In June, I spoke at a One Year Adventure Novel Summer Workshop at Mid-America Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas. It was a privilege and great fun. I spoke to about 200 young writers between the ages of 13—19. Because most are so young, I was little befuddled by the way I concluded one of my talks.
My talk tried to trace the literary archetype of the returning king. I began with the story of Odysseus, talked about King Arthur a little, and then looked at Tolkien’s story of the return of the king in his Lord of the Rings. My argument was that Jesus fulfilled the archetype of the returning king—that the king of glory is the king of story.
I concluded with an exhortation to be kingsfoil. It is here that I found myself hesitating. Kingsfoil is the name of an herb used by Aragorn to heal the wounded. Readers first encounter this herb, also called athelas, in The Fellowship of the Ring after Frodo had been stabbed by one of the Black Riders. Here Strider, not yet revealed to be the returning king, crushes the kingsfoil, throws it in boiling water, then bathes Frodo’s wound. Tolkien tells us that even those who weren’t hurt were refreshed and “felt their minds calmed and cleared.”
We encounter the herb again in the houses of healing at Gondor. It is now clear that Strider, the one who served as a guide to hobbits, is the King destined to rule over Gondor. But before taking the throne, Aragorn gets busy healing the wounded. He has some difficulty getting the herb-master to give him the herb athelas. In Gondor it was called kingsfoil, but considered a weed. No one remembered why it was called kingsfoil.
Tolkien beautifully describes Aragorn’s almost sacramental use of the kingsfoil:
Then taking two leaves, he laid them on his hands and breathed on them, and then
he crushed them, and straightway a living freshness filled the room, as if the air
itself awoke and tingled, sparkling with joy.
In the hands of the king, what was thought to be weed had the power to refresh and heal. Aragorn gave life to an old saying in Gondor, “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer.”
As I stood before all the young people, it occurred to me that it would be good to ask Jesus, the true returning king, to make their lives and their writing kingsfoil—a source of healing and refreshment to a sick and darkened world. But as I prayed for God to breath on them and their writing, I paused for a moment because the king always crushed the kingsfoil to release its healing virtues.
Who was I to ask that God crush these young people? And what does it mean for God to crush their writing? I muddled my way to the end of the prayer. Although the prayer felt right, I have been dogged by these questions for about a month. Why crushed?
Several ideas have come. First, it occurs to me that all young people are crushed. The loss of innocence, the onslaught of disillusionment, the withering poison of disappointment are all common themes in coming-of-age stories. We must all battle despair in Mordor. Being crushed in some way is unavoidable. The question is whether we will place ourselves in the hands of the king to be crushed. Only in his hands can the unavoidable hardships and disappointments of life become the fragrance of healing.
Second, God’s command to love sacrificially is an invitation to be crushed. Many, but not all, of these young people are committed Christians. Following King Jesus certainly means embracing the brokenness, humility and servanthood that crushes our pride. The exhortation to be kingsfoil is little more than the invitation to live a life placed in the hands of the king.
Last, any writer or aspiring writer can testify to the crushing disappointment that trying to get published can bring. Although not a writer, I have admired the perseverance and toughness of writers who are bludgeoned by rejection letters. If our writings, really all our labors and dreams, are put into the hands of King Jesus, every crushing can be filled with fragrance rather than the stench of bitterness and anger. The grace and humility with which we encounter rejection can bring healing to those around us while refining our skills and artistry.
When I first read The Lord of the Rings I wanted to be Strider, a ranger wandering the woods and protecting the Shire. And then later crowned King of Gondor. Most of my adult life, I have identified more with the hobbits—I like my comforts. Now, my ambition is to be kingsfoil—a weed crushed in the hands of the King. This is progress.
A note to those at the Summer Workshop: On the last night Mr. S. (Daniel Schwabauer) spoke with insight and grace on the importance of humility. Never I have seen a message on humility so genuinely embraced by any group—especially teenagers. As I look back on the sweetness and freshness of the atmosphere that night, I believe we experienced a little of the fragrance of kingsfoil. For a moment all us, weeds unworthy for a king’s garden, rested humbly in the King’s hands.