As J.R.R. Tolkien declared, “The Lord of the Rings is, of course, a fundamentally religious and Catholic work… the religion is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.” This is possibly no more obvious than in Tolkien’s description of lembas. As Tolkien introduced them into The Lord of the Rings, “The food was mostly in the form of very thin cakes, made of a meal that was baked a light brown on the outside, and inside was the colour of cream. Gimli took up one of the cakes and looked at it with a doubtful eye.” It was a special, almost supernatural, bread-like food given by the Elves of Lothlorien to the hobbit members of the fellowship on their journey. The elves describe the lembas to them saying, “..we call it lembas or waybread, and it is more strengthening than any food made by Men, and it is more pleasant then cram, by all accounts. … Eat little at a time and only at need. For these things are given to serve you when all else fails.” Lembas, or the “waybread,” is meant to sustain them in their deepest and darkest trials.
The Eucharistic tones and parallels are undeniable. The Eucharist has been called the “food of angels,” or as in Tolkien terms, the food of Elves. Gimli, the dwarf, initially even looked at it with a “doubtful eye” thinking it was just ordinary bread made by men, harkening the disbelief in the Eucharist among many, especially in the modern world. He quickly realizes this is not any ordinary bread. The unique and special qualities of lembas are depicted throughout the tale. As Merry and Pippin talk of it at one particularly stressful moment in the journey while trying to escape Orcs, “The cakes were broken, but good, still in their leaf wrappings. The hobbits each ate two or three pieces. The tasted brought back to them the memory of fair faces, and laughter, and wholesome food in quiet days, heedless of the cries and sounds of battle nearby.” They continue saying, “Lembas does put heart into you! A more wholesome sort of feeling, too, than the heat of that orc-draught. I wonder what it was made of.”
As the hobbits journey deeper into danger and to the very epicenter of evil, Mount Doom, the lembas play an increasingly significant role. Sam and Frodo are following their path of self-sacrifice, even to the possible end of laying down their lives for the love of their friends, for which, in Christian terms, “there is no greater love.” They are analogously on their way of the Cross. On the contrary, the evil characters find the lembas repulsive. Tolkien describes the Orcs’ reactions saying, “But I guess they disliked the very look and smell of the lembas, worse than Gollum did. It’s scattered about and some of it is trampled and broken, but I’ve gathered it together.” When the two hobbits reached the point when there was “no hope anymore” came Tolkien’s most poignant description of the lembas: “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 waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on 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.” The lembas sustained the two hobbit sojourners in their darkest hour, not by feeding them necessarily physically but by feeding their will. The waybread also evokes the viaticum, “a provision for the journey,” that is, the Communion given to people on their deathbed. It is the Eucharist for the journey, or the “waybread,” home towards one’s death. There are differences however. For one, lembas are not described as having any divine qualities, whereas the Eucharist is the divine sacrament of the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. Additionally, the Eucharist is not just meant for times when all else fails, as lembas are described, but rather for our daily journeys. The two hobbits on their way fraught with death and destruction relied completely upon this waybread.
We too are all on our journeys to our inevitable deaths. Christ has left us His Body and Blood in the heavenly sacrament of the Eucharist. It is our sustenance in this life. It is our waybread. Like the humble and seemingly weak hobbits, we must take our waybread in order to heroically, and against all odds, ascend the Mount Dooms in all our lives and complete our missions. As Tolkien confessed, he at first unconsciously, and later consciously, wove Catholic ideas and themes into the story. Tolkien was not out to re-create a Christian world or myth. Rather, he tried to create a literary myth to point towards the truths of the real world. The primary thrust of the story, as Tolkien said in one of his letters, is “about death and the desire for deathlessness,” two notions central to mythology and Christianity. As G.K. Chesterton spoke of Christianity as the fulfillment of myth, “The Catholic faith is the reconciliation because it is the realization both of mythology and philosophy. It is a story and in that sense one of a hundred stories; only it is a true story.”
We are the real-life Sam’s and Frodo’s. They are metaphors of us, as Christians, taking up our crosses, amidst our tribulations, while being sustained by the Eucharist. Though we are “weak” and “ordinary” people (hobbits if you will), we can achieve great and heroic ends by staying on the narrow paths of our simple faith journeys. Our lembas, the Eucharist, strengthens our wills and spirits, and presses us up the mountain, even when we would rather turn back and give up. But, it is up to us to choose: to give up or to not give up; to follow Christ or to not follow Christ. Tolkien’s literary myth spells out the lucid choice each one of us is to make of our own freewill between life and death, and good and evil. As Frodo laments the fact that the evil ring has come into his possession and the apparent hopelessness of the situation, Gandalf says to him: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” And so it is with each one of us to decide. Yet, as Tolkien slowly reveals Aragorn, the Christ-King archetype, he repeatedly declares to Sam and Frodo, “be not afraid.” In the end, even if, as Frodo, after our long journeys into the darkness, we remain faithful, but seemingly fall short in our mission, God’s grace can still save us.