The Food Train

(Wild berries picked by my son)

Tolkien doesn’t really write about kids much in his books. There’s only one child in all of Middle-earth who actually has any dialogue (and the answer to this little bit of Tolkien-trivia is at the bottom of this blog post). But that doesn’t mean that Tolkien didn’t like kids. The Hobbits are, in a way, the manifestation of children in Middle-earth. They’re childlike without being childish, if you know what I mean. Bilbo was the first stay-at-home dad in literature, after all, teaching Frodo (and Sam) how to read, write and even speak a foreign language–Elvish!

Tolkien loved his own kids. He wrote them warm and loving letters throughout his life. They were his original audience, starting with his The Father Christmas Letters and all the way through The Lord of the Rings. During World War II, when Tolkien’s eldest son Christopher was away at war, he wrote to him saying that it was difficult to work without  ”my amanuensis and critic near at hand” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #59). And one of the most interesting relationships in the history of literature is Tolkien’s lifelong friendship with Rayner Unwin (the lad responsible for vetting The Hobbit for his publisher father, and then the man who finally got The Lord of the Rings in print).

At the end of The Return of the King, after Sam has sprinkled Galadriel’s magical soil all over the Hobbiton, the Shire-folk experience one of the most “marvellous” summers ever.

“The fruit was so plentiful that the young hobbits very nearly bathed in strawberries and cream; and later they sat on the lawns under the plum-trees and ate, until they had made piles of stones like small pyramids or the heaped skulls of a conqueror, and then they moved on. And no one was ill, and everyone was pleased, except those who had to mow the grass.”

The above passage is one of my favorites in all of Tolkien’s works. All of the terrible sacrifices that Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin made on their quest to destroy the Ring were rewarded with this scene of happy, healthy children. And the final moment in The Lord of the Rings, if you will recall, is Sam putting his little daughter on his lap. It’s a beautiful symbol of peace and contentment.

This summer has been “marvellous” for us in the Pacific Northwest. We’ve had the perfect mixture of sun and rain, and my kids have been able to gorge on berries every day just like those kids in the Shire. (And the grass, alas, must be mowed much more than I would like.) These long happy days, where nobody is sick with a cold, are a blessing and a gift.

The other day our friends gave birth to healthy twins. They already have two young children in the house, and not a single relative in town. So my wife and some friends put together a “meal train.” They have divided up days of the week to make hearty meals for this family that suddenly doubled in size. Right now my wife is cooking a gigantic dinner of her delicious homemade macaroni and cheese. And I pulled some fat red beets from our garden and boiled them up for our friends’ beet-loving kids.

If you’ve ever had kids you know that the first days after your child (or children!) are born are utterly and insanely exhausting. Making food is the last thing that you want to think about, but eating well is one of the most important things to do, especially if you have other hungry kids in the house.

What my wife and her friends are doing with the meal train is exactly how I imagine the inhabitants of the Shire helping out with newborns. Can’t you just imagine everyone on Bagshot Row pitching in and feeding Rosie and Sam after the birth of their first child, Elanor, as well as their next dozen kids!

It’s hard on parents in this modern age, when families are spread out thousands of miles around the country (or even the world), for people to raise kids. It’s important to create strong friendships, especially with other parents, otherwise you can really feel isolated.

And hungry.

(Trivia answer: The only child character in Tolkien’s Middle-earth books to have dialogue is Bergil, son of Beregond of Gondor. He is ten at the time of the War of the Ring.)

 

 

Break Bread Like A Hobbit


Are meals at your house a hasty and chaotic event? Do members of your family fight at the table? Have you ever made a meal and not been thanked for all the hard work you put into it?

If so, you and your family might want to take after the Shire-folk and break bread like a Hobbit.

Hobbits love to eat. But they especially love eating together. Meals for them are a pleasant, joyful time and they’re thankful for every meal they get, especially during those times of respite from the turmoil of their adventures.

When the Hobbits arrive at Tom Bombadil’s house after their harrowing time in the Old Forest, they’re welcomed inside and taken to a bedroom where they can wash up (just like little kids coming in from playing outside). Then they’re given a “long and merry” meal with Tom and his wife Goldberry, and are stuffed by the end of it (which is quite a difficult thing to do with a Hobbit).

When Frodo and his friends get to Bree after the terrors of the Barrow Downs and the threat of Ringwraiths on the road, they check into The Prancing Pony and are shown to a cozy little room with a cheerful fire burning on the hearth, and a table spread with a white cloth where they proceed to stuff themselves with cheese, cold meats, bread and soup. They feel “refreshed and encouraged” afterwards, which is how you should feel after a meal.

If anybody can tell me a work of fiction that mentions food and eating more than The Lord of the Rings (along with The Hobbit) please let me know. Food is, without question, one of the more important themes of Tolkien’s stories. We learn what Gandalf devours when he returns to Beorn’s house after a little jaunt (two loaves of bread smothered in butter, honey and clotted cream plus a quart of mead); what’s on the desert menu at The Prancing Pony (it’s blackberry tart); and the provisions Merry and Pippin manage to scrounge from Saruman’s storerooms (salted pork, rashers of bacon, bread with butter and honey, wine and beer).

Tolkien was, apparently, obsessed with food. He was orphaned at the age of twelve, and must have been deprived of many a home cooked meal. Then he had to live in the squalid trenches during WWI where men existed on a few ounces of stale (or rotten) food each day. By the time he was working on The Lord of the Rings, England was at war again and even tea, god forbid!, was rationed (Tolkien liked his tea with honey, by the way).

Hobbits are the original foodies. They are obsessed with mushrooms and the best beer (The Golden Perch, we are told, had a legendary ale). They make themselves sumptuous birthday party feasts, and going away part feasts, and probably even party planning feasts.

But they’ll take what they can get and they’re happy for it. They actually love the delicious and nutritious lembas, the Elven waybread given to them in Lothlórien (which is like the Middle-earth version of a Luna Bar). Merry and Pippin aren’t above scrounging through the flotsam and jetsam of Isengard for a meal (and a good smoke to boot). And Sam even brings along his own camp cooking gear including pans, a wooden spoon and a precious box of salt. He makes a stew of some rabbits (captured by Gollum) with some scrounged herbs thrown in, and this meager meal “seemed a feast.”

That’s because the Hobbits are grateful for whatever they can get, and even though they’re greedy by nature, they’re happy to share. They would never eat alone when they could eat together, talking merrily and enjoying one another’s company.

“Peaceful, Happy, Grateful.” That is what’s written in crayon over the entrance to our dining room. My son inscribed the words one day while I lifted him up so he could reach that high place. We’d decided, as a family, that those three words were really important to us when having a meal together. And we wanted to remember them every time we sat down.

Peaceful because life is hectic and meals should be a time to relax.

Happy because we’re all together.

Grateful because there are a lot of people in the world who don’t have enough to eat.

We try as best as we can to always eat as a family. And we make every meal that we’re lucky enough to share together something that nourishes our souls as well as our bodies.

The Wisdom of the Shire Tells Us… “A meal is a sacred thing to be shared in joy and calm and gratitude.”