So, I have a teacherly friend who's doing a composition course focused on food, and one of her students picked Tolkien's lembas. Since they have to do brief e-mail interviews, Laura asked me if I'd be up for it, and of course it was. It was a fun exercise, who I decided to post the questions as well as my responses.
(1) Which theory [lembas as communion bread or military hardtack)] do you believe is more accurate, and what is your personal belief on this subject? Does it make a difference that one is a military food and the other religious?
- You're spot-on about the two most common interpretations of the lembas. My answer about the accuracy of one interp over the other will be extremely unhelpful: my answer is "both and neither." The question is something of a false binary. On one hand, lembas are their own thing. Plotwise, it's a convenient way of explaining how Frodo and Sam feed themselves in Mordor. On the other hand, why can't lembas be both military hardtack and communion bread? Tolkien was a devout Catholic and a veteran, and he surely understood the parallels. In my view, in terms of criticism, I'd suggest that a writer be aware of the options ("both and neither") but maybe emphasize the interpretation that works best with their argument.
(2) What does the elves giving of the lembas bread signify about the relationship between the fellowship between the elves, dwarfs, hobbits, and humans?
- Interesting question here. I suppose you could say that the lembas "sanctifies" the Fellowship. Galadriel has a clear parallel to the Mother Mary, and that whole episode is also the last truly peaceful interlude in LotR. Of course, that sanctifying really doesn't do much -- the Fellowship, which now lacks Gandalf, breaks up relatively quickly. It might suggest that the diversity of the Fellowship is authorially sanctioned even though, ultimately, the long-term viability of a group such as the Fellowship remains in doubt.
(3) Do you have any other theories regarding the significance of lembas bread?
- Sadly, no. Food is one of those major literary topics that, alas, I've never been much interested in.