Sunday, October 1, 2017

Eat, Drink, Magic: Fun With Food in Fantasy Fiction

From Persephone's consumption the fatal pomegranate, which meant she had to spend six months of every year in the Underworld, to Snow White and the poisoned apple, or Hansel and Gretel and the Gingerbread House, food plays a vital part in myth, folklore, and fairytales – just as it does in real life.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, food also has its part of play in the Fantasy novel, covering the whole gamut from temptation, celebration, and simple sustenance.

The White Witch tempts Edmund with Turkish Delight in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. And the Elvish waybread (lembas) in The Lord of the Rings is essential for sustenance on the great quest-journey to destroy the ring. The return of students to Hogwarts in Harry Potter is always marked by a feast, while the Honeydukes sweet shop in Hogsmeade is an essential destination for the aspiring students of wizardry...

Food can also play an important part in Fantasy worldbuilding. For example, the unwholesomeness of the Turkish Delight, which makes Edmund feel sick even as he longs for more, is contrasted with the hearty fare of the beavers' house – fresh-caught trout with potatoes and butter, followed by a "great and gloriously sticky marmalade roll." Hungry yet?

In my own The Gathering of The Lost (The Wall of Night #2), seasonality is an important part of the worldbuilding and food one of the contributing elements, from the "spice bread and sweet pastries" made for Summer's Eve, through to the fresh cherries associated with the Midsummer Festival.
Food can ground the action, too, like the pie a ravenous character (Carick) eats after having been on the run for days on end:

"The pastry was stale, but he devoured it in ravenous mouthfuls and wondered if he would ever again, in the life that had been returned to him, eat anything that tasted even half as good."

Sometimes, though, food is not just a supporting element for worldbuilding or to ground the story: sometimes it takes center stage, as in Robin McKinley's Sunshine.
The main character, Rae (aka Sunshine), is a baker and her baker's routine, including the early hours, and the food she cooks are essential to the story. Muffins definitely star! Similarly, in Joanne Harris's magic-realism novel, Chocolat, the chocolate and its magic are the heart of the tale.

And everyone who deals with the fairies and the fay knows one must not eat or drink anything offered in a fairy hill, lest one suffers the fate of Persephone or Tam Lin. 
This prohibition comes up in Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson novels when Mercy is required to enter Fairyland; similarly in Gillian Bradshaw's Hawk of May when Gwalchmai (Gawain) enters the realm of the Fey.  And it's definitely a theme of Raymond E Feist's classic Faerie Tale.
These are just a few examples that spring to my mind – but how about you? Got any favorite foodie reads in your Fantasy lineup?

Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, interviewer and blogger whose first novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. Her second, The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012. The sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013. Daughter Of Blood, (The Wall Of Night, Book Three) is her most recent book and she is currently working on the fourth and final novel in The Wall Of Night series. Helen posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog and is also on Twitter: @helenl0we


Kim Falconer said...

Helen, I love this connection of food to fantasy fiction. I immediately thought of Tolkien's hobbits, the heavenly food of the elves and the appetites of Dwarves. Food helps us understand the characters better too, with Gollum eating worms and raw rabbits; the hobbits insisting on cooking in the midst of a battle, wishing there was salt.

Food, desire, forbidden quarry. What we can eat, what we can't. It's all so basic to our being, and touches us on a visceral level.

I remember reading Kipling in grade school, appreciating water as I never have in my life:

Gunga Din

"... I shan’t forgit the night
When I dropped be’ind the fight
With a bullet where my belt-plate should ’a’ been.
I was chokin’ mad with thirst,
An’ the man that spied me first
Was our good old grinnin’, gruntin’ Gunga Din.
’E lifted up my ’ead,
An’ he plugged me where I bled,
An’ ’e guv me ’arf-a-pint o’ water green.
It was crawlin’ and it stunk,
But of all the drinks I’ve drunk,
I’m gratefullest to one from Gunga Din. .. "

Thank you, Helen, for this most intriguing exploration.

:) Kim

Helen Lowe said...

That's a great Kipling quote, Kim. :) And I agree that food also plays it's part in character development and understanding, not to mention "second breakfast" having entered the cultural zeitgeist post the LoTR films. :)