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I'm re-reading the LOTR books for the first time in about 20 years, and I was struck by the change of tone in this chapter. We've just had several heavy chapters of death and destruction and this chapter seems to be a farce.

We have fussy matrons that don't shut up, and the same with herb lore masters we even have Aragorn joking and acting up.

The tone seems distinctly different from what comes before and after. Is there any indication that this is a deliberate decision by Tolkien to lighten the mood after several heavy going chapters?

3 Answers 3

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The Houses of Healing does seem to be an intentionally placed transition chapter, as suggested by this particular blog writer.

This chapter is a cooldown from the previous one, designed to act as the first part of a transition to the final climactic moment of Book Five. Three key characters have been left terribly wounded by their efforts to save Gondor from destruction, and they must be saved before the narrative can move forward. This drama allows for a reintroduction to Aragorn, last encountered properly in “The Passing Of The Grey Company”, and for him to take on even more of the mantle that he has already begun to claim with his actions in the last chapter. His is a solemn responsibility, that allows for closing of his relationship with Eomer and the restoration of Merry. Where “The Houses Of Healing” falls down is in its strange moments of comedy, that simply do not fit in, tonally, with everything else that is going on.

Wordpress: The Lord Of The Rings, Chapter By Chapter: The Houses Of Healing

We see Merry and Pippin being reunited after being separated for the most of Book V. And also seeing Aragorn again, who has not been seen since Chapter II, Book V. As the quote suggests it was necessary for the story to have a lighter toned chapter after the climatic Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Fellowship reunions are meant to be a "feel good" thing, after all.

Ultimately though, I do not think that Tolkien explicitly mentioned this in his works. It just seemed reasonable for him to put this chapter in the middle of two intense situations. The entire Battle of the Pelennor Fields was excellently built up throughout the whole of Book V. After that battle it would be stressful for a reader to continue reading about more death and destruction wrought in the following Battle of the Morannon.

  • Think Many Meetings as another example, (The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter I, Book II) which was set between chapters where Frodo was almost killed by the Nazgûl and the Council of Elrond.

To conclude; (quote is from the aforementioned blog):

Overall, it’s an effective enough slow-down of the narrative after the action-orientated series of chapters that have come before, but is also simply something to get out of the way before the far more plot relevant and interesting happenings that will take place in the next chapter.

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It's a recurring pattern in Tolkien's works that fast-paced, action-filled chapters are followed by calmer ones in safety, as if to give the reader (and maybe the author too?) some breathing room. It's simply his writing style. Some other examples:

  • The Hobbit - after being chased by orcs and rescued by the eagles, the party is given some respite when visiting Beorn.
  • The Lord of the Rings - after the Hobbits are chased by the Nazgûl from Weathertop all the way to the Ford of Bruinen, some calmer chapters follow with the Council of Elrond etc.
  • The Lord of the Rings - after getting chased by orcs in Moria, which ends with the epic encounter between Gandalf and the Balrog, the Fellowship are given a safe haven in Lórien.

And so on.

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    And of course, this pattern isn't unique to Tolkien.
    – Blackwood
    Jul 14, 2019 at 17:59
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As Mat Cauthon's answer points out, The Houses of Healing is a less intense chapter that comes after a major battle and not long before another battle. Writers usually try not to wear out their readers with constant action and tension.

I think we can call it "comic relief" in the traditional sense (as in Shakespeare's comedies), but these days we would probably say it is "light relief".

There a few comic moments

Aragorn putting the herb-master in his place

Thereupon the herb-master entered. ‘Your lordship asked for kingsfoil, as the rustics name it,’ he said; ‘or athelas in the noble tongue, or to those who know somewhat of the Valinorean...’

‘I do so,’ said Aragorn, ‘and I care not whether you say now asëa aranion or kingsfoil, so long as you have some.’

The Lord of the Rings Book Five, Chapter 8: The Houses of Healing
Pages 864-5 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Single Volume 50th Anniversary Edition)

Aragorn teasing Merry

‘Master Meriadoc,’ said Aragorn, ‘if you think that I have passed through the mountains and the realm of Gondor with fire and sword to bring herbs to a careless soldier who throws away his gear, you are mistaken. If your pack has not been found, then you must send for the herb-master of this House. And he will tell you that he did not know that the herb you desire had any virtues, but that it is called westmansweed by the vulgar, and galenas by the noble, and other names in other tongues more learned, and after adding a few half-forgotten rhymes that he does not understand, he will regretfully inform you that there is none in the House, and he will leave you to reflect on the history of tongues.

The Lord of the Rings Book Five, Chapter 8: The Houses of Healing
Pages 869-70 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Single Volume 50th Anniversary Edition)

The greater part of the chapter advances the plot.

Although the chapter does provide some relief from the intensity of the battle, it also has a serious purpose

Establishing Aragorn's right to the throne of Gondor

Ioreth (one of the "comic" characters) is the one who says

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 the rightful king could ever be known.’

The Lord of the Rings Book Five, Chapter 8: The Houses of Healing
Page 860 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Single Volume 50th Anniversary Edition)

This leads Gandalf to call for Aragorn who proceeds to heal Faramir, Éowyn and Merry.

When Faramir awakens, he acknowledges Aragorn as the King

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 Five, Chapter 8: The Houses of Healing
Page 866 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Single Volume 50th Anniversary Edition)

Ioreth isn't going to keep this to herself

As he followed Gandalf and shut the door Pippin heard Ioreth exclaim:

‘King! Did you hear that? What did I say? The hands of a healer, I said.’ And soon the word had gone out from the House that the king was indeed come among them, and after war he brought healing; and the news ran through the City.

The Lord of the Rings Book Five, Chapter 8: The Houses of Healing
Page 866 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Single Volume 50th Anniversary Edition)

Aragorn and Éowyn

Gandalf explains to Éomer how Éowyn came to despair.

‘Think you that Wormtongue had poison only for Théoden’s ears? Dotard! What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among their dogs? Have you not heard those words before? Saruman spoke them, the teacher of Wormtongue. Though I do not doubt that Wormtongue at home wrapped their meaning in terms more cunning. My lord, if your sister’s love for you, and her will still bent to her duty, had not restrained her lips, you might have heard even such things as these escape them. But who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?’

The Lord of the Rings Book Five, Chapter 8: The Houses of Healing
Page 867 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Single Volume 50th Anniversary Edition)

Tolkien doesn't tell us much about Aragorn's love life (outside of the the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen in Appendix A), and at this point the reader may not understand why Aragorn has not responded to Éowyn's advances. In this chapter Tolkien at least gives us a clue.

But Aragorn said: ‘I saw also what you saw, Éomer. Few other griefs amid the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man’s heart than to behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned.

The Lord of the Rings Book Five, Chapter 8: The Houses of Healing
Page 867 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Single Volume 50th Anniversary Edition)

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