Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Food Fantasies in George R. R. Martin

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Food Fantasies in George R. R. Martin

Article excerpt

In his article "Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption," Roland Barthes points out that "an entire 'world' (social environment) is present in and signified by food" (23). The signifying power of food in a world, however fantastic, becomes apparent in George R. R. Martin's (yet to be completed) cycle titled The Song of Ice and Fire. (1) Not only do his sensuous descriptions of food enhance the medieval aura of the world in his novels, but they also underpin the ideologies of the parties involved in the conflict. The social structure of this world is complex, but among the many differences at play in its evolution, the dominant opposition between those in power and the disinherited emerges through, among other things, their attitudes toward food. Whereas the privileged indulge the pleasure of eating and prove their power through extravagant food displays, the dispossessed are forced to resort to violence or risk starvation. Both the hedonism of one faction and the cruelty of the other are symptoms of an imbalance at once social and spiritual.

Food sharing scenes in Martin's novels have a special appeal. His readers' enthusiasm for the subject surfaces in blogs too numerous to mention, letters to the author, (2) and not one but two cookbooks (3) inspired by the recipes in his novels. In his preface to the "official" cookbook, he spells out his reasons for describing food: "It grounds the scenes, gives them texture, makes them vivid and visceral and memorable. Sense impressions reach us on much deeper and more primal levels than intellectual discourse can ever hope to" (Monroe-Cassel and Lehrer X). Yet, food descriptions are not simply a means to achieve a visceral effect. They contribute to the fashioning of a world fringed by magic from fragments of historical or literary representations. In her work on medieval romance, Geraldine Heng remarks that "Romance, of course, freely cannibalizes from extant cultural material--from bodies of older texts, floating metaphors and motifs, bits of tales, legends, superstitions, mere hints and guesses--and organizes its hybrid matter into a pattern and a structure that it instantiates at a particular historical moment" (46). What is true about medieval romance is also true of historical fantasy. The fantasy writer "cannibalizes" the medieval recipes and organizes them in a pattern, where the missing pieces play as crucial a role as those included. For whereas the eating habits of the aristocracy reflect historically documented attitudes, two important ideologies surrounding food in the Middle Ages are left out: the theory of humours and Christian food prohibitions. By the same gesture, the violence attending the procurement and preparation of food is purged from the descriptions of the meals of the privileged and relegated to the means by which the disinherited and hungry get their food. The contrast between eating for pleasure and being driven by hunger to commit unspeakable acts underscores the conflict between those in power and the dispossessed.

Studies about food provide insights in many aspects of culture and can be used as a framework for analyzing Martin's use of food descriptions. In the introduction to the second edition of her book, Much Depends on Dinner, Margaret Visser looks back on the developments in food studies since its first edition (1986): "Since the book first appeared there has been an explosion of writing about food" (1). She also comments that "Food used to be thought too 'low' a subject for intellectual rumination, a merely animal pleasure, a necessity that, once we have secured sufficient supplies of it, was too obvious and too crude for discussion in public" (1-2). No longer considered "low," the subject has become popular both with the general public and in academia. Before Visser, it was structuralism that drew the attention of academic research to food, when Claude Levi-Strauss (4) offered a way to analyze culture through cuisine. …

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