What is Elven healing? That's as hard a question to answer as, "what is Elf-magic?" or "what are Elf spells?" The Elves don't understand what I mean by magic, but they capture living light in gems, or walk on snow without sinking, or see glimpses of the future or far-off places in stones and pools. Some insist that their power doesn't come from spells, yet I know there's a charm for staunching blood that was old when Lúthien sang it. No more does an archer's ability to shoot come from the bow itself, but to one who lacks the skill, bow and archery alike seem magical indeed.
I can't read books of ancient lore, mostly written in Quenya. All I have to go on is what I've heard and seen and read in popular tales of Elder Days and our own times. What follows here is an Elf-friend's imperfect understanding of the Elves' healing arts.
Tinw of Imladris
Elves teach that living beings have two parts: the hröa, or physical body, and the fëa, or spirit. It's also said that "those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power." (Gandalf, recorded in Red Book of Westmarch). I have observed that some Elves-- not all from the Blessed Realm-- can sense the moods of forests and streams, or communicate with animals by touch and soft words. I've heard that very powerful Elves like Galadriel can probe the thoughts of others. Clearly the Eldar are able to sense and affect things in "both worlds" in ways that ordinary mortals cannot. Therefore, I believe that their capacity to heal comes from their understanding and sense of both spirit and body. While herb-lore and physical treatments of wounds are something that lore-minded Elves have studied and practiced for millenia, their most skilled healers seem to treat wounds on both the spiritual and physical fronts.
Equally clearly, not all Elves have this power to the same extent. Legolas is apparently not a healer. Gandalf emphasizes that the High-elves of Imladris are especially powerful, yet Glorfindel lacks the "skill" to heal the cursed Morgul-knife wound of Frodo, and defers to Elrond-- one who did not dwell in the Blessed Lands. (Therefore one cannot say that only High-elves have healing powers, or that theirs is always greater.) We must remember too that the dramatic healings performed by Lúthien, Elrond, and others in the great tales are probably exceptional cases, the absolute "best" one can expect. Finally, I am not certain whether the healing abilities demonstrated by Lúthien, Elrond, and Aragorn (descendent of Lúthien) are entirely due to Elven nature, or whether Lúthien's half-Maia blood gave her special powers passed on to her heirs.
Elven healing arises from an inner power that ordinary Men lack. Aragorn, who carries the blood of Elves and Lúthien in his veins, states that Elrond has the "greater power" in healing, as "the eldest of all our race", a bloodline evidently renown for healing arts. Glorfindel, although he is one of the greatest of the High-elves, surely more powerful than Elrond, laments that that the wound caused by a Morgul-blade are "beyond his skill to heal". Apparently Elrond's skill was greater, since by his hand Frodo was cured. Skill, to me, implies techniques, methods, and art learned through training and experience, such as the method of withdrawing an arrow from a wound, or splinting a joint, or removing a deeply-buried knife splinter. Finally there is lore, the study of specialized knowledge, and the Elves have been at it for thousands of years. They taught the Dúnedain herb-lore like the virtues of athelas, and have a deep knowledge of the body's structures and workings which help them ply their craft. I expect that anyone who applies himself can increase in skill and lore, although those with mortal lifespans can never hope to gain the knowledge of many centuries. Power, however, is born with the fëa, and it seems to me unlikely that an Elf can increase her own power or boost another's.
Learning to use one's power, studying healing lore, and gaining skill through experience are thus the three strands of the braid which comprises Elven healing arts.
Elves heal mortals: of this we have many examples, and "healing of the world's hurts" is said to be one of their race's two chief motives, alongside the making of fair things. There are also many references to Elven powers of self-healing in the ancient tales. I am not sure what to make of comments like Beleg being "swiftly healed... after the manner of the Elven-folk of old" (Narn i Hîn Húrin), which seem to imply they were hardier long ago than now. Perhaps, being bound to the life-span Arda in both body and spirit, their power is fading as the world ages, or perhaps (I hope) it is merely the effect of lingering too long in mortal lands, and by going to the Blessed Lands they will renew themselves. I do not know whether any Elf remaining in Middle-earth, save perhaps Glorfindel, could survive being pinned to a cliff for weeks like Maedhros son of Fëanor when he was taken captive by Morgoth. Whether or no, even Legolas is little troubled by the terrible storm and cold of Caradhras just as the Noldor long ago were able to cross the ice-bound wastelands of the far north on foot. Their bodies can thus endure greater hardships than mortalkind.
The Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth makes clear that the innate power of Elves gives them an edge in recovering from most (although not all) injuries:
"They were thus capable of far greater and longer physical exertions (in pursuit of some dominant purpose of their minds) without weariness; they were not subject to diseases; they healed rapidly and completely after injuries that would have proved fatal to Men; and they could endure great physical pain for long periods. Their bodies could not, however, survive vital injuries, or violent assaults upon their structure; nor replace missing members (such as a hand hewn off)."
There is one curious passage in Of the Laws and Customs Among the Eldar which was apparently written to justify the absence of female Elves from battle, even though they are practically the same as male Elves in ability and power. The scholiast claims that most female Elves do not fight or kill, because it diminishes healing power in which they have chosen to specialize, and that those male Elves who are healers "abstained from hunting, and went not to war until the last need." This is in flat contradiction to almost every record we have of actual healers: Beleg, Mablung, Elrond, Glorfindel, and Aragorn certainly do not abstain from hunting, although they do not seek out war quite like the Sons of Fëanor. The sons of Elrond, also, aid Aragorn in healing the wounded after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, and their bloodthirsty feud against the orcs of the Misty Mountains is well-known. Aragorn's hidden power as king is shown both by his power to wield Andúril and to heal. Moreover, in our own valley, some of our greatest warriors are women. Therefore with respect to the unknown loremaster who wrote this passage, I can only quote what he said a few sentences earlier: such things are customs, not laws, which "vary... in place and in time, and in the several races of the Eldar".
Having trained as an apprentice healer, witnessed and tended many wounds on the field, and examined all the examples of healing I could find in the songs that I have learned as a bard, my lore is only elementary. Such as it is, however, I can at least provide an overview of the usual healing procedure employed by Elves and those whom they have tutored (such as Aragorn, trained by his foster-father Elrond). In outline form:
1. Determine the nature of the injury
2. Preliminary treatment:
~ For physical injuries, have those on hand prepare a fire and boil water.
~ For spiritual/magical injuries, immediately combat the malady at a spiritual level.
3a. Treat open wounds:
~ remove foreign material (dirt, poison, arrowheads) and clean thoroughly.
~ Staunch bleeding.
~ optional: treat for pain.
3b. Treat contusions/breaks:
~ bathe area with infusion to reduce pain, swelling.
~ pad or splint as needed. Bind.
4. Keep patient warm and rest.
~ For spiritual maladies, one may need to continue calling to the spirit and strengthening it.
~ For physical maladies, one may reapply herbs to ease pain, hasten healing.
Now let me examine these steps one by one, drawing on case studies.
Obviously step one is to figure out what's wrong. After the Moria-battle with orcs and trolls, Aragorn visually inspects the wounds of Sam and Frodo closely, and is experienced enough to rule out poison in Sam's sword-wound on his scalp. Learning to recognize the scent or traces of various orc-poisons is an unpleasant and necessary part of healing lore. Inflamed and swollen edges of a wound, or creeping discoloration or numbness, may also indicate whether poisons or other foreign agents are present. Gentle manipulation can detect broken or damaged bones. The healer can probe skin blow the break and ask the patient whether or not he feels the touch, to make sure there is not nerve damage. Dialated eyes, breathing problems, and fever or chills may help identify a malady. And of course the words and report of the patient himself, both in what the injuries feel like and how he came by them, are extremely valuable.
On the spiritual side, some healers can sense when something is wrong. Glorfindel "searched the wound on Frodo's shoulder with his fingers, and his face grew graver, as if what he learned disquieted him". The splinter in Frodo's shoulder was not discovered until much later, but clearly Glorfindel sensed it was there. Quite possibly he was sensing the evil magic on the knife, which was turning Frodo into a wraith. His touch combatted this effect for a while; immediately afterwards Frodo's vision cleared and he felt less cold. Similarly, in treating the Black Breath, Aragorn first looks into the patients' faces and seems to sense the nature of their wounds, and then uses touch and inner will, as well as athelas, to draw them back from their spiritual maladies. Before Aragorn arrives, the healers in the House of Healing listen to what the patients say in their sleep, hoping to gain some insight into their strange sickness: lacking his power, they seek answers in dreams.
The weapon that caused the injury is also important. Aragorn knows that orc-blades are sometimes poisoned, so he checks this at once (one should also check with arrows, especially those from Southrons and Haradrim). With weapons of the enemy, some Elves are able to see things mortal eyes miss, as when Glorfindel examines the Morgul-blade: "there are evil things written on this hilt,' he said; 'though maybe your eyes cannot see them." Luckily this is rare: accursed weapons like this come from Minas Morgul or Dol Guldur, being tools of the Nazgûl and other Men trained by Sauron in dark arts. One would not expect magically accursed weapons in the hands of orcs and trolls.
Both in the case of spiritual injuries (the Morgul blade) and in physical bumps and scratches (after the Moria battle), Aragorn has party members set a fire and boil water, to keep the patient warm, and to have hot water on hand for cleaning wounds and preparing herbal remedies. Lúthien, also, despite her vastly greater power, keeps Beren warm with a conventional fire while treating his arrow-wound.
If the wound is caused by magical or accursed means, one must certainly set to work combatting this at once, assuming one has the power to do so. Aragorn sings a strange song over the hilt of the Morgul-blade and then speaks the words of a charm over Frodo. Against the Black Breath, while waiting for someone to find him athelas leaves, Aragorn sits with his hand on Faramir's brow and calls his name, showing in his face great signs of struggle. It appears that Aragorn is able to seek, make contact with, and retrieve Faramir's lost spirit, for Faramir hails him as king upon waking, having never met him before. With Éowyn, Aragorn urges her brother to call her instead: evidently a close bond of love has some power of its own. Merry, Aragorn says, has a more resilient spirit, being a Hobbit, and recovers quickly.
Spiritual aid is not only good for spiritual maladies, however. Lúthien calls to Beren's spirit in a similar manner when he is dying of an arrow-wound. Fëa and hröa are both vital for survival, so healers who can soothe and encourage spirit, as well as treat bodily hurts, have a greater chance of success.
Common sense applies here: clean thoroughly, cut out or remove any foreign objects, slow the bleeding, treat the pain, and sew or bind up the wound. Aragorn cleans ordinary wounds using athelas steeped in boiling water, which also refreshes the spirit of those who breathe its scent and eases the pain of the injury. Lúthien employs a "leaf / of all the herbs of healing chief" said by one commentator to be athelas. She cleans the wound with tears; those lacking her exceptional powers would probably do better with water, which is in greater supply! Aragorn uses cloth bandages, while Lúthien stops the bleeding with a "staunching song, that Elvish wives / long years had sung in those sad lives /of war and weapons." Athelas is rare and precious, and not everyone knows or hows the power to use staunching songs, so one may use humbler herbs and materials.
Again, use common sense: bathe the area with an infusion to reduce pain and swelling, then cover bruises with padding to protect and cushion the area, especially if the patient must wear mail or otherwise put pressure on the affected spot. (again, Aragorn uses athelas to treat Frodo's severe bruises from the spear that nearly skewered him). I have heard that snow or cold water will reduce swelling, though it tends to tighten joints; heat tends to increase swelling but makes tense areas relax. Breaks may be stabilized by a splint to keep the bones from moving, but be very careful to set the bones correctly first.
Even Elven healing does not make a patient well at once! Plenty of rest, food, and follow-up treatment may be necessary. Change bandages, keep the patient warm with blankets and fire, reapply herbs as needed. For spiritual maladies, one may have to continue treatment using spiritual exertions for an extended period. Aragorn worked on the victims of the Black Breath for some while, Elrond treated Frodo's Morgul-knife wound for several days, and Lúthien struggled to recall Beren's spirit all night long. Warning! Aragorn became pale and weary while trying to restore Faramir. It seems that exerting the power of one's fëa drains the healer. Not all will have the reserves for a sustained effort. This is of particular concern on the battlefield when there are multiple patients to worry about, or on journeys where new threats may strike before a healer has recovered.
For the most complete example of Elven treatment of a wound that I have found, see Lúthien's healing of Beren in the Lay of Leithian.
I have already cited examples above in which songs, spoken spells, and touch aid in the healing process. I do not think that songs and speech are magical by themselves, or anyone would be able to use them. Rather, I believe that with training, they help an Elven healer tap into his or her inner healing powers and apply them. In other words, they do not work without power behind them. This would also explain why healing herbs like kingsfoil are considered "weeds" by Men, yet may bring "life to the dying / in the king's hand lying": Aragorn's power, inherited through his descent from Elros the brother of Elrond, gives him some innate qualities mimicking those of Elves. I am not certain whether the exact wording of songs and chants matters or whether the intent behind them is more important.
Elven lore, some of which has been preserved in Gondor among the Dúnedain, also employs certain herbs and magical objects which may aid in healing.
Called the "chief" of healing herbs, athelas seems to be amazingly versatile. It is particularly effective against the Black Breath, although this may be tied to Aragorn's family bloodline: whether any others could use athelas against this malady I am not sure. Aragorn also uses it in an infusion to reduce swelling and pain in bruises, and to cleanse and speed the healing of cuts. Significantly, he instructs others in the Fellowship to make and use the infusion, so athelas is effective against ordinary injuries regardless of who is using it. The scent of athelas cast in boiling water also refreshes the spirits and restores the strength of those who inhale it.
Miruvor, the "cordial of Imladris", is something that Elrond occasionally gives others as an emergency aid. He gave a flask to Gandalf which contained enough for three uses among all the members of the Fellowship (save perhaps Legolas, who did not need it). I do not know what miruvor is or how it is made, I know only that it is "very precious", as Gandalf stated, and that like the scent of athelas it renews hopes and strength, and rouses one from sleepiness. In other words athelas and miruvor refresh both fëa (spirit) and hröa (body). Frodo describes it as a "warm and fragrant liquor". Elves excel in the art of making wonderful things like jewels that capture and give off light; in this case, it seems, they have found a way to capture and mimic the restorative properties of athelas, and I wonder whether that may be an ingredient. At any rate, as precious as miruvor is, it is probably fairly rare, something that Elrond would give to the chief healers of the valley in a limited and carefully-rationed supply.
Lembas, similarly, is a magical food (instead of drink, in this case) created by Elven arts. Like miruvor, its recipe is not widely-known, its power is great, and it is clearly not for casual use. It can sustain travellers on long journeys and, apparently, speeds the body's healing process. The secret of its keeping is maintained by certain Elven-women trained in the arts of Yavanna, and only the queen or highest Elven lady in a settlement has the authority to bestow it on others. It is almost never given to mortals, because eating it for too long causes them to "weary of their mortality, desiring to abide among the Elves" or to sail to the Undying Lands. (Of Lembas)
The goal of the Elven-rings is to heal and preserve: in this case, not people or animals, but places. Nenya's power has a preservative effect on Lórien, whose air is wholesome and feels like a pristine bubble of Elder Days. In Imladris, visitors observe that "time doesn't seem to pass here, it just is" (Bilbo, Red Book of Westmarch). The Rings do not stop time or decay, for the seasons still come and go, leaves still fall, and time still passes, but they mute these effects, sometimes in startling ways. The Fellowship are surprised to find a month has passed when they exit Lórien. Instead of places, Gandalf uses his ring Narya to restore spirits and rekindle hopes. From this we may gather that the Rings can effect some healing, by restoring the fëa; however, their cumulative effects are a mixed blessing, as Bilbo and Gollum discovered. (Rings do not seem to have the same life-prologing effects on all beings; the Dwarves who received them did not become wraiths).
The Phial of Galadriel, light captured in water and bottled, not only drives off Shelob and combats evil magic, but seems to react to and inspire the spirits of the humble Hobbits who use it. This light is from Eärendil's star, which in turn was one of the three greatest Elf-gems that captured the holy Light of the Trees of Valinor. In effect this light is a faint glimmer of the renewing, healing properties of the Blessed Lands.
The Elessar, the Elfstone, is even more explictly a gem with healing properties: it is said that those who looked through it "saw things that were withered or burned healed again or as they were in the grace of their youth, and that the hands of one who held it brought to all that they touched healing from hurt." Idril Celebrindal employed the original Elessar from Gondolin to heal the hurts of the survivors of Gondolin. In later years, Galadriel recovered the Elessar-- or had a new one made; there are variant tales-- and used it as she later used Nenya, to preserve and renew the trees and plants of her realm. She gave the Elessar to her daughter after acquiring Nenya, because the Elven-ring was more powerful. The Elessar is now held by Aragorn, a gift from Arwen.
The Elessar, Elven-rings, and Phial of Galadriel have been made by the greatest Noldor, and certainly no other artisans possess the power and craft of Celebrimbor, Enerdhil, and Galadriel. However, the Gwaith-i-Mirdain, the Fellowship of Jewel-smiths under Celebrimbor in Eregion, made jewels and rings as well. A remnant of those folk still survive in Imladris. Lesser gems or rings may therefore turn up from time to time.
Lúthien, whose mother was a Maia, is supposed to have had tears with healing properties, which she uses to soothe Beren's hurts. According to one legend her tears created a fountain with healing properties in Gondolin. In later days the waters of Nimrodel in Lórien are "healing to the weary", and Frodo finds he is no longer tired from travel after stepping into the stream.
Ordinary herbs don't make exciting stories, and none besides athelas are ever mentioned. However, one can of course employ more common medicinal herbs such as bistort. The Elves of Govannas in-Glirdain have invented some uses for elanor and niphredil.
These aids may help restore body and spirit, and speed healing. Elven healing at its most powerful can do the same, and more conventional healing lore and techniques can be employed to combat both physical and spiritual maladies. Through experience and training, healers can learn how to vary treatment to suit different injuries. Aragorn's different uses of athelas, and even the way he changes treatment for individual patients suffering from the Black Breath, show how skill and experience can play as great a role as lore and inner power.
However, when all is said and done, one cannot restore lost limbs or heal all maladies. Aragorn feared that Éowyn would not recover because he could only heal her body, not her spirit. And Elrond, acclaimed as a "master of healing" whose power and skill are greater than both Aragorn's and Glorfindel's, famously failed to heal one patient: his wife. "Though healed in body by Elrond, [she] lost all delight in Middle-earth, and the next year went to the Havens and passed over the Sea." (Appendix A, Red Book of Westmarch). She had suffered bodily torture at the hands of the orcs. A heart's wound, for Elves, is the injury for which there is no healing, save in the Blessed Lands. Bid them abide among loved ones in a haven like the Last Homely House for a season, a year, and encourage them to take up their former vocations and habits-- but if that fails, one has no choice but send them across the Sea.