Why Do Fantasy Novels Have So Much Food?


A 1916 illustration to Christina Rossetti's <em&gtGoblin's Market</em> by Winifred Knights.
A 1916 illustration to Christina Rossetti’s Goblin’s Market by Winifred Knights. Public Domain

As a pre-teen, I devoured fantasy book after fantasy book. One day, I was stopped short by a food description. In Diana Wynne Jones’s A Tale of Time City, the era-hopping protagonists eat a treat called butter-pie. It’s yellow ice cream on a stick, ice-cold on the outside and molten on the inside, and described as “buttery and creamy … with just a hint of toffee, and twenty other even better tastes.” Butter-pie has never existed, except in the pages of Jones’s book and in the imaginations of readers. But it sounded delicious.

In those days, the internet was fairly new, so I couldn’t dig up the dozens of recipes that fans of Jones’s work have developed. But even as I moved from children’s fantasy novels to those meant for adults, I noticed that authors consistently incorporated lavish descriptions of food. It piqued both my appetite and my interest: Why do fantasy writers write so much about food?

As I doggedly read through the fantasy canon, I realized that the marvelous butter-pie was an outlier. Instead, heroes and heroines often ate familiar fare, even as they cast spells and rode dragons. For pages and pages, lucky characters feast on cakes and ale. Other characters only get stew, which is oddly omnipresent. In her satirical travel guide to fantasy literature, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Jones jokes that stew “is the staple food in Fantasyland, so be warned. You may shortly be longing for omelette, steak, or baked beans, but none of these will be forthcoming.”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, Proserpine, which shows Persephone, the queen of the underworld, with the fabled pomegranate. Public Domain

Food in fantasy dates back to early myths and legends, which are full of symbolic, often menacing fare. The Greek goddess Persephone ate six pomegranate seeds in the underworld, consigning her to spend six months of the year with Hades, the god of death. European tales and poems abound with mystical fairies or elves using food to lure humans. In the poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” written in 1819 by Romantic poet John Keats, a knight falls in love with a fairy girl, who feeds him “roots of relish sweet, And honey wild, and manna-dew.” But one day, the knight wakes up to find himself abandoned and half-mad for what he lost. In 1859, poet Christina Rossetti wrote “Goblin Market,” about eerie, otherworldly creatures that sell fruit that, once tasted, drive people crazy for more.

The trope of dangerous fairy food still exists in modern fantasy, says Dr. Robert Maslen. Maslen is a senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow, where he founded one of the world’s first master’s degrees in fantasy literature. He gives two modern examples: the film…

Sasha Harriet

Sasha Harriet

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Sasha Harriet

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