Food made by the Elves has traits that cannot be found in Men’s victuals: usually it possesses especially refreshing or invigorating qualities. When the Fellowship was leaving Lothlórien, the Elves brought a lot of gifts to them, including some food:
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.
(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 485)
Gimli quickly loved the taste of the cake and ate the whole of it, which was a bad idea. For the bread that the Elves had brought to the company was lembas — the thing given by Galadriel “to serve when all else fails” (ibid.).
Different in strengthening properties and generally more pleasant than its brother cram, made by Men to keep them going in the wild, lembas was a special kind of waybread baked by the Elves alone. The name lembas is a Sindarin one: it is derived from an older version lenn-mbass meaning “journey-bread”. As the name implies, one could and needed to eat it on long journeys when there was no other food to support a traveller or if one’s life was in peril after receiving a hurt. With lembas being a very special — and essentially Elvish — kind of food, Galadriel and the Elves showed the Fellowship a great honour by giving it to them.
Originally lembas came from Yavanna from a special kind of corn that she grew in Aman. The Eldar first received in from Oromë at the beginning of their journey from Middle-earth to the Undying Lands, and later they learnt to make it themselves. The Eldar grew the corn for lembas on closed glades: it grew swiftly, in any season and did not need much sun, but was susceptible to the winds from the North at the time of Morgoth’s abode there. Its ears were gathered by hand, while the stalks were used to make baskets to keep the grain in. Only Elvish women could make lembas and those who knew the secret recipe were called Yavannildi.
Keeping and giving lembas to those needing it was exclusively a queen’s prerogative, and very rarely was this waybread given to mortals. The first queen to give lembas to a Man was Melian, from whom Galadriel must have learnt to make it, as she gave some lembas to Beleg so that he could share it with Túrin. It was wrapped in silver leaves and the threads that bound the leaves were sealed with the Queen’s seal in the form of a flower of Telperion:
In nothing did Melian show greater favour to Túrin than in this gift; for the Eldar had never before allowed Men to use this waybread, and seldom did so again.
(The Silmarillion, p. 240)
The reason for that was not greed or reluctance to share anything Elvish with mortals, but mere caution. There was not too much lembas at the Elves’ disposal, and they were commanded to keep it in their power. Moreover, the waybread was believed to be able to transfer part of its strength, gained from Aman, to those who consumed it. So mortals could not eat it because they soon grew weary of their mortality and began to wish to live among the Elves. It was only with those mortals whom they loved and who were in great need did the Elves share their special bread. Even by the Elves lembas could be used very sparingly and eaten only at need in small portions when there was no other food and when one needed power and energy urgently.
Another quality of lembas was its ability to raise one’s spirits. This is implied in the Quenya name of the bread — coimas, meaning “life-bread” and hinting at both — lembas’s ability to enhance physical power as well as morale. It seems that Frodo and Sam would not have made it to the Cracks of Doom at all had it not been for the virtuous power of lembas which kept on providing them with physical and, most importantly, spiritual strength to carry on with their journey when desperation was closing in:
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.
(Return of the King, p. 252)
Merry noticed this property of the waybread, too, saying that lembas did “put heart into you” (Two Towers, p. 65). Gollum, on the contrary, was nearly choked to death by a bite of lembas as, possessing the virtue of Aman, the waybread did not go well with his twisted and corrupted nature.
Being able to heal and invigorate, mend body and soul, lembas became indispensable for those characters who had to undergo hard journeys in horrible conditions, under immense pressure and with a tremendous weight of responsibility on their shoulders. Thus it can be said that the role that these small but precious cakes played in the success of their respective quests was indeed vital.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Peoples of Middle-earth; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
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