the Houses of Healing looking out towards the north, whither all their hopes had gone.