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New Worlds Theory Post: The Potatoes of Middle-Earth

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Are you allowed to have potatoes in Middle-Earth?

Opinions on this sort of thing get surprisingly vehement. Some people decry the appearance of such tubers in Tolkien’s fiction because he was writing about an explicitly European-derived setting — often a profoundly English one. Potatoes, like a variety of other plants we take for granted around the world these days, are indigenous to the Americas; they weren’t introduced to Europe until after 1492, well past the distinctly medieval-tinged era found in most of Tolkien’s writings. Ergo (the reasoning goes), potatoes in Middle-Earth are jarringly out of place.

There are a variety of counter-arguments to that, starting with “jarring to whom?” Quite a lot of people have no idea that potatoes are alien to Europe (or that Italian food used to be entirely tomato-free — the list could continue). Such readers will sail right over this alleged worldbuilding sin without ever noticing anything amiss — and of course this isn’t just about this one specific example; it’s about the broader question of whether you’re allowed to mix your sources in this fashion. But there’s another angle to the “jarring to whom?” query, one which comes up when you substitute something more widely known to have originated in a specific location: one person’s “jarring” may be another person’s “frisson of recognition.” For some readers, it’s wonderful to see a familiar thing show up in a story, even if it’s not surrounded by its usual environs.

A certain amount of logic does have to apply, if you want your setting to feel like it hangs together plausibly. (Which you don’t always!) If your desert nomads are chowing down on fresh tomatoes, I’m going to have significant questions about who is growing those tomatoes and where, regardless of whether that desert looks like Sonora or the Sahara. You also sometimes run into issues of language; to the best of my knowledge, the only names for a certain evergreen tree commonly used in Shintō ritual are sakaki and Cleyera japonica, both of which would look really out of place in a setting that otherwise feels like Ireland. (“Tomato” has become a familiar English word, even if it originates from Nahuatl, while “sasaki” has not.) And if you make up a name for it, the identity of the thing referred to becomes obscured, revealable only through detailed description.

As you can probably tell — from these essays, my fiction, or both — I’m on the pro-potatoes side. It’s a fantasy world; why does it have to confine itself to the specifics of the Columbian Exchange? Let your characters eat squash and wheat and wild rice and lentils and whatever else suits their ecological surroundings (or their trade environment). If the story has dragons or shapeshifters or mages who live for centuries, I don’t think a stray potato is really going to break verisimilitude.

The same goes for anything else that’s “out of place,” not just food. In A Natural History of Dragons I gave my nineteenth-century not-Romanians saunas, because . . . I dunno, it seemed like a good idea at the time. You don’t see saunas very often in Anglophone fiction, and there’s no reason those people couldn’t have such an institution. I can retroactively justify it by saying that they’d come under the thumb of that world’s non-Russians and a sauna is a lot like a banya, but I didn’t think of that at the time, and I’d still think it was a valid choice even if the Bulskoi were nowhere in the cultural picture. Following the anti-potatoes argument to its logical conclusion would mean that fantasy settings can only ever replicate the look and feel of cultures that have already existed, with a few imaginary novelties thrown in for spice. And that feels like an awfully restricted approach to take.

This forms something of a spectrum, though, and it’s worth paying attention to that. Back in Year [x], one of my theory essays was about the anthropological concept of “bricolage.” If you build your setting from enough disparate pieces, then everything is out of place and therefore nothing is out of place. (Up to a point. I wouldn’t give a sauna to any culture that has to burn dried animal dung for fuel; it’s too scarce and too smelly to be very suitable for that purpose.) But if you have lovingly created the fantasy equivalent of Renaissance Venice in every particular and then your characters are suddenly chowing down on raw fish with vinegared rice, I’ll be a little startled by them eating sushi — even as I acknowledge that there’s probably no reason that couldn’t exist there. Divergences stick out more the fewer they are in number, and so you may be better off deciding to either avoid entirely or commit wholeheartedly.

The other problem with a few singleton oddities is that I suspect they run a higher risk of feeling appropriative. However much you love both Scotland and Japan, giving your Highlander a katana does carry a whiff of “Japanese swords are kewl!” exoticism. This risk is probably also higher when the thing you’re importing into your setting is, like the katana, a focal point for appropriation and misuse already: fewer people will notice or care if what you’ve borrowed is the shibori technique of indigo-dying.

So this is a “use with care” concept. As with everything in your worldbuilding, do think about the implications — and the more you know about history and culture, the more likely you are to be aware of what you’re doing, to recognize when you’re popping in something from a different milieu or treading on the toes of current social concerns.

But yes, you’re allowed to have potatoes in Middle-Earth. They’re very tasty. Given the many trials and traumas we subject our characters to, they should occasionally get to enjoy nice things like fried potatoes and a relaxing jaunt to the sauna.

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8 thoughts on “New Worlds Theory Post: The Potatoes of Middle-Earth”

  1. Potatoes “don’t belong” in Middle Earth only if you believe Middle EArth to be an earlier age of our world, something Tolkien himself waffled and flipped back and forth on.

    1. Tolkien flipped on many things but I don’t think he flipped on this one. He did waffle on the early “flat Earth” history, with later but incomplete Round World ideas where the mythology would be adjusted closer to real cosmology, but I don’t think he ever abandoned the conceit of it all being a deep past of the real world.

  2. From Appendix F, II “In presenting the matter of the Red Book, as a history for people of today to read, the whole of the linguistic setting has been translated as far as possible into terms of our own times… The Common Speech… has inevitably been turned into Modern English.” So what’s happened is, he’s taken a native tuber and rather than use the Westron name, has substituted “potato” so modern readers can better identify it. Just as “shire” as been substituted for “suza,” “halfling” rather than “banakil,” and Hobbit rather than “kuduk.”

    That said, I personally don’t have a problem with that anachronism, though many times I do have problems with egregious anachronisms in settings obviously based on medieval europe (having majored in that in college). Someone sleeping with a loaded, primed, and wound wheellock pistol under their pillow is a big problem for me (do your research!), as is using jarringly modern terminology for a character (my favorite example is a book about Mary Queen of Scots riding north and describing a cut along a hillside with modern technical geological terminology). For me it throws me out of the world, as does medieval characters talking about time in minutes (they probably only used concepts like dawn, mid morning, noon, midafternoon, etc. or at most the Church’s canonical hours if they had an abbey nearby ringing them). But a potato I can take. I’ll even allow a mug of hot chocolate because of personal preferences 😉

    1. ‘he’s taken a native tuber and rather than use the Westron name, has substituted “potato”’

      OTOH pipe-weed is straight-up tobacco; the Prologue calls it out as Nicotiana, with Merry saying it was probably brought over the sea by the Men of Westernesse.

  3. I’ll suppress my impulse to geek out about Numenorean potato explanations, and instead just note that the Shire feels more “early 1800s England” to me than “medieval”. Peaceful and laid-back, highly functional mail system, arguably strong enough private banking (in lieu of government bonds) that Bilbo and Frodo can simply have “money” rather than “land”. (They’re rich, but there is no evidence of them being landlords or worrying about tenants, even to the Bagshot Row people like the Gaffer. The Gaffer fears Lobelia as a neighbor, not as the ‘lord’ of Bag End.)

  4. My early manuscripts got shredded by non-historian critiquers.
    Concrete or cement in a fantasy world. The Romans used it extensively. The technology was forgotten over the next few centuries. But some places in Europe remembered.

    Munch sounds too “California Fresh” to be used in a high fantasy setting. The word came from an Anglo-Saxon word.

    Etc. etc. I used my research tools and stuck to my guns.

    1. The Tiffany problem.

      Tiffany being a fine medieval name. Popular for girls born around the feast of — ta-da! — Epiphany.

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