Sunday, 6 February 2011

Tolkien's Ring of Words

Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary is a fascinating and beautifully produced book which deserves a place in any school library. To hear the authors talking about their book and, more widely, about Tolkien's lexicographical research and its impact on his writing click here or follow the links at Oxford University's list of podcasts.

Unfortunately, Tolkien's strong Catholic beliefs only get a passing, and slightly disparaging, mention in the entry about waybread or lembas: "Spiritually minded etymologists," the authors inform us, "might also discern here a scholarly link with the word viaticum. In Roman Catholic practice, this is the consecrated bread of the Eucharist administered to someone who is dying or in danger of death." 

They do, to be fair, finish with a more balanced set of comments: "Tolkien acknowledged the comparison between lembas and the Eucharist as miraculously sustaining forms of bread: the waybread provides food for Frodo and Sam on a journey that, to the best of their knowledge, leads to death. He comments that 'far greater things may colour the mind in dealing with lesser things of a fairy-story' (Lett. 213 25 October 1958)."

However, The Ring of Words takes us only so far. We need to look elsewhere if we are to discover what Tolkien believed about the Eucharist and, therefore, what he was doing in creating lembas in The Lord of the Rings.

Part of the answer is given in a fascinating paragraph, only part of which (sadly) is given in Humphrey Carpenter's collection of Tolkien's letters : "Out of the darkness of my life," Tolkien wrote to his son, Michael, in 1941, "so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament..... There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man's heart desires."

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