Story, said Tolkien, is like stew.
Discard all thoughts of Campbell’s or Newman’s Own. Forget the produce aisle, waxed veg glistening beneath the mist of the sprayer. Forget, even, the cookery books, with tidy measurements and exact ingredients. This isn’t soup we’re talking about.
This is stew—made with what’s ready at hand during the darksome winter. Roots with the dirt still on them (many and varied) and dried herbs (a precious few) and meat of some description—rabbit or cow or even fish (boiled from leather into near-liquid). Beans if you’re desperate, onions if you’re lucky.
Stew takes about as long to complete as the seven tasks of a stricken fairytale hero. It has the perpetual variance of times and seasons. Boiled together are all those things that sound good at the time, whittled into morsels under the hacking blows of the knife. Stew is a tradition, a mindset, a reminder that the cauldron always brewed deep magic, and just top rate nosh.
Tolkien drew his analogy most famously in ‘On Fairy-stories’ (1947). But it is not, perhaps, coincidental that Samwise persists in making stew while under the shadow of Mordor (IV.4). Or that a few days later, he and Frodo wonder aloud about the telling of stories as they sit on the stairs of Cirith Ungol (IV.8). Later the memories of both—the stew and the stories—give Sam strength to find his way into Sammath Naur. Frodo’s burden makes him forget both.
Perhaps both stew and story to indicate hobbitish pluck, the grim determination to cling to simple, honest, straightforward living. The making of stew and the telling of stories reflect those things that make them hobbits—their knack for taking the ordinary things of the world and, without ostentation, making something simple but artful, heartfelt but hearty.
The determination not merely to be, but to be as one would—to refuse to complicate the world for the sake of more complicated ideas—seems to have buoyed the hobbits through even the onslaught of the Dark Lord and the subtle intrigue of the Wise. Where there’s life there’s hope, the Gaffer says, and need of vittles.
On a deeper level, stew and story together reach into our experience of time and season—the mythic face toward nature, Tolkien would say. We reach into our cupboards and whittle away at roots, taking the most uninteresting foods and transforming them into delight. So we take the ordinary, uninteresting things of life, and look at them with eyes of wonder. In our stories and in our words, the world awakes to hear the echo of its birth song.
Stew and story comfort us. There’s no explanation, really. There never is with art, or with cooking. But a steaming bowl of stew warms and reassures us even in the grimmest winter, when the heating’s off and we don’t have a job to go to even if we could. People can and do gather for stew, together finding—if they let themselves—a shared consolation, a fellowship of delight that tells them—and us—that for right now, at any rate, life is livable.
The world’s more full of weeping than we can understand. Everyone’s life is marred in grief. The memory of loss haunts us. Perhaps stew isn’t just a meal. Perhaps story isn’t just a lark. Perhaps the kindest thing we can give anyone—including ourselves—is consolation.
Cooking or creating, tasting or telling, we live as it were under a shadow. So we gather for story. And find there, for a few moments, consolation. in the winding of the tale that our ordinary, stressful life has been exchanged for something wondrous. We can find the grace to laugh even in the mirthless shadows of Mordor.