Somewhere on my childhood bookshelf are worn copies of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Two Towers table of contents annotated in pink gel pen with 7th Grade Me’s favorite chapters and scenes. I watched the movies multiple times in theaters when they came out, cheering when Legolas slew the oliphant, and getting into raging debates about the merits of Book v. Movie Faramir (Book Faramir wins, by a long shot). It’s possible I know a smattering of Elvish.
As an adult, I’m fascinated by the theological implications of the story. For one thing, Tolkien does paradox about as well as the Bible: ebullient sense of adventure warring with love of hearth and home; shadows always just beyond the frame of any happy scene.
Then there’s lembas bread.
Tolkien knows his food. The hobbits famously eat seven meals a day. They basically chow down every two hours – and where there is food, there is often a party. Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings begin with large gatherings, heaping plates, and clanking ale glasses at Bag End. There’s an entire corner of the internet devoted to recreating Hobbit feasts, sometimes while binge-watching all three LOTR movies, not to mention the ever relevant ode to the Potato, “boil ‘em, mash ‘em, stick ‘em in a stew.”
Lembas is like the superfood of Middle Earth, uniting Tolkien’s sense of life as a journey and his unabashed foodieness. Baked by the elves of Lothlorien from a secret recipe first concocted in the Undying Lands, the bread stays fresh for months and is the Fellowship’s primary source of sustenance on their journeys through Middle Earth. The elves instruct the Fellowship to:
“Eat a little at a time, and only at need. For these things are given to serve you when all else fails… One will keep a traveler on his feet for a day of long labour, even if he be one of the tall Men of Minas Tirith.”Fellowship of the Ring
Later, as Sam and Frodo venture deeper into Mordor, the bread proves a balm for their flagging spirits:
“The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet, this way bread of the Elves had potency that increased as travelers relied upon it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.”Return of the King
A friend connected the dots for me. Lembas is straight up just the Eucharist.
At the center of the Catholic mass and many Christian services is communion, the breaking and sharing of bread meant to replicate Jesus’s final Passover meal with his disciples the night before his Crucifixion and a reminder of the need to give ourselves to the world, generously and joyfully. Communion is a ritual meal. It tells me that love is a verb: how am I called to love this day and every day?
The Catechism calls the Eucharist the “source and summit” of Christian life. In the Catholic mass it comes as a more-or-less tasteless, paper-thin wafer (at my First Communion, I started laughing because the kid next to me whispered that it tasted funny). When I stand in line for communion, I am buoyed by the thought that all of us – magnificently imperfect, with disparate and sometimes conflicting interests – are united in an attempt to live well, nourished by a love greater than we could possibly imagine. Martin Sheen (#Bartlet4America) puts it into better words than I ever could in his On Being interview. So does Auden, when he writes, “You shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.”
It is no coincidence that lembas is referred to as waybread throughout the books, echoing both the Latin word for Eucharist – “viaticum” or “provision for the journey” – and Tolkien’s emphasis on life as a series of adventures interspersed with moments of respite and renewal.
Tolkien confirms the significance of lembas in a letter to a reader, explaining that, “Another saw in waybread [lembas] = viaticum and the reference to its feeding the will and being more potent when fasting, a derivation from the Eucharist.”
I visited the Morgan Library’s Tolkien’s exhibit – it closes May 12, so check it out, I guess, tomorrow? – and was blown away by Tolkien the artist as much as Tolkien the writer. The exhibit displayed ink scribblings done in the margins of crossword puzzles, watercolors from his college days, and paintings designed for book jackets. In most images, roads feature prominently, wending through forest and over hill, around a bend, disappearing into the distance. Tolkien’s heroes are pilgrims and waybread is their sustenance.
Bilbo, Middle Earth’s poet laureate, repeats variations of his song, “The Road Goes On and On”, throughout The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. His last iteration captures this sense of adventuring out, rangering into the world, and then returning home again. Bilbo sings,
“The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet."
Appendices (because Tolkien likes them, I will use them)
Click here for a lembas recipe, courtesy of Tea with Tolkien, a blog and podcast entirely devoted to celebrating the Christian subtext of Tolkien’s world.
For another take on the lighted inn at the end of the road, check out Father James V. Schall, SJ’s last lecture at Georgetown.
If you know anyone who would be interested in speaking with me about this blog, contact me or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Extra snaps if you can help me bring in voices from other religious traditions. In that spirit, Ramadan Mubarak!
In case it’s of any interest, that Tolkien movie comes out this weekend. It’s getting mixed reviews, but since it combines WW1, Tokien, and a love affair with linguistics, I really, really want it to be good…