Episode 9: Lembas & The Eucharist
Thank you all so much for listening to our little podcast! I think you’re all the best and I love being able to have tea with you every week. If you’re enjoying these episodes, I’d love to hear from you! You can send me a note on twitter @teawithtolkien or simply capture a moth and whisper a message to me and I’m sure it will deliver that right along, agh okay not really.
Today we’re going to having a bit of a topical discussion on the subject of Lembas! As well as looking at the Catholic influences behind this, the lovely waybread of the Elves.
We’re first introduced to Lembas in The Fellowship of the Ring when the Fellowship is leaving Lothlorien. As they prepare to set off, Galadriel presents them with several gifts-- both for each individual and the company as a whole. One of these gifts is a bunch of Lembas.
A tiny bit of backstory here because I just learned this as I was preparing for this episode and I t5hought it was cool: Lembas was actually first made by Yavanna, one of the Queens of the Valar, the same that made the Ents, and the recipe was eventually passed down to Galadriel. It’s actually made out of a special corn grown that had grown in Aman. It was also an Elven custom, apparently, that only women should bake it so sorry boys! I should also note that it is extremely rare that Lembas is given to any non-Elves so this occasion of the Fellowship receiving large quantities of it is quite important.
Gimli mistakes it for ‘cram’ but is pleasantly surprised that it’s actually very lovely!
The elves explain basically what it is, how to care for it, and so on…
“Eat a little at a time, and only at need. For these things are given to serve you when all else fails. The cakes will keep sweet for many many days, if they are unbroken and left in their leaf-wrappings, as we have brought them. 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.”
After this chapter, we see Lembas carries throughout the rest of the story, even as the fellowship has broken, all the way to Mordor -- just makes me wanna cry thinking about it.
One of my favorite things that you can sort of pull out of The Lord of the Rings and bring to life in our own world is Lembas. Tolkien goes to a lot of detail to describe it, so it’s really the sort of thing that we can actually bake ourselves and feel like we’re eating alongside the Fellowship. Even if we might have realized just two seconds ago that Lembas is actually a corn-based cake and I’ve been using wheat flour and almonds this whole time! But that’s okay!
Two years ago, I came up with a recipe based on my own interpretation of Lembas and I’m quite fond of it and I’ll add a link to it in the show notes if anyone else is interested.
It’s basically like a cookie but it’s not very sweet, maybe we would call it a biscuit, and in it we’ve got honey, almonds, orange, and lavender among other things. And of course, it’s very good with tea!
So how does the Eucharist fit into this?
One of the first hints of Catholicism in The Lord of the Rings that I picked up on after my conversion was Lembas.
Of all the Catholic parallels in Tolkien’s writings, Lembas bread is perhaps the strongest as it bears a striking resemblance to the Eucharist (also known as communion).
Tolkien acknowledges this similarity in Letter 213 when he writes about different instances of readers pointing out his Catholic influence, “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…”
While not allegorical, of course, several characteristics of the Elvish way bread are reminiscent of the Eucharist, so it is worth spending a little time reflecting on its role in the story of Middle-Earth.
So when given to a person near to or in danger of death, the Eucharist is called Viaticum (meaning in Latin: ‘provision for a journey’). Similarly, Lembas is called way bread by the Elves, and is given to the members of the Fellowship as they embark on their perilous quest.
In Book III, Chapter II, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are following after the group of Orcs that had captured Merry and Pippin. Tolkien writes, “Often in their hearts they thanked the Lady of Lorien for the gift of lembas, for they could eat of it and find new strength even as they ran.”
A person cannot receive the Eucharist while in a state of mortal sin without placing themselves in grave danger. Similarly, Gollum cannot eat Lembas and is actually harmed by it. Lembas is also considered more ‘potent’ when it is a person’s sole sustenance, which can be seen as a nod to the Catholic fast before receiving Communion.
And like Lembas must be eaten daily, it is recommended to that Catholics receive the Eucharist often.
In Lembas, the hobbits find renewed strength of spirit and body, often being reminded of home or safer times. Tolkien wrote, in Letter 55, of receiving Communion as “a fleeting glimpse of an unfallen world…’
Similarly, Merry remarks to Pippin that Lembas “does put heart into you! A more wholesome sort of feeling, too...” And the Elves themselves say that it is “more strengthening than any food made by Man.”
In The Return of the King, as Frodo and Sam are almost to the end of their journey, Tolkien writes, “The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die… it fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.”
Catholics believe the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ — in which He is truly present. While there is no such parallel within Lembas, its power of nourishment for both body and soul speaks to the influence of the Eucharist on Tolkien’s life.
Tolkien wrote of the Eucharist often in his letters, which were compiled and published 1981 - a book, as always, I highly recommend adding to your bookshelf.
He referred to it as ‘the one great thing to love on earth’, recommending it as ‘the only cure for sagging or fainting faith’.
If you’d like to read more of his thoughts on his faith and the Eucharist, I’d recommend letters 43, 55, 89, 213, and especially 250 — available in “The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien” edited by Humphrey Carpenter.
I wanted to share two quotes from these letters:
In this one, Letter 43, Tolkien is writing to his son Michael,
“Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. . . . There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste—or foretaste—of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.
Later, in Letter 250, also to Michael, he writes:
"The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion. Though always itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise. Seven times a week is more nourishing than seven times at intervals.”
One of the coolest parts of Catholicism in my opinion is that not only can we receive the Eucharist during Mass, but we can also participate in something called Eucharistic Adoration.
This is when the consecrated host is placed in a neat sort of holder called a monstrance and it’s displayed, often in an adoration chapel or maybe even in the regular church building for special occasions, and anyone can just come and sit in the presence of our Lord.
Someone asked on Twitter the other day if you need to be catholic to visit an adoration chapel and I was so excited to hear this question honestly because you totally don’t have to be catholic at all! I know a lot of people have found a lot of peace within adoration, even if they don’t really believe in the Catholic teaching that the sacrament is truly Christ present. So if you’ve ever want to attend adoration but weren’t sure about it, you should totally find one nearby and go!
Whenever I feel like everything around me is chaos or I’m struggling with feeling low, I try to run to the Blessed Sacrament as often as I can. A few weeks ago I was in kind of a bad place mentally and so I was able to drive down to adoration every night after my husband came home for a week. That kind of peace and quiet and dedicated alone time in prayer helped pull me out of a pretty dark place and so if you are at all able to, I really really highly 10/10 recommend it.
Catholics refer to the Eucharist as the source and summit of the Christian life, and so I’ve been trying to really anchor myself around this and cling to this truth when I’m kinda feeling like Frodo and Sam on the slopes of Mount Doom.
So to bring it all back together, I just wanted to share how once again learning something more about Tolkien had led me on another winding path into the depths of Catholicism!
I love so much how devoted Tolkien was to the Eucharist and it’s such a balm for my soul to see it, even just in a small way, reflected in Lembas.
I’ll talk to you all next week, but until then I’ll be on twitter and instagram (but mostly twitter) @teawithtolkien…
You might have heard me mention that after hosting my own hobbit parties for the past 7 or 8 years, I’m working on putting together all of my ideas and tips into one resource for all of you! It will be available probably within the next month but instead of selling it on my website, I’m going to first make it available for free to all of my patrons so if you’d like to sign up to become a patron of Tea with Tolkien you can head to patreon.com/teawithtolkien.
The guide won’t be available for purchase on its own until probably August or September otherwise.
Thank you so much for hanging out and having tea with me today!
Just another reminder that I’ll include the Lembas recipe in the show notes if you’d like to make a batch of your own. The recipe makes a ton because it was meant for Hobbit Party prep, but I cut it all in half yesterday when I wanted to make a smaller batch and it turned out perfectly so you can feel free to to do that as well.
I hope you all have a lovely week and we’ll be back next Tuesday for an exciting interview that I can’t wait to share with you!