August 26, 2015 / Perspective
The best – or perhaps only – way for theology to be itself is to fail.
July 21, 2011
For writers like myself who have spent decades studying, teaching, and writing about the works of the late J. R. R. Tolkien, one of the advantages of the success of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations is that many magazines (like this one) are interested in publishing articles about Tolkien. One of the disadvantages is that many people today know Tolkien’s works only by the films. Those who have only seen Jackson’s films or have given the books only a cursory reading may think of Tolkien’s writings primarily in terms of great, epic (and cinematic) battles. What may be surprising to those who have not read the books closely is that the narrator seems far less interested in describing these battles than in describing Middle-earth itself, and its cultures and people. Indeed, the narrator is particularly fond of describing the food and the various traditions and practices surrounding meals and eating in Middle-earth.
Consider for a moment some of the memorable meals shared by hobbits in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. And consider the surprising detail with which the fare is described. Both stories begin with famous feasts—“parties” they are called—one unexpected and one long expected. At his “Unexpected Party” in the first chapter of The Hobbit, Bilbo finds himself feeding thirteen dwarves and one wizard. The fare includes seedcake and other cakes, raspberry jam, apple tart, mince pies, cheese, pork pie, salad, eggs, and biscuits. The beverages include tea, coffee, beer, ale, porter, and wine. The scene is festive. Before those gathered get down to the official business of the evening—planning a journey to Lonely Mountain so that the dwarves can reclaim their long-lost treasure from the dragon Smaug—there is a considerable amount of music and storytelling, as well as the enjoyment of good food.
The second chapter of The Hobbit also gets its name from a meal, “Roast Mutton”—though in this case, the referenced meal is being consumed by three trolls who would also like to feast on some fresh hobbit and dwarf. In subsequent chapters, Bilbo and the company of dwarves enjoy the hospitality of the wise elven figure Elrond in Rivendell (Chapter 3), and then later, a very memorable meal of “rabbits, hares, and a small sheep” eaten with the eagles high up in their eyrie (Chapter 6). They enjoy several vegetarian meals of bread, butter, honey, nuts, dried fruits, and mead with the powerful Norse were-bear character Beorn—meals “such as they had not had not had since they left [. . .] Elrond” (Chapter 7).
The party at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, is even more elaborate than the one at the beginning of The Hobbit, with at least 144 guests and many weeks of preparation. Tolkien devotes a significant part of a chapter to describing the foods and beverages consumed, who is there to share them, and what transpires at the party. Then, as Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin leave the Shire and make their way across Middle-earth, the story seems to move—like life itself—from meal to meal, with many of the most important scenes taking place around shared food. Frodo, Sam, and Pippin are only one full day away from Bag End on their journey, and still well within the Shire, when they encounter Gildor and his company of elves. The hobbits end up joining the elves for a meal, and once again—despite the pressing matter of the hobbits’ recent encounter with the frightful Black Rider and the many questions that remain unanswered, all of which are critical to the tale—the narrator takes the time to describe in some detail both the setting and the fare. The meal provided by the elves includes “bread, surpassing the savour of a fair white loaf to one who is starving; and fruit sweet as wildberries and richer than the tended fruits of gardens.” The beverage is a “fragrant draught, cool as a clear fountain, golden as a summer afternoon.” Despite all the adventures he will later be a part of, this meal is after remembered by Sam as one of the “chief events” of his life (Chapter 3).
After this, but while the hobbits are still within the Shire, comes a meal with Farmer Maggot and his family, a more homey hobbit fare than the meal provided by the elves: “beer in plenty, and a mighty dish of mushrooms and bacon, besides much other solid farmhouse fare” (Chapter 4). And before dining at Crickhollow with their friend Fredegar “Fatty,” the hobbits thought and talked about a drink (and presumably a meal) from the Golden Perch. Soon after leaving the Shire, there are several meals in the house of Tom Bombadil with Tom and his wife Goldberry. Two of these are mentioned specifically. The hobbits are fed, for their first supper, “yellow cream and honeycomb, and white bread, and butter; milk, cheese, and green herbs and ripe berries gathered.” Then for breakfast the next morning, the hobbits must have had another excellent meal for they “left the table late and only when it was beginning to look rather empty” (Chapter 7).
After a near-disaster at the Barrow Downs, the hobbits have yet another meal with Bombadil, which helps them recover their strength. Not too long after this, they have a meal at the Prancing Pony, and once again we are told explicitly what the fare was: “hot soup, cold meats, a blackberry tart, new loaves, slabs of butter, and half a ripe cheese: good plain food, as good as the Shire could show, and homelike enough to dispel the last of Sam’s misgivings (already much relieved by the excellence of the beer)” (Chapter 9). And this brings us only to the end of the first part of six in The Lord of the Rings!
In all this time, all of these meals, each described lovingly and with considerable detail, there is only one battle: the fight at Weathertop. Contrary to the impression one might get from Peter Jackson’s film adaptation, this is not merely a great action-adventure full of battles and swords and sorcery. This lack of balance—food everywhere and hardly a battle to be seen—may come as a surprise. How does Tolkien get away with this? How does he keep his readers attention given that he spends more time describing food and meals than he does battles? And why does he take this approach?
There are many possible answers to the last of these questions, and likely some truth to many of these answers, but the simple and obvious one may be the most important: Tolkien devotes so much attention to his vivid descriptions of food and meals and the cultures surrounding them, to what we eat and how we eat and how we eat together, because be believed that these are the things that really matter in life. Our approach to food really is important. It makes a difference in our lives. And while the adventure of the stories catches our attention, it is these seemingly more mundane aspects of the daily lives of hobbits and the other people of Middle-earth that make us understand the characters and care about them, and ultimately therefore, to care what happens in the great wars. Put another way, it is the importance of what happens around these meals that makes the sacrifice of war worthwhile and that lets the reader know there is something worth fighting about. These things are what make the story matter to Tolkien as a writer and to us as readers.
Which brings us back to the story and to the action of danger and battles that may translate better to cinema than a description of food. The danger grows after the four hobbits depart from Elrond’s safe haven at Rivendell, and from that point on we have more battles, both large and small. Admittedly, the balance of description shifts somewhat away from food and meals and toward danger as the hobbits get further from their homes in the Shire. Yet at Rivendell and afterward, the four hobbits again have meals that are described with more detail than might be seen as necessary to the story: detail that often surpasses the level of detail used to describe the battles. Among the more significant meals and feasts, we could list the fellowship’s parting meal with the elf Galadriel (it is called a “feast,” although the fare is not described) near the end of Book II; the numerous meals that Merry and Pippin have at the house of the giant Ent, or tree-shepherd, Treebeard, in Book III, Chapter 4 (the Ent draught brought “refreshment” and “vigor” and left their hair standing on end); the reunion meal that Merry and Pippin share with Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli in Isengard (bread, wine, beer, salted pork, and rashers of bacon) at the end of Book III; the meal cooked by Sam in the pots and pans he had carried all the way from the Shire in Book IV (in a chapter named after that meal: “Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”); the dinner Frodo and Sam eat with Faramir in Ithilien (not only do the hobbits appreciate the “pale yellow wine, cool and fragrant” as well as the bread and batter, salted meats, dried fruits, and good red cheese, but they also appreciate the chance to eat a meal with “clean hands and clean knives and plates”) described in Book IV, Chapter 5; and Pippin’s meal with Denethor (Book V, Chapter 1) along with Merry’s meal with King Théoden in Rohan (Book V, Chapter 3).
To say, then, that food and meals play an important roll in Tolkien’s Middle-earth writings would be an understatement. Of course, it is apparent to even the most casual reader of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that food is important to hobbits. We all remember that hobbits are fond of six meals a day, including two dinners, if they can get it. As the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings points out, they “eat, and drink, often and heartily.” Indeed, “growing food and eating it occupied most of their time.” Indeed, so obviously important are food and eating to Hobbits that beyond an occasional casual reference to their passion for food, few scholars and critics bother to carefully explore the importance of food in Tolkien’s narratives (though some certainly have done a good job with this). It is debatable whether food is more important to the narrative than fighting—despite the previously mentioned predominance, at least in Book I, of meal scenes over battle scenes—but the idea that it might be more important is certainly not as farfetched as it might seem to those who think only of the typical writing in the genre of heroic fantasy. The fact that food is anywhere near as prevalent as war and battle in Tolkien’s narrative is itself noteworthy.
But what is the importance of meals? Among hobbits especially—though it can also be seen among elves, men, Ents, and even at times dwarves—eating is a communal act: food and eating connect hobbits with each other, with strangers they encounter, and with the earth itself. And in many ways, the hobbit culture of the Shire, and especially the hobbits’ approach to eating, is presented by Tolkien as a model of healthy society. The Shire and the ways and lives of hobbits is something that the wise of Middle-earth, including the future king Aragorn and the wise wizard Gandalf, and later Frodo himself, believe is worth great sacrifice in order to save.
Regarding the role of shared meals as a means toward peace, it is important to note that the people of the Shire are fond of eating together, and there are no wars within the Shire. The Prologue explicitly links these points in noting that hobbits are “slow to quarrel,” that they do not kill anything for sport, and that “growing food and eating it occupied most of their time.” Tolkien also illustrates the value of the communal sharing of food in extended family meal scenes such as in the homes of the Maggot and Cotton farming families near the start and end of The Lord of the Rings respectively, as well as in the much larger communal feasts, like Bilbo’s birthday party, and in the popularity of inns and taverns in the Shire. The close bond that exists and continues to develop between Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin almost certainly owes a great debt to time spent together over food and drink. As noted, Tolkien’s narrative does not skimp in describing several of these scenes.
But the importance of meals to community does not pertain only among or within hobbits of the Shire. We also see that eating meals together helps join the lives of hobbits together with the lives of strangers, and even with those for whom hobbits would have a natural distrust (which, as we learn, includes almost everybody outside their own little corners of the Shire). The most poignant example in The Hobbit may be the vegetarian meal served by the were-bear Beorn to Bilbo and his fellow travelers. Before the meal, Beorn is as distrustful of strangers as are hobbits, whereas, after the meal, the hobbit and his company of dwarves feel they have found a friend. In The Lord of the Rings, the narrative is full of these examples, and a closer look at these examples is illuminating. A long period of fear and distrust between Frodo and Farmer Maggot is broken by a wonderful meal together, where one hobbit, Farmer Maggot—though he has reason to be fearful of the general situation, having just encountered a Black Rider, and he also has reason to distrust Frodo based on the young Baggins’ old habit of stealing mushrooms—makes a choice to show hospitality in the form of a shared meal. Frodo’s response to the farmer and his hospitality, though spoken before the meal was actually served, tells the tale: “I’ve been in terror of you and your dogs for over thirty years, Farmer Maggot, though you may laugh to hear it. It’s a pity: for I’ve missed a good friend” (Book I, Chapter 4).
Several examples of meals that I have shared previously also show a joining of lives, even among diverse strangers. That is to say, they show how somewhat reclusive and provincial hobbits find their lives joined to those in the world outside the Shire, even members of other races: the elves in Gildor’s company, elves of Rivendell and Lothlórien, Fangorn and the Ents, and Faramir and the men of Gondor. In the latter two cases especially, the meeting of two hobbits with these strangers begins with fear and distrust on both parts. And in both cases, a meal is shared among strangers, and the distrust begins to fade. By the end, close bonds of friendship have been forged.
Hobbits, perhaps because of their practice of eating locally, growing their own food, and consuming it together, are also tied to their land. When Frodo sets off on his quest, he is explicit in stating that he not only wants to save his fellow hobbits, but the Shire itself. When they return, Sam (as new Mayor) devotes time not only to helping the displaced hobbits but also to replanting trees. The narrator points out that hobbits have been practicing for generations an indefinitely sustainable and healthy agriculture.
I could go on with examples for several pages discussing the hobbit approach to food, agriculture, and conservation (and indeed I have devoted a chapter of my book with Jonathan Evans, Ents, Elves, and Eriador: the Environmental Vision of J. R. R. Tolkien, to hobbit agrarianism). But maybe the best conclusion to all this is to cite the dying words of the dwarf-king Thorin—who because of his pride and lust for treasure had nearly caused a war between dwarves, elves, and men—spoken in repentance to Bilbo Baggins near the end of the The Hobbit: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world” (Chapter 18). Thorin, I think, was right; if we cared more about these things—about seed cakes and tea and fresh berries and cream, eaten in the company of friends—our world would not only be merrier; it would be a place of far less strife and one better taken care of. And that seems to be one of the central ideas in Tolkien’s writing and one well worth considering, a vision of the good life that comes to readers like “bread, surpassing the savour of a fair white loaf to one who is starving”: we need to care about what we eat and how we eat it, about how and where we grow it, and about the people with whom we eat it.
Matthew Dickerson is the author or coauthor of several books, including From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook of Myth and Fantasy (2006); Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J. R. R. Tolkien (2006); and Narnia and the Fields of Arbol: The Environmental Vision of C. S. Lewis (2009). His most recent book is The Mind and the Machine: What It Means to Be Human and Why It Matters (2011). Dickerson is a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont and the director of the New England Young Writers Conference at Breadloaf.