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The Istari were sent to "advise and persuade Men and Elves to good" and they were forbidden to fight Sauron directly. But apparently they are not forbidden to fight creatures which are not Sauron, with sword and "magic". Gandalf fights many times, e.g. on Weathertop, in Moria, at Helm's Deep, etc.

But he does not fight in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields: he goes to the Houses of Healing instead. At first I wondered why (NOTE: this is not my main question, as I explained in the comment. This is the background that brings to the question), then I answered myself that:

  • Out-of-universe, Tolkien could not have his super death-cheating, now-white-and-more-powerful wizard do everything. The battle is the opportunity for more "ordinary" people to shine - Éowyn and Merry, for instance.
  • In-universe, probably Gandalf thinks that in that particular situation he's more useful as a healer than in battle.

Then Merry, Éowyn and Faramir are brought to the Houses of Healing, Gandalf "tends" them (how? It's not specified, but the book says he "tends" all the ill people in the House), but he's apparently unable to heal them.

Only many hours later, when Ioreth mentions the old saying about king=healer, he goes to summon Aragorn to heal them.

And so the day passed, while the great battle outside went on with shifting hopes and strange tidings; and still Gandalf waited and watched and did not go forth (...)

Then an old wife, Ioreth, the eldest of the women who served in that house, looking on the fair face of Faramir, wept, for all the people loved him. And she said: 'Alas! if he should die. Would that there were kings in Gondor (...) For it is said in old lore: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. And so the rightful king could ever be known.'

And Gandalf, who stood by, said: 'Men may long remember your words, Ioreth! For there is hope in them. Maybe a king has indeed returned to Gondor(...)'

Then Gandalf went out in haste, and already the fire in the sky was burning out (...)

Then Gandalf said: '(...) For it is only in the coming of Aragorn that any hope remains for the sick that lie in the House. Thus spake Ioreth, wise-woman of Gondor(...)'

It seems, to me, very strange that Gandalf the Wise, who deliberately avoided battle to heal people, needed a random hint from human lore to know what he had to do to save Meriadoc & Co. So I'm looking for possible explanations for this scene.

1) Gandalf did not know about athelas

Unlikely, IMHO. Elves know the healing virtues of athelas, Gandalf is friend with elves (his name means "Wand-elf" or something, even if he's no elf). Gandalf traveled with Aragorn for years before the events of LOTR. Furthermore, Aragorn used athelas to heal Frodo: ok, Gandalf wasn't there, but then they met in Rivendell, and it's reasonable to suppose that Aragorn told him about Frodo's wound and how he healed it. The Nine are the most dangerous foes after Sauron, it would be foolish for Aragorn not to share with the Company, or at least with his friend Gandalf, the medicine used against their dark power. (Or was Aragorn keeping his knowledge of athelas secret to use it one day to prove he's king? This, however, is very unlike Aragorn)

2) Gandalf knew about athelas, but needed Aragorn to use it

We know that you don't have to be a king to use athelas. If athelas is very effective when used by elves, it should be also effective when used by a Maia. I don't think he needs a mortal man, not even one with some drops of elvish and Maia blood like Aragorn.

3) Gandalf knew about athelas, but forgot about it

People forget stuff, it happens in RL, it happens even more in fiction, if the author wants so. But then usually the forgetting character acknowledges that he forgot, or another character rebukes him because he forgot - this doesn't happen to Gandalf.

Furthermore: he's no ordinary man, he's Gandalf! He's a Maia! How can he forget such an important thing? Some possible points for this theory, but I'm not fully buying them:

  • For an Istari, being incarnate "would imperil them, dimming their wisdom and knowledge, confusing them with fears, cares, and wearinesses coming from the flesh" (Source: Unfinished Tales). Objection: it seems to me a too generic and cheap justification.

  • He did not recognize the Palantir: Why didn't Gandalf know what the Palantir was?.

  • He did not recognize the One Ring. Objection: only Isildur had ever been so close to Sauron to see the Ring, so only the forgotten scroll by Isildur could tell Gandalf exactly what the Ring looked like.

  • In a previous chapter Gandalf seem to have forgotten his own name. Objection: he's probably still confused by his recent resurrection. But he remembers other stuff pretty well.

By the way: Pippin was also in the Houses of Healing, and Pippin was there when Aragorn used Athelas, did also Pippin forget?

4) Gandalf avoided using athelas on purpose

Out-of-universe, I think Tolkien wrote the events in this way to show that Aragorn is the real king. Like Odysseus and his feats with the bow. Common people recognize Aragorn as king because he's an healer. The hands of the king are the hands of a healer is a legend also in the real world, and maybe Tolkien was inspired by this legend.

But in-universe, did Gandalf do it on purpose? Did he avoid healing Merry, Éowyn and Faramir in order to show that Aragorn is the king? Did he wait so many hours, putting the lives of three good people at risk, to wait for Aragorn? Even if Gandalf had been manipulative in the past (dwarves and Bilbo, for instance), this seems too manipulative even for him, even if he had some "intuitional foreknowledge" that everything will be all right for these people.

Which of these scenarios is the correct one? Or is there a different explanation?

Answers from canon preferred.

  • 3
    What's the question here? Are you asking Why Gandalf went to the houses of healing? Or Why he avoided healing Merry and Co or Why did he wait for Aragorn? – Edlothiad Jan 21 '17 at 19:08
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    This is a good question, but may I suggest that you try to keep future questions a bit shorter? This whole thing could be just a couple of lines long. – isanae Jan 21 '17 at 21:01
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    Another instance of Gandalf’s memory being a bit shoddy is when he doesn’t remember the way in Moria even though he’s clearly been there before. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 22 '17 at 1:32
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    Why should I reveal why I made my decision to you? :P – Mithrandir Jan 22 '17 at 8:11
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    Another thing not mentioned is the idea that Gandalf had healed their bodies, but it was only Aragorn that could heal their minds, which seemed to be a big part of the malady. – Quasi_Stomach Nov 8 '18 at 21:05
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Gandalf couldn't heal those people himself

Gandalf didn't forget about Aragorn or his healing skills, he's waiting for the battle to end. During that time, he does what he can, but he is no healer.

Waiting for Aragorn

Gandalf seems to be waiting for the "red sunset". He knows the battle will be over at that time and that Aragorn will be available.

[...] still Gandalf waited and watched and did not go forth; till at last the red sunset filled all the sky, and the light through the windows fell on the grey faces of the sick. [...] Then Gandalf went out in haste, and already the fire in the sky was burning out, and the smouldering hills were fading, while ash-grey evening crept over the fields.

Now as the sun went down Aragorn and Éomer and Imrahil drew near the City with their captains and knights; and when they came before the Gate Aragorn said: ‘Behold the Sun setting in a great fire! It is a sign of the end and fall of many things, and a change in the tides of the world.’

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Houses of Healing, pp. 154-155

Ioreth

The words of Ioreth didn't remind Gandalf of Aragorn, they just happened to be said at that particular moment. The sunset made the faces of the injured "[flush] softly as with health returning, but it was only a mockery of hope." At that point, Ioreth becomes desperate and weeps. Gandalf's answer isn't some kind of "Oh s--" moment, it's meant to give them hope because he knows Aragorn can now help.

‘Men may long remember your words, Ioreth! For there is hope in them. Maybe a king has indeed returned to Gondor; or have you not heard the strange tidings that have come to the City?’

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Houses of Healing, p. 154

Gandalf's skills

It is also rather clear that Gandalf does not have the skills to heal these people:

Then Gandalf said: ‘Let us not stay at the door, for the time is urgent. Let us enter! For it is only in the coming of Aragorn that any hope remains for the sick that lie in the House.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Houses of Healing, pp. 157

There is also an early draft of that chapter that seems to confirm this:

'Mithrandir is wise and skilful,' said another. 'In this at least he is not a king,' said the old wife. 'He has done much for us, but rather his skill lies in the teaching of men, to do what they can or should.'

The History of Middle-earth Volume 8: The War of the Ring, The Houses of Healing, p. 387

While looking for athelas, Gandalf doesn't sound like someone who's in control, or someone who decided not to heal near-death people to enable the King to reveal himself:

‘Then in the name of the king, go and find some old man of less lore and more wisdom who keeps some in his house!’ cried Gandalf.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Houses of Healing, p. 160

Aragorn also says that Elrond would be a better healer still, while Gandalf is standing right next to him:

‘Here I must put forth all such power and skill as is given to me,’ he said. ‘Would that Elrond were here, for he is the eldest of all our race, and has the greater power.’

ibid., p. 158

Athelas, Kings and Melian

I happen to disagree with most of the answers on the use of athelas. Even in Rivendell, when Frodo is close to fading after being stabbed, it is Elrond, not Gandalf, who heals him:

‘You will soon be sound again. Elrond has cured you: he has tended you for days, ever since you were brought in. [...] Elrond is a master of healing, but the weapons of our Enemy are deadly. To tell you the truth, I had very little hope; for I suspected that there was some fragment of the blade still in the closed wound. But it could not be found until last night. Then Elrond removed a splinter.It was deeply buried, and it was working inwards.’

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Many Meetings, p. 290

This seems to suggest the idea that the descendants of Melian are the healers. Melian was a Maia, servant of Estë, and in Valinor dwelt in Lórien (not to be confused with Galadriel's Lothlórien).

Estë the gentle, healer of hurts and of weariness, is [Irmo's] spouse. Grey is her raiment; and rest is her gift. She walks not by day, but sleeps upon an island in the tree-shadowed lake of Lórellin. From the fountains of Irmo and Estë all those who dwell in Valinor draw refreshment; and often the Valar come themselves to Lórien and there find repose and easing of the burden of Arda.

The Silmarillion, Valaquenta, p. 19

There are many examples of the power of Melian, such as building the Girdle of Doriath, a magical barrier that protected the realm. She is also "akin to Yavanna herself", loving "the deep shadows of the great trees". She also "fostered" the woods of Middle-earth after the War that saw Melkor being captured.

I could only find one mention of her actually healing someone:

Turin was captured alive and carried towards Angband; but Beleg was left for dead among the slain. [...] Beleg was found by Thingol's messengers, and taken to Menegroth and healed by Melian.

The History of Middle-earth Volume 11: The War of the Jewels, The Grey Annals, p. 82

Elrond is only down four generations from Melian. The next ones would be his children (Arwen, Elladan and Elrohir) and the last one would be Aragorn. Both Elrond and Arwen are in Rivendell at this point, so they couldn't help. As for Elladan and Elrohir, I'm not sure, but it is said that Aragorn was "yet more like to Elendil than any before him."

  • good answer but Gandalf also lived in Lorien so I don't know why he lacks healing skills as your quotes noted "Wisest of the Maiar was Olórin. He too dwelt in Lórien, but his ways took him often to the house of Nienna, and of her he learned pity and patience." – Ram Jan 21 '17 at 22:05
  • @Ram It's not about Lórien, it's about being the servant of Estë. Even before he became an Istari, Gandalf was often on journeys. He was closest to Manwë and Varda. – isanae Jan 21 '17 at 22:22
  • It should also be noted, he learnt nothing from Estë, and his time in Lórien was spent with Irmo. – Edlothiad Jan 21 '17 at 22:54
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Gandalf was not a healer:

Gandalf never possessed the skills of a healer, having been the Maiar of Manwë, Varda, Irmo and Nienna, he learnt patience, the wisdom in grief, manipulation of light and possibly from Irmo, the art of visions and dreams. Gandalf's skills lied in his compassion, and was known for his ability to manipulate fire.

Manwë is dearest to Ilúvatar and understands most clearly his purposes. He was appointed to be, in the fullness of time, the first of all Kings: lord of the realm of Arda and ruler of all that dwell therein. In Arda his delight is in the winds and the clouds, and in all the regions of the air...

With Manwë dwells Varda, Lady of the Stars... In light is her power and her joy

Irmo the younger is the master of visions and dreams.

Nienna, sister of the Fëanturi... She is acquainted with grief, and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor... those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope

The Valar associated with healing would be Estë, Irmo's wife, who Gandalf is never mentioned to be affiliated with.

Wasn't in battle due to his role as an emissary:

The reason he didn't fight was because he was sent to Middle Earth as an emissary, and not as a leader. He was there to guide the peoples of Middle Earth to fight against their darkness.

Possibly good opportunity for Aragorn:

Finally he may also see this as an opportunity to raise Aragorn to his destiny, the rightful king of Gondor and Arnor. The people would likely be more willing if his initial act was heroic, and his kingship proven by a prophecy, and not just a claim (as others had been denied).

On Pippin:

Pippin was tasked with finding Merry while Gandalf was in the Houses of Healing. By the time he'd found Merry and brought him up, Gandalf was already about to go look for Aragorn, furthermore, Aragorn tended to Faramir and Eowyn first, before Merry and had already used Athelas at that point.

  • Gandalf was about to "ride through the Gate" when he was stopped by Pippin because Denethor was about to burn Faramir alive. "‘I must go,’ he said. ‘The Black Rider is abroad, and he will yet bring ruin on us. I have no time.’" Doesn't sound like someone who didn't want to fight. – isanae Jan 21 '17 at 20:58
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    I never claimed he "didn't want to fight" I simply made my comment on the fact that OP stated Gandalf was "healing" instead of fighting, whereas I make the point that Gandalf may not have been doing either, as he was not sent to fight, but to guide. – Edlothiad Jan 21 '17 at 21:01
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. – Edlothiad Jan 21 '17 at 22:50
4

Gandalf probably wanted Aragorn to be the healer

I believe your fourth scenario is the most likely. However, I can find no discussion of his motivation in either The Letters of JRR Tolkien, or The War of the Ring (Volume VIII of The History of Middle-Earth).

Gandalf would have been aware of the stories about the King being a healer and would want Aragorn to show this quality to his people (and so encourage them to accept him as King).

My thoughts on the other three scenarios are:

  1. It seems unlikely that Gandalf had never heard of Athelas. Even if he was wasn't previously aware of it (which seems unlikely), it would probably have come up when Aragorn told him of the events at Weathertop.
  2. As isanae points out in another answer, an earlier draft of this chapter has one of the healers stating that Gandalf cannot himself heal these patients. This supports your second scenario. It is worth remembering that Tolkien eventually removed that statement and added Ioreth's reference to "the hands of the King are the hands of a healer". That is why, on balance, I chose to not go with this one.
  3. Gandalf forgot about Athelas. We have discussed whether Gandalf can forget, but it seems unlikely to me that he would forget that there is a remedy for the sickness that he has been observing for some time.

By the way, I think it may be going a little far to say that Gandalf fights at Weathertop, Moria and Helm's Deep. He generally does stick to encouraging others to fight for themselves.

  • He was attacked by Black Riders at Weathertop and he defended himself.
  • He drew his sword in Moria, but all we are told he does with it is to parry a blow from the Balrog's blade.
  • He helps Erkenbrand collect the men of the Westfold and rode with them to Helm's Deep, but we are not told that he takes part in the fighting.
  • G: "Let us not stay at the door, for the time is urgent. Let us enter! For it is only in the coming of Aragorn that any hope remains for the sick that lie in the House." Sounds to me he just can't do it. – isanae Jan 21 '17 at 19:42
  • @isanae I see your point, but my suggestion is that he saying this to play up the "King as healer" story. – Blackwood Jan 21 '17 at 19:48
  • Well, I agree that this seems the most likely explanation (if we were to judge as independent historians; incidentally, this kind of manipulation is an important plot point of The Last Ringbearer). However, I really don't believe (or, don't want to believe?) that this is supposed to be the explanation. Aragorn and Gandalf's honest, idealistic character is quite a pillar in LotR, consistently highlighted above the shrewd but ultimatively destructive calculating behaviour of Denethor, Saruman and to a lesser degree the Elves. – leftaroundabout Jan 22 '17 at 23:19

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