Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Feasting and Fasting (part 1).

'Feasting' as a concept has its roots, like many other aspects of secular life, in religious festivities. The  word in its present form originates from the Old French, 'feste' (now 'fête'), which we can see is also the root of 'festival'.  As we can see, feasting has close connections with festivals and celebration. Its dictionary definition, to have an abundance of food usually for a celebration is the antonym of fast, to consciously abstain from food (adapted from OED 2000).

In this post, the first of two, I will consider feasting as a celebration: "An unusually abundant and delicious meal; something delicious to feed upon; fig. an exquisite gratification, a rich treat." (OED, 2000)

The creatures of Middle Earth engage in feasts whenever possible in The Lord of the Rings: the saga begins with a feast in celebration of Bilbo Baggins' eleventy-first birthday; and closes with a feast to commemorate the life of King Théodin at his funeral. The latter is of particular interest: while the main funeral procession is one of sorrow and solemnity, the end of the burial marks the commencement of the feast, held in honour of the King's life.

When the burial was over and the weeping of women was stilled, and Théoden was left at last alone in his barrow, then folk gathered to the Golden Hall for the great feast and put away sorrow; for Théoden had lived to full years and ended in honour no less than the greatest of his sires. And when the time came that in the custom of the Mark they should drink to the memory of the kings, Éowyn Lady of Rohan came forth, golden as the sun and white as the snow, and she bore a filled cup to Éomer. (1279)

Much like the way at a Christian funeral it is customary to have a wake following the funeral, in which family members and friends discuss the life and character of the deceased over sandwiches and tea; in Rohan (land of men) food and wine is at the centre of the ritual. With plentiful food mourners are able not only able to have some physical comfort - to dissuade hunger (a physical loss) and have some pleasant tasting thing to enjoy - but emotional comfort from others as the goods upon the table are shared amongst the party. The (emotional) void left by Théodin's death is thus filled if not with joy, with peace at having one's other needs for food, comfort, and companionship. The making of a toast to past kings' memories - now including his - is a mark of closure for the mourners.

By drinking to his memory, mourners are able to not only celebrate his life but move on to happier news:

At the last when the feast drew to an end Éomer arose and said: 'Now this is the funeral feast of Théoden the King; but I will speak ere we go of tidings of joy [...]. Hear then all my guests, fair folk of many realms, such as have never been gathered in this hall! Faramir, Steward of Gondor, and Prince of Ithilien, asks that Éowyn Lady of Rohan should be his wife, and she grants it full wiling. Therefore they shall be troth plighted before you all.'
And Faramir and Éowyn stood forth and set hand in hand; and all drank to them and were glad.(1280)

Thus, the final feast of the series commemorates not only the passing of a valued life, but symbolises incoming prosperity at the union of two powerful families from Rohan and Gondor, of new beginnings for the men of Middle Earth.

Tolkein does not go into much elaboration on the type of food and drink served at this feast. As with many other instances in the novel, it is not the food that is appreciated at the ceremony as much as the company and ritual. With the entire party finally at peace, they are no longer deprived of food, rest and comfort: it is the ritual of the feast that is important.


  • Oxford English Dictionaries Online (2000), feast,
  • J. R. R. Tolkien (1955) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King London: HarperCollins (2007)
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