With the Thanksgiving feast rapidly approaching, my thoughts turned to the role of food and feasting in fantasy. Quite a few unique foods and significant meals immediately came to mind. And I realized food forms an integral part of many fantasy novels, performing a significant role for readers and for the characters inhabiting the pages, which goes beyond its function as a simple necessity of life.
For the reader, the meals and foods enjoyed by the characters serve as an identifiable connection point between our world and the fantastic world. It’s a part of everyday life that we can easily relate to. At the same time, the unique aspects of the fantasy foods give a sense of the world and culture in which we find ourselves, at once familiar and distinct.
But food in fantasy does more than provide a service to readers, it impacts the characters as well–not so much the food itself (though it has value to strengthen the physical body), but in what it represents to the ones receiving it.
Frequently, the meals partaken by the characters provide a reminder of home and safety amid the turmoil of adventure and change they experience. Think of Frodo and his companions sharing a meal with Farmer Maggot despite the pursuit of the Black Riders, or Sam Gamgee making rabbit stew on the outskirts of Mordor despite the risks of a fire and his own weariness. Or consider On The Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, where Janner, Tink, and Leeli enjoy their mother’s cooking after a dangerous encounter with Fangs, and feel their world has been set to rights (or at least more nearly so).
The meals in which characters partake provide more than necessary sustenance–they remind the characters of the things of home they value and provide an opportunity to enjoy the familiar rhythm of everyday life, however difficult their circumstances. For characters on the run and in great peril, their meals offer a welcome respite. For those taxed and wearied by the burdens they bear, meals give an opportunity for refreshment. Countless tales show the sense of comfort and normalcy the characters derive from familiar, homey foods.
But for all the positive connotations of food–refreshment, reminders of home and the familiar, and relational bonding, there’s a countertrend, where food actually provides a catalyst for change. In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Edmond partakes of the Turkish Delight offered by the White Witch, and his plan shifts from seeking his sister that he might return home to seeking his own glory and honor, regardless of the cost. Similarly, in Smith of Wootton Major, Tolkien’s short story, when Smith consumes the fay-star concealed in the Great Cake, it opens the realm of Faery to him, forever changing the course of his life.
Whether as comfort in the midst of turmoil, the impetus for a character shift, or merely a connection between the fantastic world and our own, food plays a significant role in fantasy. Over the next two Mondays we’ll look at some of the most appealing fantastic foods as well as significant foods and feasts in fantasy novels.
What do you think of the role food plays in fantasy? Is there something I’ve neglected to mention here?
Tip for Writers: What kinds of foods are common in your lands? What social customs surround meals? What do these meals and traditions say about the nature of your world and the people that dwell in it? Considering such elements, as well as the different purposes food can serve, will help bring your world to life.