Achilles, Frod, Greeks, Morgul Knife, Mysia, Nazgul, Neoptolemus, Odysseus, Philoctetes, Telephus, The Grey Havens, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, Tristan and Iseult, Troy, Weathertop, wound, wounded
As always, dear readers, welcome.
The war around Troy was a very complicated thing, with traditions stretching in all directions. In one, the Greeks actually sailed to Troy twice, the first time missing it entirely and landing in Mysia, to the east of Troy.
There, the Greeks were met by local defenders under their king, Telephus, who was wounded by Achilles
before the Greeks realized their mistake and withdrew.
After they’d gone, Telephus’ wound simply wouldn’t heal, but, after consulting oracles, he was told that there was a cure: rust from the spear which had wounded him. The Greeks had gone back to Greece to regroup and to try again, so Telephus went after them to request that Achilles treat the wound which he had made. For some reason, Achilles refused, so Telephus grabbed the High King Agamemnon’s baby son, Orestes, and threatened to kill him if Achilles didn’t grant his request.
(This scene bordered on the edge of hilarious to the Greeks and was the subject of parodies in ancient times—here’s a pot with one, Orestes being replaced by a wineskin.)
The threat worked and Achilles healed Telephus.
This isn’t the only example of the wound which won’t heal to be found in the Trojan material. Philoctetes, who had inherited Heracles’ bow (given to him by Heracles because he helped with Heracles’ funeral pyre), was on his way with the other Greeks to Troy when he was bitten by a snake. The wound wouldn’t heal and smelled so bad that the Greeks left him—and the bow—behind (this is one version—there are others).
Later in the story, however, a prophecy told the Greeks that they wouldn’t take Troy without the bow. (By late in the Troy tradition, there had piled up a number of these conditions—rather like the horcruxes in the Harry Potter books—all to keep the story going.) Odysseus and Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, went off to persuade—or steal—the bow (in one version—there are lots of others) and eventually persuaded Philoctetes to come to Troy with the bow, where he was healed and used the bow to aid the Greeks.
The theme of the unhealing wound reappears in western medieval literature in several places. In the story of Tristan and Iseult,
Tristan is wounded fighting an Irish giant
and, as in the Greek stories of Telephus and Philoctetes, the wound won’t heal. The theme appears again in the story of the Holy Grail—and like the Troy tradition, it has many versions. In some, the last guardian of the Grail is a wounded king (sometimes called the “Fisher King”) .
But, if you’re a regular reader, you know where this is leading. On Weathertop, Frodo is attacked by the Nazgul.
He is wounded with a morgul knife
and the tip of the blade not only remains in the wound, but begins to travel towards Frodo’s heart. He is saved by Elrond’s healing powers, but, somehow, things are never quite the same and, some time after the hobbits return to the Shire–
“One evening Sam came into the study and found his master looking very strange. He was very pale and his eyes seemed to see things far away.
‘What’s the matter, Mr. Frodo?’ said Sam.
‘I am wounded,’ he answered, ‘wounded; it will never really heal.’” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 9, “The Grey Havens”)
We began with Greeks and the complex epic of Troy, then passed through a pair of medieval stories to The Lord of the Rings, but something in all of these tales interested us in what seemed a common theme: protecting something, keeping something, can bring long-lasting harm to the protector/keeper, even if done for the best of reasons. It’s less clear if this pertains to Philoctetes, but Telephus was defending his country, as was Tristan in fatally wounding the Irish giant, who was leading an invasion force to Cornwall, where Tristan lived. The Fisher King is the guardian of the Grail.
Frodo clearly has come to understand this and, when the time comes, he goes with Bilbo and Gandalf and others to the Grey Havens and beyond, saying to Sam:
“…But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”
(These are two very different versions of the leave-taking at the Grey Havens—first, the Hildebrandts’, second, Alan Lee’s.)
Thanks, as always, for reading.