Monday, 24 March 2014

The end... or is it? (Yes it is, until June.)

Much like the tales of Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf and co., all good things must end eventually. So does this blog.
Today I will discuss the purpose served by food writing in fantasy literature.

One of the most striking things about Middle Earth is the multiculturalism. In The Hobbit and LOTR different races are brought together, united in a common goal not for themselves; but for the good of Middle Earth overall. Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves, Men all have separate communities, each with its own rich history, crafts, dress, and cuisine. I have already outlined some differences, and it is clear from the recipes that food is not only defined by culture, but is a tangible representation of that culture. Unfortunately there is little description of the food cooked during the adventures, so we can assume that basic dishes are shared by all Middle-Earthians.

Likewise, in the feasts (and lack thereof) referenced throughout, Tolkien provides no description of the food. Readers can imagine for themselves what a Hobbit may find at an Elvish treetop, or what a Dwarf would make of a human's table spread. This absence indicates that it is about the feeling of eating or starving, rather than the taste.  Feasts and famines are shared by the groups, and thus all beings are sharing in each other's joys and sorrows.  These emotional bonds, sharing of cultures, and the feeling of hunger are not tangible, but are real and relatable aspects of the texts.  By evoking these emotions, Tolkien anchors a world of magic and mythology to a baseline of reality. This provides a form of moral socialisation for child readers, teaching empathy and compassion.

I have yet been unable to discuss themes of evil and consumption in the novels. While I have explored the risk of being eaten, I have been unable to examine this in relation to power, which I shall now do briefly through the example of Gollum. Formerly Smeagol, Gollum from first contact was overwhelmed by the ring. Mightily powerful, forged in flame, the ring is not living, yet has control over others.  In years spent with his precious, Gollum becomes consumed by the ring. His civilised hobbit ways are overruled in favour of animalistic hunting and raw eating of fish - comparatively powerless creatures. It is not insignificant then, that at Mount Doom, Gollum literally consumes the ring, biting Frodo's finger off before falling to his death.
Greed exhibited by desiring the ring's power is markedly different to the desire for food. Even for hobbits, with their rotund bellies and second breakfasts, food is a marker of comfort. To desire food is to desire contentment. To desire power is to desire corruption. Ironically, to desire the power of the ring is to become powerless oneself.

Consumption and food are distinct in the purposes served. Overconsumption, be it of powerless creatures, of power, is greed. Greed has unpalatable consequences. Consumption is a food chain of power, examples of which are warnings. Conversely, food serves to unify: be it cultures, be it in grief or celebration, be it fantasy characters and real world readers.


  • Image courtesy of Beau for County Now:
  • Image still from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) Dir. Peter Jackson.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Fantasy and the Food Chain

Thus far in the project we have only examined the food eaten by our title adventurers, and have caught a glimpse into the diversity of the eating habits of hobbits, dwarves, elves, men, and Gollum. However, there has yet been nothing said on the kind of diverse foodstuffs they have the potential to be.

Tolkien's tales of Middle Earth, while also marketed to adult readers, are above all Children's fantasy literature; a surprisingly common trope of which is the risk of being eaten. As readers, we are taught at a young age that a character we may identify with is not invincible: being a lead character does not necessarily secure a place at the top of the food chain.

This lesson is taught very early on in The Hobbit: it is only in the second chapter, following a meat-based feast, that the party have a most unfortunate encounter with some trolls.

"A nice pickle they were all in now: all neatly tied up in sacks, with three angry trolls sitting by them, arguing whether they should roast them slowly, or mince them fine and boil them, or just sit on them one by one and squash them into jelly." (56)

Tolkien introduces the poor dwarves' torture with the understatement of the series, that the fatal problem they currently encounter is merely a 'nice pickle'. The casualness of the expression trivialises the situation, and it can be no accident that it also references a foodstuff, nevertheless a preserved foodstuff. The list of dishes seems to go in stages of turning the dwarves from complete, whole beings into more intense and unrecognisable states, further distancing them from what they are. To not only mince them, but mince them 'finely' is to obliterate them no longer into living beings but to restructure them. Unlike slow-roasting them whole, they are no longer even a carcass but simply unrecognisable shreds of meat, unidentifiable from each other. The worst fate of all is being squashed into jelly one by one, where they are no longer even recognisable as 'manflesh' but enter a completely different state: Tolkien creates disturbing mental imagery of a poor sad dwarf in a Mrs. Beeton-esque jelly mould ready to have for dessert with fruit.

With each potential dish the dwarves potenially become further from themselves as living flesh, and thus Tolkien provides the realisation that meat in all forms it ends up on the plate - roasted, minced, or jellied - was once a living thing. Of course, a narrow escape from becoming troll food is no guarantee of future safety: the series' protagonists both in The Hobbit and in the Rings novels face being eaten by spiders, dragons and goblins. "Food is fundamental" to the adventure tale, and slaughter is a necessary element of the fantasty epic, not only on the battlefield but in the daily struggle for sustenance (Keeling and Pollard, 2008: 4).
  1. Image courtesy of Lord of the Rings wikia:
  2. Image courtesy of Food History Jottings, originally from Eliza Acton's (1905) 'Jellies,' Modern Cookery.
  3. Kara K. Keeling & Scott T. Pollard,  (2008) 'Introduction' Critical Approaches to Food in Children's Literature New York: Routledge
  4. J. R. R. Tolkien (1937) The Hobbit (2012) London: HarperCollins

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Elvish eats: Lembas bread!

Due to popular demand (having nerdy friends) today I present a discussion and recipe for Lembas!

Lembas, also known as Waybread, is one of the few foodstuffs continually mentioned throughout The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Series, and several fans like myself take great joy in attempting to recreate it and bring a small part of Tolkien's magical world to life.

It is the ultimate travelling food - portable, lightweight, with a long shelf-life... It seems that Tolkien may have taken inspiration from military life. Lembas seem to be his fantasy interpretation of Sea Biscuits: "a type of unleavened bread which was baked, sliced and oven dried. [...] used for centuries as rations for sailors. In good conditions it would keep for a year or more in sealed barrels, but at sea it was often difficult to keep it dry, and it could become infested by weevils." (718) While it is documented by food historians that sea biscuits were one of the few long-life food products available during the time of use (16th - 19th centuries), it is also well-documented that they were bland and required softening prior to eating so as not to break one's teeth. The ingredients for Ship's Biscuits, taken from a  recipe provided by the Royal Naval Museum, are as follows:

  • Wholemeal flour
  • Salt
  • Water

While Tolkien's adventurers, not unlike the sailors of years gone by, are on a long and arduous quest, they inhabit a world of magic, and with magic come Elves. Though Peter Jackson's film adaptations refer to it as Lembas bread (which I found somewhat misleading while researching content for this post), Lembas is not far from the description of Ship's Biscuits above. The most notable exception to this of course, is that Lembas are delicious.

"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. Gimli took up one of the cakes and looked at with with a doubtful eye.
'Cram,' he said under his breath, as he broke off a crisp corner and nibbled at it, His expression quickly changed, and he ate all the rest of the cake with relish. 
'Eat a little at a time, and only at need. For these things are given to serve you when all else fails. The cakes will keep sweet for many, many days, if they are unbroken and left in their leaf-wrappings.'" (481-482)

In short, Lembas are to be long lasting, filling, and sweet. This taken into account, Lembas are less like Ship's Biscuits and more like shortbread; with their high fat content, robust form and sweet flavour. The following recipe is my own.

Elvish Lembas


  • 150g caster sugar
  • 300g cold salted butter*
  • 450g plain flour
  • 1tsp vanilla extract
  1. Preheat the oven to 180ÂșC
  2. Measure the sugar into a large mixing bowl. Chop the butter into small cubes and put in with the sugar. Cream together with a wooden spoon or electric mixer, until a pale and fluffy.
  3. Beat in the vanilla extract.
  4. Sift in 1/3 of the flour into the butter mixture and mix. When it is just combined, add the next 1/3 of flour. Repeat until all flour is added and you have a stiff dough.
  5. Shape into a ball and leave to rest in a fridge for 15 minutes.
  6. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to 1cm thickness. With a knife, cut into even squares and place on a lined baking sheet. Score an 'X' across each square.
  7. Chill in the fridge for another 10 minutes.
  8. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until a light golden brown.
Store in an airtight container (or leaf wrappings, if you have those to hand).
*If using unsalted butter, add a small pinch of salt in with the flour.

  • (1999) 'Ship's Biscuit', The Oxford Companion to Food ed. Alan Davidson Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Royal Naval Museum Library (2000) 'Ship's Biscuits: the Sailor's Diet', Research. Web:
  • J.R.R. Tolkien (1955) The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. London: HarperCollins (2007)
  • Image courtesy of Lord of the Rings Wikia: