For some reason when I woke up this morning, I was thinking of the King of Rohan. For those of you only familiar with the movie of The Lord of the Rings, cast your minds back to the scene where Gandalf enters a darkened hall and finds a King huddled on his throne, weighed down by cares and cobwebs. Gandalf speaks wisely to him, reaches out a hand, encourages him to rise, to take his sword, calls for his horse, and the king is transformed from a wizened man who looks hundreds of years old, to a king in his prime, ready to lead a force against evil.
What I was thinking was that Tolkien must have been very familiar with depression, for that is clearly the spell that the evil Saruman has cast on King of Rohan. He sits, overwhelmed with cares, believing that there is nothing he can do, so despondent that even the death of his only child barely makes a dent, encouraged by the evil whispers of Wormtongue, channeling the seductive words of Saruman. Wormtongue discourages others from bothering the king, from troubling him when he so obviously needs to be cosseted.
Gandalf rides in, casts Wormtongue aside, charges the King to take action, calls for the King’s sword and his horse, and sends him forth to rally his troops against Saruman. Gandalf knows that an important part of the cure for depression is action. Rather than giving in to the temptation to wrap yourself up and retire from the world, rather than give in to depression’s seductive spell, which encourages you to stay wrapped up in your own thoughts, you must take action.
And it works. The King rallies his troops, fights two great battles against all odds to conquer Saruman’s forces, then another impossible battle against the forces of Mordor where he dies when his horse falls in battle and crushes him. If it weren’t for that poor horse, you imagine, he could have continued contributing to the defeat of Sauron and gone on to rule the Riders of Rohan for another hundred years.
It is a great success.
But there is another victim of Saruman’s evil spell in Rohan, one that even Gandalf does not recognize: the King’s niece, Eowyn. She is also trapped by Wormtongue’s whispers of Saruman’s depressive lies in her ears. Like so many functional depressives, she quietly carries on. She cares for the King’s son when he is brought back deathly injured and mourns him when he dies. She keeps the castle limping along – and, one suspects based on later events, the country itself — until such time that the King returns to his senses. Her brother and next in line for the throne isn’t there doing the hard daily work; he’s off fighting battles, taking action, while she is forced to wait on the sidelines, literally in the shadows of the hall where she fights and is slowly overcome by Saruman’s spell.
When the King rises and goes forth, she is left behind in the shadows. While the men plan to take action, she organizes the feast. Later she cares for the people left behind by the troops, the elderly, the women, the children, leads them to a safe place to wait out the battle, and comforts their fears, all the while carrying the terrible secret burden of Saruman’s spell in her heart. Even when Saruman himself is defeated, his spell lingers over her and she longs for death, begging Aragorn to take her with him when he goes to the Paths of the Dead which Aragorn mistakenly takes as a crush on him. Later she abandons her assignment to watch over her people while the King and her brother fight evil, to travel in disguise with the King and fight at his side because she so desperately seeks release from a life that holds no joy for her.
It isn’t until she is injured in battle – that she once again does what needs to be done while others are actively fighting the forces of evil, sacrificing herself and finally demonstrates her own capability for heroic deeds – that Gandalf realizes his own error. It’s all there in the book: Gandalf says that he can cure her body but that the worse injury is to her mind and, if that is not cured, she will never recover. He talks of Wormtongue’s evil words to her that she mulled over as she lay in bed at night. And Gandalf himself cannot cure this depression because she, unlike her uncle, kept doing, she kept going, she put others’ needs first. To take up her sword and horse and go into battle didn’t cure her, because she was already in motion.
What cures Eowyn is different. After waking from a deep sleep, she emerges into the garden and meets Faramir, who asks nothing of her but her quiet company. In his presence, she confides her fears, and finds peace. Her cure is complete when the two of them stand at the edge of the garden, gazing out over the battlefield at a beautiful sunrise.
Sometimes depression causes inaction, seduces you into curling up on the couch with the TV on (although if someone asks you later what you were watching, you really couldn’t say), wrapped up in your own thoughts like the King of Rohan, and the cure includes taking a step then another step then another step. Sometimes depression is functional, you hide your illness behind a face of ice and quietly carry on, keeping the kingdom moving in the background, doing the dirty work, unrecognized in the shadows, and left behind when others go off to derring-do, leaving the kingdom on your shoulders; and this cure requires laying down your burden and finding peace in the beauty of nature and the quiet comfort of a friendly ear.
Both depressions are invasive, and both cures are important, as we learn in the battles for Rohan.