Write it now, part 30: Middle Earth on a plate?

I’ve mentioned before that the art of writing focuses on what to avoid – not what to add.

Take food, for which we need go no further than J R R Tolkien. This week, the Roxy– a wonderful art deco cinema, literally just down the road from Peter Jackson’s studios in Miramar, Wellington – got into Hobbit mode for the annual ‘Wellington on a plate’ food festival.

The Roxy cinema, Miramar, Wellington - restored to fabulous 1930s art deco condition by Peter Jackson. A photo I took in 2011.
The Roxy cinema, Miramar, Wellington – restored to fabulous 1930s art deco condition by Peter Jackson. A photo I took in 2011.

The cinema’s restaurant, Coco at the Roxy, is providing Lord Of The Rings themed meals – which is pretty cool idea. Though I don’t think I’d be a fan of their genuine sixteenth century starters such as ‘faggots’,  a legitimate sixteenth century delicacy made of offal with a delicate covering of stomach fat. Mind you, how would a sixteenth century peasant view the fast foods we gorge on? I bet they’d find them too sweet (including the savouries) and way too salty.

The Roxy menu was a modern interpretation. Which is fair enough, because with a few exceptions, Tolkien was a bit vague about food. And that was a good thing. Let me explain.

Although Tolkien portrayed Middle Earth tech as High Medieval (creating the default fantasy tech for the genre), Hobbit society was a deliberate take on 1890s Midlands village life. He did this consciously, one of the many elaborate jokes he wove into his mythos. Their food reflected it; in The Hobbit, Bilbo’s cuisine is specifically English middle class, including the afternoon tea cake selection.

Tolkien went wider with the other peoples – but not much. Dwarves ate Cram on the road. Apart from lembas, Elvish food was conceptually ‘higher taste’ and largely nonspecific. He described various meals, but roast meats, vegetables, mead, breads and other pre-industrial fare was implicit rather than explicit, most of the time.

All was duly lampooned by Messrs Beard and Kenney in Bored Of The Rings, whose Boggies were uncontrollable gluttons who ate anything they would wrist-wrestle down their well-muscled  throats (anything, that is that they weren’t stashing in their coin purses ‘for later’). When the Boggies got going on the road, eventually, their menus were laugh-out-loud funny.

As always, Tolkien got it right; he did not have to describe all the food in every detail – it was more powerful to omit descriptions. Instead, and with the elves particularly, he usually gave us the idea of the food – what it meant to those experiencing it.  By painting other aspects of the elves in full detail, he was able to provoke our imaginations into filling the food gap via skilful use of image and concept – not literal description.

A brilliant technique; but, of course, that’s Tolkien for you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: more writing tips, publishing news, general geekery and more. Watch this space.


6 thoughts on “Write it now, part 30: Middle Earth on a plate?

  1. I describe meals eaten by my characters, but as you point out, not in great detail, but suggested by outline descriptions of basic types and recipes and I leave it to the reader’s imagination to fill in the details. Great article. Thanks for sharing the food for thought!

  2. Great points. You don’t want the food to get in the reader’s way. Just in this country there are countless regional palates and if that idea is extended around the globe it becomes thousands. Describe the food eaten in great detail and a lot of people, instead of enjoying the scene, will be cringing (or salivating). The “idea” of food and its “meaning” to those eating it was more important. Brilliant!

  3. This made me think of GRR Martin’s Game of Thrones where he often describes some dishes in great detail. This even inspired a cookbook with recipes for Westerosian meals which has been released as an official companion book. This pales in comparison to the “companion books” to LOTR, like The Silmarillion, the histories of Middle Earth and the Lost Tales, not to mention the appendixes of the novels themselves.

    1. I have to admit that I haven’t read those. Or watched the tv series. It says something for the cultural penetration of these things when it’s viable to publish what amounts to ‘meta’ fiction. Tolkien, of course, led the way.

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