The significance of food and faith in fantasy literature
What’s the difference between sparkling wine and Champagne? About two feet if you own a winery right outside the boundary of France’s Champagne region. That’s because the drink enjoys protected geographic status. Origins of the beverage are subject to claims and counter-claims that it was actually discovered at Winchcombe, Gloucestershire here in England, years before our French cousins ‘invented’ it. Limoux in France swears to having made sparkling wine through secondary fermentation, way before either place. However, the – sometimes tense – discussion arising between different peoples over that classic winemaking process illustrates the importance of food/drink as an emblematic, unifying symbol of regional and cultural identity. Religion is another such topic. Examine any culture throughout human history, and you’ll find festivals, life-governing superstitions and a sense of connection stemming from both. Different places add their own flavours to cuisine and religion, even if those are similar foods and faiths.
When creating a new world foreign to readers, incorporating these significant symbols into the ongoing narrative is a useful way to build depth and immersion while further informing the audience of this mysterious land’s quirks. Hailing from England’s oldest brewery town, I’m well aware how such associations form core components of ‘place,’ and ‘home’ to natives.
In a previous post I described how the continent of Olandra, on which the majority of the initial Arisendia Chronicles are set, comprises provincial kingdoms large enough for epic adventure, yet close enough to be considered neighbours. Their relatively compact size also gives rise to a certain pride based on regional commerce and the products produced within them. Two of those kingdoms, Downhall and Vetravian, are famous for their white (‘Andane’) and red (‘Sunfire Dusk’) wines respectively. So quintessential are they, I’ve put together mock wine labels for sale in the Arisendia Merchandise Store. Of course, within the story’s environment they’d appear in bland bottles featuring attached handwritten labels and marked wax seals. A character called Ashlene Parrah invents the concept of block printing for text during ‘The Sword Ascendant,’ to produce large volumes of anti-regime propaganda in Falinor. But, like I suggested, the labels on sale are a bit of fun. You’ll find an image of them in the top banner for this post.
Speaking of Falinor, it’s during the visit of Palance Dane and Ulfgar Nelstrom to the city in ‘Rise of the Loremaster’ that we first receive a taste of how food and faith from the swelling population of its incoming southern demographic, the Eskardi, will affect wider Olandra. After witnessing a self-deprecating local city dweller fawning at (and over-paying for) a bowl of Radnoush, they go on to observe native Luminora worshippers ejected from their temple by new arrivals devoted to the four-armed god, Eskar. Radnoush is a stew made from a mixture of goat and lizard meat, blended with hot regional (Kremat) peppers. It’s a classic street food served in cheap, disposable clay bowls throughout the southern continent of Junziel. Eskardi faith and culture is based on an aggressive, patriarchal model whose core doctrines were laid down by a visionary called Klemik, after estrangement from his wife. I won’t go into further details. Needless to say, the events form a key part of Palance’s and Ulfgar’s shocking discoveries. They also provide several opportunities to furnish the reader with additional information on faith, food, flora, fauna and finance without dumping it all in their lap, out of context. The world gains depth and familiarity while advancing the central plot. Win, win!
Few Tolkien fans will ever forget Cram, Lembas, Longbottom Leaf or Old Winyard and their relevance to his characters. If you’ve a connection to the provenance of your own food, you’ll understand that’s because people instinctively bond with that which sustains them. This is true of both physical and spiritual nourishment.
In fiction writing essays and articles, the treatment of location as a character is often advised. I believe food and faith are similar branches of the same tree, and may even become ‘characters’ of import to the overall story arc. A particular village will never slay a dragon like one of our protagonists. A specific bottle of wine or beer is unlikely to save the day, unless it offers healing properties. The tenets of a mystical faith into which a hero digs deep for inner strength might linger in the background without any obvious physical manifestation. Yet details of those simple elements can add great richness to a fantasy world and those who dwell within it. Perhaps they deserve a little extra attention.
The third Arisendia novel, ‘The Sword Ascendant: The Arisendia Chronicles – Book 3,’ is now available to pre-order at Amazon. Like its counterparts, a paperback version will follow at the time of release.
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