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Tolkien’s Magical Inventory

Athelas_Aragorn

Trolls’ purses are the mischief, and this was no exception. “ ‘Ere, ‘oo are you?” it squeaked, as it left the pocket; and William turned round at once and grabbed Bilbo by the neck, before he could duck behind the tree.

—From The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Imagine poor Bilbo’s surprise when he tries to pick one of the trolls’ pockets and sets off the Middle-earth version of a car alarm: an enchanted screaming purse! It’s enough to send a poor Hobbit/burglar to an early mound.

The talking purse belonging to William the troll is the only inanimate object in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings that has a line of dialogue.* In fact, it is a unique item in Middle-earth, and one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most original inventions; and it predates the talking Sorting Hat of Hogwarts by exactly sixty years. *(See Bandoras’s response in the comments section below for an example of a talking sword from Tolkien’s legendarium.)

Sadly, the purse scene was not used in the film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It would have been hilarious to see the reaction on actor Martin Freeman’s face—Bilbo’s career as a cutpurse curtailed by a bag with leather lips and screeching with a Cockney accent!

Perhaps Tolkien thought that the talking purse smacked too much of a fairy-story, and that’s why he didn’t use the device or anything like it again in The Lord of the Rings. The magical artifacts in the trilogy are more serious and sinister: the One Ring, Palantirs, the Morgul-blade, the Watcher-statues at the entrance to Cirith Ungol, etc. There are many other enchanted items in Middle-earth, however—ones that people often forget about. And all of them have unique properties.

When Sam and Frodo take their leave of Faramir, the captain of the Rangers of Ithilien gives them parting gifts—two staves (walking sticks) ingrained with a charm. Faramir says:

“They are made of the fair tree lebethron, beloved of the woodwrights of Gondor, and a virtue has been set upon them of finding and returning. May that virtue not wholly fail under the Shadow into which you go.”

Wouldn’t you love to have a walking stick that would help you find where you want to go and then guide you home again? It’s sort of like the Gondorian equivalent of a GPS unit, only made of wood. (The staves have another property that is not quite magical but very useful, as Sam finds out when Gollum attacks him in Shelob’s lair: lebethron sticks are good for walloping Sméagols!)

One can imagine that Legolas—when he builds his boat in Ithilien—fashions his craft out of lebethron, for it would certainly help point his way on his journey to find the Undying Lands far across the Encircling Sea (see the final entry of Appendix B, The Return of the King, for this story).

In Unfinished Tales (in the chapter The Hunt for the Ring) there is a remarkable description of the Nazgûl attack on Frodo on Weathertop. What makes this narrative so interesting is that it’s from the Witch-king of Angmar’s point of view:

But above all the timid and terrified Bearer had resisted him, had dared to strike at him with an enchanted sword made by his own enemies long ago for his destruction. Narrowly it had missed him. How he had come by it—save in the Barrows of Cardolan. Then he was in some way mightier than the Barrow-wight.

The sword in question is not Sting (Frodo has not yet arrived in Rivendell to receive that weapon from Bilbo). It is, in fact, a sword that had been given to Frodo by Tom Bombadil who retrieved it from the Barrow-wight’s mound along with three other weapons (one for each of the hobbits). These blades were forged thousands of years before by Men of Westerness, and they were wrought with spells to combat the Dark Lord and his minions. If Frodo had actually struck the Ringwraith with that sword, it would have been “as deadly to him as the Mordor-knife to Frodo.” One of the reasons that the Nazgûl flee from Weathertop, Tolkien explains, is not only out of fear of Aragorn but  “especially of Frodo.” That’s a powerful spell-wrought sword to make the Lord of the Nazgûl fear one of the Shire-folk!

The Elves gave excellent magical gifts as everyone knows: rope that unknots itself, a phial of potent light that could blind a spider of Morgoth, and dust that makes anything grow. One of the most powerful gifts that the Lady Galadriel bestows upon the Companions, however, is lembas, for the Elven waybread is charmed. The tiniest morsel:

. . . fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind. [The Return of the King]

Tolkien, in one of his letters, goes so far as to say that lembas serves an almost religious significance at the end of the trilogy. Without eating it Sam and Frodo would have succumbed to their physical and mental depredations on their final push to Mount Doom. The lembas “had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die.” Like spiritual faith it gives them hope. Gollum, by the way, refuses to eat it, for just as the Elven rope “freezes” and “bites” him, lembas would certainly burn his mouth and tongue with its Elven spell.

Athelas is a plant that was known to the Dúnadain as having a potent and otherworldly property. It was first brought to Middle-earth by the Númenóreans. Aragorn uses the plant to check the affect of the Morgul-blade toxin that poisons Frodo’s body. Later, in the Houses of Healing in Gondor, Aragorn uses the same herb (called kingsfoil in Minas Tirith) to bring Merry, Faramir and Éowyn out of their comas caused by the Black Breath of the Nazgûl. It is old lore in Gondor that a king has the ability to heal, and the scene where Aragorn brings Éowyn back to consciousness using the scent of athelas is one of the most beautiful passages in all of Tolkien’s work:

. . . as the sweet influence of the herb stole about the chamber it seemed to those who stood by that a keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars, or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam.

Aragorn might possess the healing hands of the rightful king of Gondor, but he still needs a little of the legendary herb to help him with his craft. The remarkable thing about athelas is that each person who inhales the scent smells something completely different. The nurse Ioreth is reminded of the roses of her childhood, while Merry recalls the glorious memory of bees in heather—a quintessential Shire image. The scene in the Houses of Healing would have worked without Aragorn using the herb, but it makes it so much more interesting because the athelas connects the Ranger/Returning King to the ancient and preternatural lore of Middle-earth.

The mystical athelas, along with the talking purse, virtue-imbued staffs, enchanted swords and spiritual bread, are all unique examples of Tolkien’s wild creative genius. The magical inventory at the author’s disposal was like a wizard with a bottomless pouch filled with a never ending supply of wonderful items. Now if only there existed a copy of The Lord of the Rings that would read the entire story aloud to us in his voice . . . a talking Tolkien tome!

Now that would be magical.

About Noble Smith

Noble is the author of The Wisdom of the Shire, hailed by Kirkus Reviews as “a life-affirming, must-have morsel for Tolkien’s colossal fan base.” The book has been translated into 8 languages including Finnish and Spanish. His musings on J.R.R. Tolkien and his Hobbits have appeared in the U.S. and U.K. versions of The Huffington Post. Noble’s action-adventure The Warrior Trilogy is published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. The first book in the series— Sons of Zeus—is available in hardcover, ebook and unabridged audio. An award-winning playwright, video game writer and film producer, he co-hosts the D&D nostalgia blog www.DungeonsAndDorkwads.com. He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and children.