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I always had the feeling that Lembas bread was magical and that's what helped it be so fulfilling; however I've recently started to think that it was most probably just highly nutritious, and I had probably associated it with magic since it was Elven-related.

Is there any evidence that Lembas bread is magical?

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    The text mentioned "one bite" was enough for a meal ("to fill a man's belly"), and "one cake" was enough for a day marching. That probably means magical - while it is possible to pack nutrients and calories into small portions (with fats and sugars, for the calorie count), it will not "fill the belly" or make someone feel full and satisfied... and it probably won't taste pleasant, either, seeing our own experiments with ration bars. The cakes being packed with nutrition might be good planning, but the result being filling, pleasant and "sustaining the spirit" probably needs magic. – Megha Jul 29 '16 at 5:48
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    @Megha Well, it could be an effect of some drug. There's plenty of drugs that sate hunger even when you don't get any nutrition, and it might be possible to mix a highly condensed food (like pemmican or 100% dried meat) with something like that to make it both nutritious and pleasurable. Come to think of it, a lot of magic in fantasy could be explained with narcotics of various kinds... :D – Luaan Jul 29 '16 at 8:40
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    They are Elvish, if that is what you mean. – Stop Harming Monica Jul 29 '16 at 9:12
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    It should be noted, in general terms, that really only the Ainur are capable of "working magic" in Tolkien's work. Everything that is "magic" in Tolkien's world is either created directly by the Ainur (like the Two Trees, the One Ring), or indirectly derives from their works (like the Silmaril). In a way, there is no magic in Tolkiens world, just god-like powers. – DevSolar Jul 29 '16 at 10:54
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    I do not understand clearly what is meant by magic; as seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy – James K Jul 29 '16 at 16:03
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Almost certainly

There's an entire essay devoted to the subject of lembas in History of Middle-earth, imaginatively titled "Of Lembas"; in it, Tolkien writes:

The Eldar say that they first received this food from the Valar in the beginning of their days in the Great Journey. For it was made of a kind of corn which Yavanna brought forth in the fields of Aman, and some she sent to them by the hand of Oromë for their succour upon the long march.

[...]

Now this corn had in it the strong life of Aman, which it could impart to those who had the need and right to use the bread.

History of Middle-earth XII The Peoples of Middle-earth Part 3: "Teachings of Pengolod" Chapter XV: "Of Lembas"

Although "magic" in the Tolkien Legendarium is a difficult thing to pin down, "the strong life of Aman" certainly sounds magical to me.

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    I think this is the right answer, but maybe for a different (or extra) reason. The stipulation that only those with "the right to use" the lembas would benefit must be magic. The "strong life of Aman" itself could otherwise just be as simple as terroir. – Steve Barron Jul 29 '16 at 12:33
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    @SteveBarron Add to that Gollum's refusal to consume Lembas. Being a creature of darkness, the bread could be harmful to him. – Mindwin Jul 29 '16 at 12:54
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    So basically lembas is made of genetically modified corn. – void_ptr Jul 29 '16 at 20:44
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    Note to those living in eternal West. When Tolkien says "corn" he means "grain", mostly likely wheat or similar, not maize. – James K Jul 30 '16 at 21:36
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Lembas may seem like magic to us, but the elves would have seen it as simply natural.

Clarke's Third Law is

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination

Elves don't use "technology" the way we do, but they use their advanced understanding of the natural world to create things that seem impossible (and therefore "magical") to us.

While staying in Lothlórien (where the Fellowship is given a supply of lembas), Sam has a conversation with Frodo and says:

'It’s wonderfully quiet here. Nothing seems to be going on, and nobody seems to want it to. If there’s any magic about, it’s right down deep, where I can’t lay my hands on it, in a manner of speaking.'

‘You can see and feel it everywhere,’ said Frodo.

‘Well,’ said Sam, ‘you can’t see nobody working it. No fireworks like poor old Gandalf used to show. I wonder we don’t see nothing of the Lord and Lady in all these days. I fancy now that she could do some wonderful things, if she had a mind. I’d dearly love to see some Elf-magic, Mr. Frodo!’

The Fellowship of the Ring: The Mirror of Galadriel

Galadriel joins them and takes them to a garden on the slopes of Caras Galadhon to show them the Mirror of Galdriel. When Frodo is unsure about looking in it Galadriel says:

‘And you?’ she said, turning to Sam. ‘For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel. Did you not say that you wished to see Elf-magic?’

The Fellowship of the Ring: The Mirror of Galadriel

It seems to me that the elves (or at least Galadriel) understand that we view their more advanced creations (lembas, the Mirror of Galadriel) as "magic", but do not consider them in that light themselves.

  • I would rather write about 'knowledge' here, but 'achievements'. Elves (and, of course, Maia) have a deep understanding of nature and are therefore able to manipulate it in ways unimaginable for others. Just like we base our technology on our understanding of nature, which must seem like magic to medieval folk. – Philip Klöcking Jul 29 '16 at 14:21
  • This can be said of anything, which is why I didn't prevaricate on what "magic" means. Advanced biotech could demonstrate a kind of cellular structure that acts as a fractal-antenna for terrestrial & atmospheric waves, and bolsters the production of a protein that greatly enhances the mitochondrial capacities of our own bodies. Perhaps there may be a epigenetic (consciousness-based) selectivity that would govern whom are "those who had the need and right to use the bread" which would also exclude Golem and other dark beings." All it takes is someone willing to dig. – New Alexandria Jul 29 '16 at 17:11
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    Words change meaning over time. Back when A. C. Clarke wrote those words, "Technology" was the study of how we make things. In that usage, elven blades, elven rope, elven cooking, etc. are all examples of elven technology. – Solomon Slow Jul 30 '16 at 18:40
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    FWIW, there is a suggestion that at least somewhat of elven technology could be taught to mortals. When the party are preparing to leave Lórien, an unnamed elf talks to Sam about their magic-seeming rope, "...there is no time now to instruct you in the art of their making. Had we known that this craft delighted you, we could have taught you much." – Solomon Slow Jul 30 '16 at 18:49
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Its virtues cannot be explained with science. From Letter #210

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.

JRR Tolkien's letter to Morton Grady Zimmerman

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    This also implies that Tolkein considered the Valar corn he wrote of as a kind of wheat, at least in principle (even if quite a cousin) – New Alexandria Jul 29 '16 at 17:06
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    @NewAlexandria I agree. "Corn" is generally used to refer to the most common grain in the local culture. In the US, "corn" refers to maize. In Tolkien's England "corn" refers to wheat. – Blackwood Jul 29 '16 at 17:20
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    But if it is always culturally-specific, then the "corn" of the Elves may have been a different grass (apart from Tolkein's quote, you give) – New Alexandria Jul 29 '16 at 21:46
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Aside from the mystical perspective in the other answers, we can try to think up what lembas would be made out of if humans would make something like it.

According to this site, an adult male who is active (like Aragorn marching) needs 3000 calories per day. According to this site, fat has the highest calorie count per gram, that is 9 per gram. I can't post any more links, but I read that fat is slightly lighter than water.

This means that, unless one lembas cake is bigger than about one-third of a liter, it cannot store enough calories for Tolkien's claim, leaving aside anything else you need. I always imagined it as way smaller than that, though I don't know of a quote by Tolkien stating that.

I also didn't imagine lembas to be just globs of fat...

  • Yeah, I was looking at the same kinds of things, since nutrients can be packed small but the actual calories needed are a little harder to squish down. My math said something decent could be made with half a liter (2 cups) of ingredients for enough calories, but not much less than that without shorting something. Probably we could do one reasonably sized cake per meal, not one per day. I had looked at the calorie counts for foods with high calories and nutrients, and found 50-60 per tablespoon for honey or dried berries, 85 or so for nuts, and 115-ish for lard or suet. Pemmican, nearly. – Megha Jul 30 '16 at 3:02
  • While the notion of lembas being chunks of seal blubber does appeal, elves don't really give out much of an Inuit vibe... ;D – akaioi Sep 19 '17 at 6:52
2

The general tone of Elven 'technology' in Tolkien is that any magical element is rather subtle and more to do with the way that their whole culture approaches craft and knowledge than a simple case of magic bread +2 healing bonus.

Clearly there are plenty of examples of modern sports nutrition and military rations which could be considered analogues of lembas and it's certainly not beyond all reasonable credibility in its properties. For example in the Seven Pillars of wisdom by T E Lawrence (of Arabia) there is an account of Arabs using breadcrumbs mixed with almonds, sugar and butter as a trail food. In fact this sonds a lot like marzipan (maybe marche pain >>> walking bread). It's certainly credible that a handful of fat, ground nuts and carbohydrate could keep you going for a day at a push.

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