Among the myriad Catholic themes and imagery woven into J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, one often-overlooked symbol is Tolkien’s depiction of lembas as a type of the Eucharist.
In Middle Earth, lembas, which translated into English from the Elvish language means “waybread,” is the Elves’ choice for food for their journeys. Tolkien describes this waybread as “very thin cakes, made of a meal that was baked a light brown on its outside, and inside was the color of cream” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Bk. II, Ch. 8). At first, Gimli mistakes it for cram, the dull bread men make on their journeys – but one bite reveals just how wrong he is. He describes the wonderful taste as exceeding that of the honey-cakes of the best bakers among men.
The Sustenance and Spiritual Significance of Lembas
Aside from its taste, the waybread of the elves is distinguished by its remarkable sustentive properties. Not only does it keep for a long time, but just a bite will sustain a grown man for a long day’s journey or labor. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli use the lembas to fuel their relentless pursuit of the band of Orcs that captured Merry and Pippin; Sam and Frodo eat lembas on the final exhausting leg of their journey after losing the rest of their food and equipment while infiltrating Mordor.
Lembas also has something of a spiritual component: while the members of the Fellowship thrive off the lembas, evil creatures cannot tolerate it. As Gollum guides Sam and Frodo through the wastes surrounding Mordor, he must hunt for rabbits to eat because the lembas is so repulsive to him and his corrupted appetites. As the fare of immortal beings, lembas is set apart – it is precious. In Tolkien’s lesser-known work The Silmarillion, which recounts the mythology and early history of Middle Earth, lembas can be given only by the Queen of the Elves, who was set apart in her own right. Very rarely did she share this precious bread, and very rarely would Men ever taste it.
Lembas as a Symbol for the Eucharist
What do we have here, in short? A thin wafer which sustains the good and repels the evil on a great journey. This should sound very familiar if you are Catholic. Lembas is Tolkien’s symbol for the Eucharist! At Mass, the priest consecrates thin wheat wafers which then become the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus. The Eucharist takes on the species of bread, appearing just like any bread wafer to our eyes, but after the consecration, God miraculously changes its substance to be His Son’s Body. The Eucharist is our spiritual food, giving us the sustenance for our journey through this world regularly at Mass and finally as Viaticum just before we pass away.
St. Thomas Aquinas calls the Eucharist the “Bread of Angels” in his prayer before Mass, a personal favorite preparatory prayer of mine. This is the bread of the immortal beings who reside with God in heaven – just as lembas is the bread of the immortal elves. Just as the Eucharist, as the Body of Jesus, is intolerable to demons who flee at His very Presence, so also was lembas intolerable to the evil Gollum. And just as the Queen of the Elves kept store of the lembas, the Queen of Heaven herself, Mary, carefully kept the Bread of Life preparing it for us! She is set apart in her own right as well, which the Church affirms through the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption and the numerous prayers written in her honor.
All of the dioceses of the United States are in an ongoing Eucharistic revival to reinforce our belief in this central dogma of our faith, urging us to remember what makes us Catholic: belief in the true presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. Tolkien understood this and wove it into his great epic. Let us meditate on this wonderful miracle we witness every time we worship at Mass and hearken to our Lord’s call to “Take this, all of you and eat of it.”
William Caddell earned his B.S. in Mathematics and Philosophy from Berry College and currently teaches High School Math at Holy Spirit Preparatory School.