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A Proper Meal

Feasting While on a Mission in C.S. Lewis

As Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins prepare to enter Mordor on their desperate quest in Tolkien’s The Two Towers, Sam longs for a “good homely meal, ‘something hot out of the pot.’” In the absence of any such thing, he and Frodo have been sustained for weeks by elvish waybread, lembas — which, while it has an almost magical power to keep travelers going, “doesn’t satisfy the innards proper, as you might say.” The hobbits have had to leave their homey habit of regular mealtimes — breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, luncheon, teatime, dinner, and supper — far behind in the Shire.

Of all the peoples of Middle Earth, the hobbits’ settled and pleniprandial way of life is the most hospitable to young growing things, whether children or plants. The elves, with their long lives, seem to produce offspring only rarely; humans, especially the family of the kings, have treasured ancestors more than children; the city of Gondor is without gardens, and the tree that symbolizes the kingly line has long ceased to blossom. In a story whose enemy is bent on destroying all growing things, and the evil land of Mordor is marked by its barrenness, perhaps it had to be the hobbits, domestic to an extreme, who would recall the other peoples of Middle Earth to vitality. Without a sheltered and utterly civilian society like the Shire, would the other peoples of Middle Earth have remembered to fight for the conditions of life?

In this context, the contrast between how the hobbits eat on a mission and how they eat at home is highly significant. Hobbits’ mealtimes become a symbol of the difference between civilian life — the Shire worth saving — and the life of a campaigner, who goes about saving it.

Even in the midst of “civilian” life, I think many of us can be categorized this way. Some people, or some seasons of life, are dedicated to maintaining the things necessary for settled existence and cultivating life — they may be gardeners, cooks, and home decorators. Others, or other seasons of life, are single-mindedly focused on a mission, and the stakes seem so high that there’s no time for growing flowers or preparing a full meal at home.

For my part, I’ve always had the disposition of a campaigner. I never ate better than at college, where a balanced cafeteria meal was available on a slight detour between class and the library or theater. Then came a decade of throwing something together — never mind how many days I’d been eating identical quesadillas and green beans — whenever I finished a project and finally realized I was hungry. (The reason book stands are such excellent tools, by the way, is because you can keep marking pages while you eat.)

Truth be told, I have only managed to settle into a domestic routine by imagining it as a battle I must fight. I always knew I would have to start cooking decent meals if a new generation were depending on me to instill in them a sense of decorum. It works, for the most part: I buy groceries, use cloth napkins, and occasionally try a new recipe because I am convinced that if I don’t, civilization will collapse. And I do my duty … though I still relish disappearing into my office on weekdays, where a “flow” state may set in and lunch may be forgotten.

Contrast this with my father, who, though he lives alone, always cooks up a complete and creative meal. If I called and said I was on the road for a surprise visit, he’d say, “Very nice; you’ll be just in time to join me for chicken salad on homemade Swedish rye crackers and vegetarian frittatas, which I just put in the oven.” He’s just the type, you might think, who also gardens — and you’d be right. His yard is bursting with azaleas, cosmos, and zinnias, this year’s blossoms furnishing next year’s seeds. And as if all that were not enough, he also keeps a decently clean house. (Where do people like this come from?)

This dichotomy between proper meals in peacetime and rough-and-ready waybread, however, is quite disrupted by C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. On each read-through in recent years, I’ve noticed more instances when characters stop for a full meal, just when they are being hotly pursued. Who could forget the frightfully slow dinner at the beavers’ house, where the children are briefed on conditions in Narnia and Edmund slips out to commit his treachery? Later, the children are barely out of danger of discovery by the White Witch, having camped out under a snowbank, when Father Christmas delivers them a complete festal breakfast in the forest. In Prince Caspian, the dwarf Trumpkin won’t ask or answer any questions until he and the children have roasted their fish for breakfast, even though he has come seeking aid for battle. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Ramandu’s daughter welcomes the travelers to Aslan’s table just as they have reached the “beginning of the end of the world.”

On the one hand, these great journeys punctuated by resplendent meals may simply reflect the fact that Lewis’s intended audience is children: he doesn’t depict darkness and hardship as vividly as Tolkien does.

On the other hand, perhaps there is something Shire-like about Lewis, which he refuses to give up — even when on a dire mission, and even for his fictional characters. The ideal lifestyle Lewis recounts sharing with his tutor, the Great Knock, while he prepared for Oxford is nearly a hobbit’s paradise: he breakfasts for an hour from eight to nine, then studies through the morning, with a tea or coffee at eleven; lunch is from one to two; an after-lunch walk then lasts fully two hours, and ends just when tea begins; from five to seven he works again, and then eats the evening meal; after supper comes time for more conversation or lighter reading.

He certainly didn’t continue this “settled, calm, Epicurean life” in the trenches of World War I. But it was Lewis, after all, who wrote “On Learning in Wartime,” in which he observes that even a soldier on the front lines can’t have war on his mind all the time. He has to keep with him the goods of civilization, including good books. A war, though it may bring a man’s death, cannot “support the whole attention of a human soul” while he is alive. Lewis doesn’t quite say it, but we might add: If we entirely renounce the dignities of human life in order to defend them, haven’t we already lost?

Lewis’s Narnian characters, then, seem duty-bound to eat regularly and well — while sitting down, and without rushing — as if their meals must demonstrate the dignity bound up with their quests.

It is this insight that has gradually challenged — though not completely reformed — my attitude toward the rhythms of life and mealtimes. Work as hard as I might, what hope — what good news — can I offer others if my own life isn’t embracing God’s gifts?

It was after a grueling three years in my early 20s when I realized I had only rationed enough energy to get me to that point in life. Brute determination was no longer going to work in the service of God, because I had no joy to show for myself. God then “made me lie down in green pastures,” where I made little forward progress but “restored my soul.” By the time I was ready to embark on a new mission, I understood that I could not again neglect regular rests, feasts, and simple joys.

“You prepare a table before me, in the presence of my enemies,” the psalmist continues.

Perhaps Lewis’s stories give us a way to understand this passage. Even when the task is urgent and the mission cosmic, we must stop to be sustained by the gifts of God.

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