(“Here is bread, which strengthens a man’s heart, and therefore called the staff of life…”
Matthew Henry, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, 1708-1710, commentary on Psalm CIV, Verse 15)
Merry and Pippin are in trouble. Separated from their companions in their search for the missing Frodo, they tangle with a band of Orcs, witness the fall of Boromir,
and are carried off, eastwards, towards Saruman’s lair, at Isengard.
As they are driven on by the orcs, there are occasional pauses for breath and, at one point, Pippin is handed a meal:
“An Orc stooped over him, and flung him some bread and a strip of raw dried flesh. He ate the stale grey bread hungrily, but not the meat. He was famished but not yet so famished as to eat flesh flung to him by an Orc, the flesh of he dared not guess what creature.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)
The grey bread, in fact, may not necessarily have been grey from age—rye flour when baked into loaves can have a natural grey look—
As for the dried meat, I always think of something like South African biltong,
but Pippin is right to be suspicious, remembering the previous words of Ugluk the captain of the Uruk-hai:
“We are the servants of Saruman the Wise, the White Hand: the Hand that gives us man’s-flesh to eat.”
As much as they often seem more like hordes of goblins (Tolkien blends goblins and Orcs together after The Hobbit)
than drilled troops, the Orcs, however, at least Saruman’s Uruk-hai, are actually war-bands of soldiers with some discipline(as Ugluk says, when some of Sauron’s Orcs complain about his plans: “By the White Hand! What’s the use of sending out mountain-maggots on a trip, only half trained.”) We can imagine then that what is tossed to Pippin is actually a typical Orc military ration, containing the sorts of things which possess some nourishment, are portable, and which can keep for a long time.
Since the days of the Romans, a major issue for standing armies has been how to feed soldiers on campaign. The Romans issued their soldiers with some basics, including grains of various sorts, which the soldiers would grind into flour in portable hand-mills
and bake into various basic forms of bread, sometimes being something like modern pita
or even so-called “campfire bread”—dough wrapped around a stick.
(for a good introduction to Roman military eating, see: https://www.roman-reenactor.com/roman%20military%20bread%20making.html )
Such large, organized, and permanent armies wouldn’t appear again in Europe until the 17th century, when monarchs like Louis XIV (1638-1715),
eager to extend their reach—and their territory—would begin to build bigger and bigger forces.
Then the same problem which challenged the Romans arose once more–how to feed armies on the march–and part of the solution was to establish depots along the major military routes, with bakeries attached, so that soldiers could be issued fresh bread every few days as they passed such depots on their way into the field.
Another possibility was to develop portable ovens, which could march along with the troops and, when they stopped, the ovens could be stoked and bread could appear for evening meals.
A third possibility would be to develop some sort of long-lasting bread, something which could be stored for long periods without losing at least some of its nutritive value. As sailors began to make longer and longer voyages from the days of the Age of Discovery on, this was a problem for mariners as well as for soldiers and the solution was what was called “ship’s biscuit”, a hardened version of a mixture of salt, water, and flour.
With such basic ingredients, this would seem to have the potential to last forever, but there was one problem: not only did sailors eat these cracker-like things, but so did weevils—
(Here is a little scene from Peter Weir’s wonderful film, Master and Commander, where you can see both biscuit and bugs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-aPp7Kiiyg )
These horrible little passengers actually came from the flour out of which the biscuits were made
and can be evident in several stages, from larvae to six-legged insects. For something on the disposal of them, see this little documentary presented by the ship’s cook of the Cutty Sark, a famous tea clipper: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Onem-n-y64
Ship’s biscuit supplied sailors on long voyages. With its alternate name of “hard tack” or “hard crackers” or, as governments called it, “army bread”, it was baked, packed,
and shipped to feed soldiers in the US Civil War. Just like its naval cousin, it would seem to last forever, but, just like that cousin, it was prone to bugs and, just as bad, it soon became very hard on the teeth
—and this in a world where dentistry was just beginning to become a medical science (although details like scrubbing hands and instruments after each operation would only appear later—and slowly—in the 19th century).
Pippin—and Merry—were handed an Orc ration issued to its soldiers by the Sauronic or Sarumanic government, but there was an alternative in Middle-earth and both of the Hobbits had tasted it: lembas.
Because it clearly is similar to something like hard tack, Gimli mistakes it for cram, which he describes as “such as the Dale-men make for journeys in the wild.” He is corrected by the Elves, who tell him that it has a like purpose, “But we call it lembas or waybread, and it is more strengthening than any food made by Men, and it is more pleasant than cram, by all accounts.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 8, “Farewell to Lorien”)
More than once, we see this waybread sustaining characters, even in the worst of circumstances, as on the final, nearly-fatal, slog to Mt Doom, where the narrator says of Sam:
“As for himself, though weary and under a shadow of fear, he still had some strength left. The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travelers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 3, “Mount Doom”)
Tolkien so believed in this inherent spiritual quality that, seeing it turned into a “food concentrate” in an early proposed film script (which he clearly hated—I think that some of the strongest language in Letters appears here), he wrote:
“We are not exploring the Moon or any other more improbable region. No analysis in any laboratory would discover chemical properties of lembas that made it superior to other cakes of wheat-meal…In the book lembas has two functions. It is a ‘machine’ or device for making credible the long marches with little provision, in a world in which as I have said ‘miles are miles.’ But that is relatively unimportant. It also has a much larger significance, of what one might hesitatingly call a ‘religious’ kind.” (from a letter of June, 1958, to Forrest J. Ackerman, Letters, 274-275)
Although our breads—and they come in many different forms, from many different grains—
aren’t supplied by the Elves of Lorien, perhaps, in their ability to be the staff of our lives, we can see them as having a little of the spiritual quality of lembas?
As ever, thanks for reading,
Chew slowly and thoughtfully,
And know that, as always, there’s
For more on ship’s biscuit, see: https://historiesoftheunexpected.com/magazine/the-unexpected-history-of-ships-biscuits/ This is from a really interesting website, Histories of the Unexpected, in which two very bright and witty men investigate, well, just about anything. Warning: this site could be addicting—once you listen to one podcast, can you stop? https://historiesoftheunexpected.com/