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The Problem with Lembas

Lembas, or elf bread or way bread, or any other number of names you might have for it, is a real problem in Lord of the Rings. The elves are not mechanical, they live in the forest, and as such don’t seem to have any actual agricultural class in their society. So how do they get the grain for the bread? Who grinds the corn? Who bakes the bread? They’re strict isolationists, so they can’t be trading with the hobbits, who at least have farmers. And how can a person live off it for days with a single mouthful? What’s the caloric intake? How many carbs? How can it last nearly indefinitely? Is it a twinkie? It’s a twinkie, isn’t it? How do they get the cream in when they eschew machines then? This is one of those places where “It’s magic bitch” isn’t a good enough answer. They need to get the raw ingredients from somewhere. They need to process those ingredients, they need to combine them and put in a lot of extra ingredients in to make it last as long as it does. There is a lot that goes into that wafer of bread. There are a lot of steps to do anything truly from scratch.

This is a major problem I end up having with fantasy, over and over again. The writers stress that it’s a pre-mechanical medieval style society, forgetting that even medieval people have machines. Water wheels are parts of machines, they’re the power source, and they weren’t just used by millers to run grindstones for corn. They could be hooks to other machines to power blast furnaces, or sawmills, or even stamping machines. If you disallow all kinds of machines (as in Tolkien) there start to be things you can’t really have.

Brass buttons for one, you need a lot of technology to get brass buttons. Yes, they can be stamped by hand, but since Bilbo uses brass instead of gold, because wasn’t rich enough, there has to be some kind of middle class here. If there is a brass level, there has to be some kind of manufacturing system in place to make those people brass buttons. Even if we accept a simple hand powered stamp like a coin stamp, how do they get brass for the buttons? Okay, maybe there are miners because hobbits are hole dwellers and digging should get raw metals sometimes, but processing ore into brass requires smelting, and blast furnaces are “teh debil” in Tolkien’s world. He said several times that he mistrusted anything more complicated than a wheelbarrow, and a water wheel is more complicated. The point is, there is a lot of work that goes into a simple brass button. Anyone who has tried to make things for an authentic SCA costume can tell you the trouble that goes into making an outfit with no modern shortcuts. There is a large and complex society, once which Tolkien says doesn’t really exist, that is needed to produce brass buttons. Never mind the woven and brocaded waistcoats and the mechanical looms needed for those complicated designs for anyone but the royalty level rich.

This always becomes my problems, we’re told that these fantasy realms don’t have machines, but they’ll often have styles of armor that have leather bits connected to their metal bits with small screws. Metal screw are pretty much only machine made, you have to own a lathe to do them properly. Yes, you can make them by hand, but even then the expert making them is going to charge you up the ass. Lathes have been around for about three and a half thousand years, but they never seem to turn up in fantasy. Many a technological device is denied the fantasy world. In fact it’s often explicitly stated that they don’t have these things. It’s this blind spot that always annoys be, because they want to have the things that said technology will bring, but not the society or technology that demands it’s invention.

Clothes are much the same. I’m wearing a t-shirt that, as far as I know, can only exists form the 20th century on. It has no seams along it, except where the sleeves meet the body, because the main of the shirt was woven as a tube of fabric. Even if the sock with sleeves method has come before, there is also silk screening, the cut and the fact that it’s a t-shirt to peg me at the late 20th, early 21st century. There are social and environmental reasons that the clothes I’m wearing can only fit the time I’m in. Like wise, it’s just as bad when someone wears an Elizabethan style doublet during what is clearly supposed to be a society gripped in the tenth century. And no, I’m not talking about someone wearing a gambeson, or an armored jack, but what is clearly a warm weather doublet in what is clearly a cold weather climate and about 300 years too early when compared to other clothing in the story. Not tunics or jerkins either, but highly complex doublets with removable sleeves and short fringe like skirts. This, quite often, from a society that hasn’t yet moved past the “big lumps of fur” coat design for winter and summer wear. You basically end up with everything thrown together, from roman shirts to colonial era jackets, without any understanding of how each outfit had come about and what need it filled.

This extends to weapons, which are not interchangeable with each other and have their own niches and societal influences. You can’t just carry a 45 inch bladed sword on your hip with you wherever you go, that’s a war sword, not a local fracas sword. And if I may digress for a moment, a hollow pommel is just stupid. Even the Irish, who are dumb enough to make a hollow pommeled sword, still stuck the end of the tang through it to secure it, because they understood having your sword break because of a weakened tang was an embarrassment that could kill you. It’s just too darn big and unwieldy for a foot level entanglement. Even granting that someone might carry such a large blade, those are heavy things to always have on you, and they make moving awkward as hell. Swords have specific purposes in both fighting and in societies that make them important, and they need to fit in those societies. You should be able to simply look at a sword or knife and tell exactly who uses it and what purpose it serves, and in fact I can. Once in a while I get one wrong, but I’m not an expert, I just play one on the internet. Rapiers cannot exist with two-handed broadswords because one is a civilian weapon devised after the middle class started putting on airs and the other is a weapon for the battle field devised after noticing that things die when you hit them with five pounds of sharpened metal.

And guns, don’t get me started on guns. Cannons started turning up in the mid 1300s or so, hand guns soon followed, but never in a fantasy story, not even one that uses weapons, clothing and armor developed after the firearm and some that were developed as a reaction to firearms. Oh no, we don’t never have no guns, even if we are basically retelling the Wars of the Roses in all but name. We don’t need no stinking guns, we got dragons and shit. Besides, guns aren’t romantic and we’re being all romantic with our fantasy story and why do you have to be so damn pedantic all the time?

I just have problems with lazy writing, and I’ve learned enough about the history of technology to know that you can’t have this unless you have that. And if you have that, then there’s this other thing over here that you can also have.

So, yeah, where do the elves get the grain to make lembas?



( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 5th, 2011 01:33 am (UTC)
Psst... it's lembas.
Sep. 5th, 2011 02:06 am (UTC)
Yeah, that's what I said. Lebas.
Sep. 5th, 2011 03:51 am (UTC)
Magic and their secret shame - a part of the forest where no trees grow, where they have instead managed the art of cultivating wild grains. With the magic.

But yes, all the rest of these things are true - the level of technology in a fantasy story should have proper antecedents, and they never seem to exist.
Sep. 6th, 2011 12:27 am (UTC)
Who says it is made from grain?

Perhaps it is truly ELF bread.

Made by, for, and from elves.
Sep. 8th, 2011 08:01 pm (UTC)
Here via andrewducker.

Yeah, I think you're largely right here. Although some fantasy settings have generic "cities" containing "artisans" who, er, maybe have lathes? but that's boring to describe maybe.

Guns might be less likely in a world where battles are fought with magic - but then surely swords would be superfluous too?

And the costume. Oh gods the costume. I could go on for hours. But I've just seen the Tudors and OH MY GOD PEOPLE DO YOU NOT KNOW THE FIRST THING ABOUT TUDOR COSTUME. Catherine of Aragorn was not the sort of loose woman who goes around with her HAIR ON SHOW. WTF OMG. At least fantasy authors are in some made-up world.

(and the Hobbits are in an entirely different era to the rest of middle earth, no explanation ever given)
Sep. 10th, 2011 11:07 am (UTC)
The oldest profession...
The only thing they have to trade is their good looks.
Sep. 10th, 2011 11:09 am (UTC)
Actually, longswords/broadswords are very much a civilian weapon, since they don't easily go through military-grade armour. The rapier trumps it because it is simply a better one-on-one weapon.
Sep. 10th, 2011 12:07 pm (UTC)
Re: Broadswords
what of the sabre?
Sep. 10th, 2011 12:29 pm (UTC)
Re: Broadswords
Cavalry weapon also used on foot. Depends on the weight. Certainly used in Asian contexts when people were wearing mail - but then the longsword seems to be fine vs mail as well. Wouldn't fancy either against plate, unless in super heavy version. Prefer an axe or pick.
Sep. 10th, 2011 12:14 pm (UTC)
yup. The odd lack of People Who Make Stuff [other than dwarves, which doesn't really count] is why I stopped reading high fantasy long, long ago. Other than Terry Pratchett, who's work is set in alternative England in the best possible way.

I did recently finish the Engineer Trilogy, which goes into quite a lot of depth as to why these things are important. K.J. Parker even seems to genuinely understand quite a lot of it - but that doesn't have any elves. Or Dwarves.

Incidentally I gave up on SteamPunk for much the same reason. There's only so much daft Victoriana one can swallow without some much bloody needed credit to the poor bastards who get themselves blown up so that Master can go Adventuring in his Dirigible.
Sep. 10th, 2011 02:04 pm (UTC)
> So, yeah, where do the elves get the grain to make lembas?

They could be gathering wild grain, in the same way that pre-agrarian communities did?
Admittedly they'd have to venture out of their forests to do that, but possibly not very far out of them.

In general though, yes, I agree that fiction writers, tv producers and especially movie producers mess around with history something awful.
The BBC's got worse over the years too, and I'm not sure how that's possible - did their research go missing? Their costuming used to be pretty good thirty years ago, at least for early modern era, and now it's all missing bonnets and 21st Century make-up. Argh.
Sep. 10th, 2011 07:51 pm (UTC)
There's some plants that produce flour-like substance. Don't know the name; it's mentioned in Jules Verne.

But the real answer is they have an underclass of womenfolk who do all that out in some fields somewhere. They all do, not just the elves. Which explains the scarcity of female characters...
Sep. 10th, 2011 10:12 pm (UTC)
Off the Lembas Tree, one assumes... ;}P>
Sep. 11th, 2011 02:58 am (UTC)
You are my favorite person this week.

Great rant!
Sep. 11th, 2011 03:02 am (UTC)
Well, I'm glad to be somebody's favorite, even if it's just for one week.
Sep. 11th, 2011 03:35 am (UTC)
I mention you on my blog: Nothing.

But then andrewducker spots my comment and you're an INTERNET STAR, getting up to TEN COMMENTS PER DAY!
Sep. 11th, 2011 04:10 am (UTC)
Sorry, maybe it's just that the people who came from you aren't saying much.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )

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