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Of shapes and changes of hue  by Nesta

‘I think, my dear,’ said Faramir, appearing in the doorway, ‘that you must give me a draught.’

It was cool in the stillroom with its thick walls, though the evening sun filtering through the shutters made tiger-stripes of gold high on the opposite wall. Éowyn, compounding her salves amidst the sharp, clean smells of athelas and comfrey and feverfew, looked up in concern.

‘Why? Are you hurt? Or ill?’

‘Not that I know,’ he replied, stooping to enter, ‘but I think that either my eyes or my wits must be at fault.’

She was puzzled. ‘I never knew anyone find fault with either before. What is it that troubles you?’

He was unusually slow in replying. Looking him over anxiously, she could see nothing wrong except dust and weariness, only to be expected after leading a patrol in that place on a hot day. She motioned him to sit down by her workbench.  After examining his nails attentively for a moment, he looked up at her almost sheepishly.

‘I thought a bird spoke to me.’

She was intrigued. ‘An eagle? You remember when…’

‘How could I ever forget? No, it was not an eagle.’ He fell silent again.

‘Then what?’

‘A small, brown bird. I think.’

Despite his obvious anxiety she could not help smiling. ‘A sparrow?’

He did not smile back. ‘I don’t know. It was no bird I recognised – and I know all the birds of Gondor, and Rohan too, I am sure.’

She left her work and came to sit beside him. ‘You had better tell me all about it.’

‘It was in the heart of the Desolation. One of my lads turned sick and faint – it was young Dairuin, always so sure of himself, but too young to be taken to such a place, perhaps – and we halted and climbed to a high point so he could breathe some cleaner air. He was mortally ashamed of showing weakness before me, so I drew off a little, and so I saw … the bird.’

‘A small, brown bird? Amidst the Desolation?’

‘Yes. Amidst the Desolation, where no living thing is to be found. A small brown bird. At least, I think it was small and brown. The more I looked at it, the less I was sure.’

‘You are not sure you saw it?’

‘I am quite sure I saw it, but I’m not sure whether it was really small and brown.  The more I looked, the less certain I was – and yet I was well nigh as close to it as I am now to you. Oh, I know it makes no sense.’

It did not, but she knew of no man less likely to foster a delusion.

‘And you thought this bird spoke to you? What did it say?’

He stirred uncomfortably. ‘It said – I thought it said – “Heal it.”’

‘Heal what?’

‘I don’t know. It said “Heal it,” in a small clear voice – or was it a loud, deep voice? I don’t know – and then it …went.’

‘Flew away?’

‘No. Or perhaps yes. It spoke, and then it wasn’t there.’

She smiled. ‘It seems to me that Duirin was not the only man to be troubled by the foul air of that place.’

‘So I thought too. That’s why I came to you. And yet…’ He hesitated again, in a way that was most unlike his usual decisiveness.

‘And yet?’

He unfastened the pouch at his belt. ‘When the bird – that was no bird – had gone – if it was ever there – I found this on the very spot where it had been – if it had.’ He drew out a tiny cluster of withered leaves: nothing beautiful or wonderful, and yet most strange and wonderful to come from that place, where nothing grew, where surely nothing would ever grow again.

A small, humble, commonplace plant, that grew everywhere amidst the grass of Rohan and on the higher, cooler hills of Gondor. Self-heal.

‘Are you sure it was in the Desolation that you found it?’

He smiled for the first time. ‘Of that I am quite sure. I would know the spot again.  I plucked the leaves so that I could remain sure; I didn’t take the root, of course. Of the talking bird, I am not sure. And now, my love, tell me that I am out of my mind, if you think I am, and give me whatever you give to men whose wits, or eyes, are playing tricks on them.’

‘Nay, my Lord, if you are losing your mind or eyes then all Ithilien must be similarly afflicted.’ She laid a hand on his brow. ‘I thought at first you might have a fever, but I can feel none. If you need a draught, I would counsel cold water, applied both inside and out.’

He breathed a sigh of relief. Absently she ran the tips of her fingers down his cheek and the side of his neck.

‘I may have no fever now,’ he said, ‘but if you go on doing that, I very soon will have.’


A month later he rode that way again, alone save for two puzzled guards whom he left, with his horse, at a distance: half-reluctant to find the place, half-hoping and half-fearing to find no trace of anything unusual. Had he not been looking, indeed, he would have noticed nothing, but with the strange memory to sharpen his eyes, he saw the tiny smudge of colour: not the foul and livid colours of decay, hideously familiar to those whose duty took them that way, but a vivid purple, fresh, defiant and gay. The tiny plant had not only survived, it had flowered. That was wonder enough, but of the plant he had proof already, and it was not the plant that had caused him to doubt his wits.

The movement at the edge of sight brought him round sharply, hand on his sword hilt, though knowing all along that the movement was too tiny to have been made by an orc or other enemy, supposing that any such could have approached unheard across that dreadful space of silence. It was a small, quick, black beast – a rat? – no, for as it whisked around his feet he caught sight of a bushy tail.

Mirkwood …they have black squirrels there, ’tis said. But Mirkwood – the Greenwood, they called it now – was a place of endless trees, utterly opposed to this place of naked and blasted earth, and a thousand leagues away.

The squirrel sat up, as beady-eyed, pert and wary as any of the little red beasts in his own woods, and, like them but impossibly, clasping a nut between its paws. He heard the voice, thin and high as a crystal bell: Make it grow.  

‘Make it grow,’ he repeated stupidly, and the squirrel dropped down and began to scrabble with its forepaws. It made a little hollow in the dust, and buried the nut.

For winter stores? he thought, and felt a wild laughter rising in his throat, to choke in the bitter air. When he looked again – and yet he had never looked away – the little beast was gone. But there was that little heap of scrabbled earth. 

This time he told nobody, not even Éowyn, what he had seen. At times he caught himself looking sidelong at the people about him, but none seemed to notice anything wrong with his eyes, or his wits.



Third time pays for all, they say.

When he returned it was high summer, and the defiled ground crackling with poison; at that time of year, normally, no patrols entered the heart of the Desolation. He carried a leather bottle of water to soak the cloth he would bind round his nose and mouth, if the air became too foul; but he took care not to use all the water.

The self-heal plant had withered, but its flower-head was heavy with black seeds. He shook them loose, very carefully, and buried them in a circle round the parent plant, giving each a drop of water. It might last them a day.

The buried nut had put forth two leaves, so tiny and frail that it was impossible to guess what kind of tree they might represent; and yet they had not withered in the vile air and blistering heat. He watered them as well. As he bent over them, the shadow fell across him.

It was a stag, with antlers like trees, and it was pure white. Its eyes were large and brown and clear as a mountain tarn, and its voice was husky and wild and warm.

‘It has begun,’ said the stag. He stared into its eyes until his own began to sting and he had to blink, but the stag was still there. He could see the slots its feet had made as it climbed the hill. With an effort he found his own voice.

‘What has begun?’   

‘The healing, Faramir of Gondor, the healing.’

There was no escaping the impossibility. ‘You know my name?’

‘I have been told it,’ said the man. Faramir had never looked away and the stag had not changed, but there was the man: short, stocky, with thick, brown, unkempt hair and a beard plentifully streaked with grey, and brown eyes as clear as a mountain tarn.

Faramir was beyond wonder. He abandoned himself to the impossibility.

‘Who told you?’

‘A friend who is now gone from me. A … man … of many names, but known to you, I think, as Mithrandir.’


‘Aye, or Gandalf, as we in the North used to call him. He spoke well of you, as a man of some wisdom, and one who is kindly to beasts, and does not disdain the goodness in small things.’

Faramir found himself flushing, ridiculously, like a child who hears himself praised. ‘And who are you, friend of Mithrandir?’

‘Like him, I have many names. In the north, where I have – had – my home, I am Radagast,  but in the south and among the Elves they used to call me Aiwendil.’

‘Aiwendil – the friend of beasts?’

‘Even so. Some say I love them too well. Aye, some say I loved all the small things of Middle Earth too well, and neglected the great ones. It may be so. Still, not all those who thought only of the great things came to good. And Mithrandir, who did, nonetheless grow weary, and now he is gone – heigh-ho! – leaving many small things still to be done..’

Faramir began to understand. ‘Like the planting of trees?’

‘Aye, trees, and weeds, and small humble things of that sort.’ There was a warmth in his voice now that hinted of laughter. ‘You’ll have noticed, I think, that although my powers are small compared with Mithrandir’s, I can contrive to make things grow in places you might not expect.’

Faramir’s eyes softened in answer to the implied laughter. ‘Does it help to be a bird, or a squirrel?’

‘Oh yes. The smaller one is, the nearer to the ground, the better one understands it. If I had not been so close to your feet, would you have noticed what I was doing?’

‘Perhaps not. The tall men of Gondor are often somewhat heedless of what is going on down by their feet.’

‘Even so. The men of Gondor are a proud race, and you not the least. Nonetheless, I think you are capable of caring about small things.’

‘Now that we have a king again,’ said Faramir, with only the barest trace of bitterness in his voice, ‘it is true that the Steward has time to devote himself to small things.’

‘But many small things, taken together, may become great ones. That’s how I work: with small things, for the good of small creatures, and in the end, I think, for great ones. Help me now, Faramir of Gondor, and your children will see the benefit. Aye, and your children’s children, for many ages to come.’

This time the bitterness would have been perceptible to less than wizardly ears. ‘I have no children.’

‘But you will have,’ said the wizard gently.

‘It is seven years now,’ said Faramir. ‘We are beginning to lose hope…’

‘Never lose hope,’ said the wizard. ‘Did Mithrandir not teach you that lesson?’ His voice was suddenly commanding. ‘Kneel down.’

‘But why?’

‘Because you are too tall for me else. Now kneel.’

The Steward of Gondor, yielding to greater authority, knelt in the dust, and felt the firm touch of two hands on his head.

‘Now look!’

He saw the greenness spreading over the stained and desolate hills before him, as if applied by a gigantic paintbrush. He saw trees, clearly young but shapely and vigorous, waving in a breeze that blew pure and cool against his cheek. He saw flowers in the grass by a pool of clear water, and running over the grass a child, a sturdy dark-haired boy, the sight of whom caused such a convulsion of love and longing in him that he knew at once who it must be. The child swerved and ran towards him, laughing, and he held out his arms, but there was no one there, and the wind blew harsh dust in his eyes. 

He stumbled to his feet, wondering. ‘Is that how it will be?’

‘That is how it may be, if you are true to your task, Steward of Gondor. Have hope. Shall not the healers themselves be healed?’

He had thought he towered over the brown-haired man. Now he realised it was not so, for he was looking directly into the brown eyes, and they were no longer brown but pure light, and for an instant he looked into eyes that aeons ago had beheld the face of the One.

Then there was only the tall man, his hair tousled by the choking wind, and at his feet, a tiny stirring in the dust.

The tree had put forth two more leaves.  


Author’s note


In FoTr Radagast comes over as slightly risible in comparison with Gandalf and Saruman, and in Unfinished Tales he is said to have lost interest in Elves and Men because he grew too fond of animals. Nevertheless he is a ‘worthy wizard’. It is John D. Rateliff, in The History of the Hobbit (vol. I, p. 272), who suggests that Radagast had a special feeling of responsibility for places that had suffered from Sauron’s destruction, and who points out that Radagast is not stated to leave Middle Earth along with Gandalf. So Dr Rateliff, if you’re reading this – which I’m quite sure you aren’t – thanks for the inspiration!


Radagast is not specifically shown to be a shape-shifter in Hobbit or LoTR, but the fact that he is a ‘master of shapes and changes of hue’ strongly suggests that he had that ability.


Sam and Frodo in TT get the impression that the Desolation before the gates of Mordor will never be healed. But at that point they aren’t to know that Sauron will soon be destroyed; and they are in a pretty gloomy frame of mind anyway. If the Western Front was Tolkien’s inspiration for the Desolation, as is often suggested, then a visit to that part of France will show how completely that equally ravaged landscape has been restored over the last hundred years.

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