This waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. (LR vi. iii)

In ordinary English usage, this (OED: WAYBREAD) is a folk-name of the plantain (Plantago), meaning literally 'broad-leaved plant growing beside the way'. The second part of the word is related to broad, and has nothing to do with bread. However, Tolkien has punningly adopted the word as if it were a literal compound of 'way’ and 'bread' in order to have an English equivalent to the Elvish lenibas? (explained as being from len 'way5 and bos 'bread'), the cakes provided in Lothlorien which kept the Fellowship, especially Frodo and Sam, nourished on their journeys. It does not occur in Tolkien's earlier writings, but appears in 'Of Tuor and his Coming to, Gondolin' (1951) in Unfinished Tales.

Spiritually minded etymologists 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. The Latin word viaticum originally meant simply 'provision for a journey'; it comes from Latiri via 'way', and from it developed the word voyage (borrowed from French into English and originally meaning simply 'a journey'). 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 the lesser things of a fairy-story1 (Letters 213, 25 October 1958).

The Ring of Words (OUP 2006)

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