Thursday 8 April 2021

Banquets, Stews and Picnics: Food in Fantasy

Diana Wynne Jones, in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, warns travellers that the only thing they’ll ever be offered to eat on their Quest – whether in Tavern, Alehouse or Camp – will be Stew. Unless of course they are entertained by an Enchantress who intends to seduce them, in which case jellies soother than the creamy curd, and lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon will be the least of it.

Stew… she has a point, of course. Given all the stuff we have to provide for our characters so that they can make it over the mountains, through the forest, and across the desert – backpacks, ponies, waterflasks, sacks of oatmeal – most authors draw the line at dreaming up menus. Much easier to picture a cooking pot slung over the flames with something indeterminate bubbling away inside – and throw in a couple of references to rabbits spitted over the flames. What else after all can you cook in a pot over an open fire, except stew? Or possibly porridge? 


And whenever I watch the movie of The Fellowship of the Ring (that’s at least once a year) I wonder again about the fry-up of sausage, eggs and ‘nice crispy bacon’ the hobbits cook on the slopes of Weathertop. Days out from Bree, wouldn’t the eggs have smashed and the sausages gone off? Or been eaten already: how many eggs and sausages did they set out with? And that scene where Aragorn returns to camp with a dead deer slung over his shoulders: they’ll be moving on next day, so how much raw meat are they prepared to cart around with them? That's down to Peter Jackson rather than Tolkien of course, but no wonder the elves invented lembas. Portable, nutritious and clearly vegetarian, it is the culinary equivalent of the useful phosphorescent stuff that appears on the end of wizards' wands (or simply clings to the walls) to illuminate otherwise lightless caves.

But there is a lot more to food in Fantasyland than Wynne Jones' witty account allows. I must hold my hand up; I have occasionally given my characters stew (and mysterious glowing lights), but in my own Dark Angels, set in the late 12th century, I had fun referencing real medieval dishes such as blancmange – that’s ‘white food’: minced chicken with pounded almonds – for the meals at the high table of  Lord Hugo's motte-and-bailey castle, La Motte Rouge. One character in the book is a very food-centric house-hob:

The hob yawned, showing a lot of yellow teeth. “What's for supper tonight? Roast pork and crackling?”

            “It's Friday,” said Nest, wiping her eyes.

“Is it?” The hob's face fell. “No meat,” it grumbled. “Fasting on Friday. Who thought that one up? What's the point?”

Nest sat up. “Fasting brings us closer to the angels,” she said coldly. “Angels never eat. They spend all their time praising God.”

“Only cos they ain't got stummicks,” the hob muttered. “Go on then, what's for supper? Herbert's not the worst cook I've ever known. We won't starve. Fish, I s'pose? A nice bit of carp, or trout?”

And the meal turns out to consist of fish in batter with a sharp sauce, followed by a sweet omelette. 

Many fantasies are not affected – may even be enhanced – by the appearance of anachronistic or otherwise out-of-place types of food. In that affectionately ‘English’ area of Middle-Earth, the Shire, no reader will mind references to potatoes, fish and chips, buttered toast, birthday cake, etcetera. Early on in The Hobbit, Gandalf and the dwarves demand all kinds of food from poor Bilbo, all of it either very English or, like coffee, at least easily available in England. “Tea?” exclaims Gandalf, rejecting it –

“No thankyou! A little red wine, I think for me.”

“And for me,” said Thorin.

“And raspberry jam and apple tart,” said Bifur.

“And mince pies and cheese,” said Bofur.

“And pork-pie and salad,” said Bombur.

“And more cakes – and ale – and coffee, if you don't mind,” called the other dwarves through the door.

... “Put on a few eggs, there's a good fellow,” Gandalf called... “And just bring out the cold chicken and pickles!”

Much of The Hobbit is lighter in tone and more frivolous than The Lord of the Rings (and I disliked the book as a child, I felt talked-down to) – so this stodgy English fare works well as comedy. But it’s impossible to imagine coffee or tea being offered to guests anywhere else in Middle-Earth – in Rivendell, Edoras or Minas Tirith. Even Sam’s throwaway remark about fish and chips to Gollum in Ithilien (in the chapter ‘Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit’) makes me a little uneasy: Middle-Earth is so clearly European in its culture/s that I feel there shouldn't be any potatoes. I can cope with pipe-weed because Tolkien has (thinly) disguised it. It might not be nicotiana; people smoke all kinds of things. But potatoes?

I was more comfortable with the frivolous tone in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. Here for example, the Water Rat (a charming Oxbridge type) packs this magnificent picnic into a 'fat wicker luncheon basket':

“What's inside it?” asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.

“There's cold chicken inside it," replied the Rat briefly, “coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater –”

“Oh stop, stop,” cried the Mole in ecstasies: “This is too much!”

“Do you really think so?” inquired the Rat seriously. “It's only what I always take on these little excursions, and the other animals are always telling me that I'm a mean beast, and cut it very fine.” 



Kenneth Grahame's animals are so anthropomorphised that even their size is indeterminate – the Toad drives a car and can pass himself off in human society as a washerwoman – so it feels all right for them to eat human food. Even bubble and squeak, that peculiarly British concoction of fried potato and cabbage, makes its appearance in The Wind In The Willows, and the jailer’s daughter, pitying the poor imprisoned Toad, brings him:

…a tray, with a cup of hot tea steaming on it; and a plate piled up with very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in it in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb. The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad…

As well it might. Mmmmmm... And thinking of comfort food, I read John Masefield’s classic The Box of Delights to my daughters when they were small. There’s a point when young Kay despairs of ever managing to explain to the warm-hearted but slow Police Inspector that the villainous wizard Abner Brown is masquerading as the principal of a nearby religious college. The good Inspector advises him:

“You get that good guardian of yours to see you take a strong posset every night. But you young folks in this generation, you don’t know what a posset is. Well, a posset,” said the Inspector, “is a jorum of hot milk; and in that hot milk, Master Kay, you put a hegg, and you put a spoonful of treacle, and you put a grating of nutmeg, and you stir ‘em well up and then you take ‘em down hot. And a posset like that, taken overnight, will make a new man of you, Master Kay, while now you’re all worn down with learning.”

Both daughters insisted that I make it. I did, and it’s delicious, and they had it often over the years of their ‘school learning’… Try it! For treacle I’ve always used Tate and Lyle’s Golden Syrup, in the traditional green and gold tin – not molasses. A little later in the book, Kay is entertained by the Lady of the Longwise Cross in her home in the oak tree, where:

…the squirrel, the moles, the most beautiful little mice and seven little foxes brought Kay strawberries, raspberries, red and white currants, ripe mulberries, plump blackberries, red and yellow cherries, black cherries, walnuts, beechnuts, hazel-nuts, filberts, little round radishes, little pointed wild strawberries, sloes all cracking with ripeness, a mushroom for a relish, a chip cut from a turnip, an apricot from the south wall, and a peach almost bursting its skin.

This rivals the tempting but far less wholesome fruit of Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market:

Plump unpeck’d cherries,

Melons and raspberries,

Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,

Swart-headed mulberries,

Crab-apples, dewberries,

Wild free-born cranberries,

Pine-apples, blackberries,

Apricots, strawberries,–

All ripe together

In summer weather,–

Morns that pass by,

Fair eves that fly;

Come buy, come buy…


In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the Beavers eat impossibly English food. They do fry fish, which Mr Beaver has caught. But how do they manage ‘a jug of creamy milk for all the children (Mr Beaver stuck to beer) and a great big lump of deep yellow butter in the middle of the table, from which everyone took as much as he wanted to go with his potatoes’? Where are the cows? And the meal ends with ‘a great and gloriously sticky marmalade roll, steaming hot,’ and cups of tea. But it doesn't matter, any more than the appearance of Father Christmas matters, for this book is like The Wind in The Willows: to demand consistency is to miss the point.


In Prince Caspian, things have gone badly wrong in Narnia: under King Miraz the land is in a worse state than under the White Witch: so the children meet few comforts and have to eat what they can find. They start with apples, plucked from the wild orchard that has sprung up around the ruins of abandoned Cair Paravel; later they add bear steaks from a bear (not a Talking Bear) which they have shot. “Each apple was wrapped up in bear’s meat … and spiked on a sharp stick and then roasted. And the juice of the apple worked all through the meat, like apple sauce with roast pork…” This opportunistic feast is in some ways more convincing than stew, for which in any case the children have no cooking pot, but I think Lewis is way too optimistic about the success of the recipe. I’m sure it would have been both tough and very messy. But he manages to make the soil which the trees eat at the banquet at the end of the book sound delicious.

They began with a rich brown loam that looked almost exactly like chocolate…When the rich loam had taken the edge off their hunger, the trees turned to earth of the kind you see in Somerset, which is almost pink. They said it was lighter and sweeter.At the cheese stage they had a chalky soil and then went on to delicate confections of the finest gravels powdered with choice silver sand.

I was with him through most of it, but he lost me at the gravels.

Patricia McKillip, whose beautiful fantasies sustained me through much of the first lockdown, writes wonderfully about food. In The Book of Atrix Wolfe, a lost, mute child, Saro – daughter of the Queen of the Wood and the dangerous Hunter – is taken in and set to work as a scullery maid in the kitchens of the castle Pelucir. McKillip brings the busy kitchens and the people who work there to vivid life.

It was late; the King’s hunt had returned long before; supper and its confusion of plates and pots and tales carried down the stairs, coming in the back door, was long over. … The King had retired in fury and despair to his chamber, slamming the door so hard, the boom down the long corridor sounded, servants said, like one of the prince’s explosions. Supper – roast, peppered venison, tiny potatoes roasted crisp, hollowed and filled with cheese and onions and chive, cherries marinated in brandy and folded into beaten cream – sailed over the tray-bearer’s head and splashed in lively patchwork on the wall behind him. Brandy was taken up, and later, another tray which at least made it through the door. Dirty pots came to an end, fires were banked…

By dawn of the next day it’s all to do again:

… the spit-boys, groping, half asleep, sat up to toss wood on the fires beneath the bread ovens. The head-cook entered later to the smell of hot bread, followed by hall servants and yawning undercooks, and the tray mistress, red-eyed and grim.

            “Hunt,” the head-cook said tersely. The dogs were barking in the yard. “Again. Take up bread and cheese, smoked fish and cold, sliced venison. Mince the rest of the venison for pie. Also onions, mushrooms, leeks. Take up spiced wine.”

“Again.” I love the implied groan, and I love the attention McKillip pays to the actual work, the craft of cookery and running a kitchen. Though the King and his nobles are engaged in high matters – the terrifying Hunter may return – McKillip shows their interdependence with the servants, who make all kinds of decisions for them. No way does the head-cook intend to to waste all that perfectly good uneaten venison; the King and his party are going to be made to eat it one way or another! Next day’s breakfast for these pampered (yet worthy) nobles consists of “silver urns of chocolate, trays of butter-pastries, hams glazed with honey and cut thin as paper, eggs poached in sherry, birds carved out of melons and filled with fruit…” Lyrical as these descriptions are, they are functional as well: for with so much carrying of trays and setting of tables, and waiting upon them, the servants know and discuss all that’s going on: they are invested in the events of the story, for the return of the Hunter would be disastrous for them too. And all the time, mute little Saro is listening.

Patricia McKillip’s is the cordon bleu of fantasy food: I doubt it has ever been equalled. So... what fantasy banquet would you most like to be invited to?


Picture credits:

Histoire d'Olivier de Castille et d'Artus d'Algarbe:

Cooking pot: wikimedia commons

Rat and Mole's Picnic from The Wind in the Willows: Arthur Rackham

Animals bringing berries, from The Box of Delights: Judith Masefield 

Illustration to Goblin Market; Arthur Rackham

The Beavers' home, from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Pauline Baynes 

Illustration of feast, from Prince Caspian: Pauline Baynes





  1. It is amazing what people had to eat. The variety, especially. (I actually wrote a book about what the early medieval Irish ate, and it was interesting how wide and varied their diet was.)

  2. As soon as I started reading I thought of Mrs Beaver’s cooking. That marmalade roll has always bothered me a bit. Where does the marmalade come from? I can’t see the Calormens eating it, or exporting it to Narnia.
    There’s a great moment in one of the Belgarion books by David Eddings where Durnik, retired blacksmith, soon to be a god if I remember rightly, is suddenly confronted with a whole lobster at a banquet. He is just as horrified as I would be which makes a change because I am usually far pickier than characters in books.
    The apples from Cair Paravel (such a clever way to show us that things have changed in Narnia) remind me of the shrivelled and spotty apples F’lar offers a visitor in Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey. When the local lords have sworn to provide all your food and then suddenly decide they don’t need your protection anymore you can be a bit stuck. No shops and not many markets on Pern.
    The Box of Delights is a wonderful book. The Midnight Folk too.

    1. I don't know the David Eddings book, but it sounds great fun! Thankyou.

  3. The Belgariad is 5 books long, and just when you think it’s all over there’s a second 5 book series including many of the same characters. I haven’t read them for years (still in storage) but I used to enjoy them very much. Not high literature but great fun. And considering everyone turns out to be a sourcer or a long lost king, as you do, and dealing with magical problems on a daily basis (of course), their attitudes are refreshingly normal. Garion’s Aunt Pol does a lot of cooking. In fact when we first meet her she is in charge of a kitchen at a farm. I think she would provide a tastier dinner than most cooks in fantasy books.

  4. I shall definitely look out for them!

  5. I expect you could pick them up second hand very reasonably. Sorry I can’t make the Reply function work.