Tea in Fantasy


Akhi Pillalamarri
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It’s always a pleasure to see things you enjoy appear in the literature you read. For example, in my previous post, I talked about how I liked seeing a terrain that appeals to me, the desert, in fantasy literature.

This same pleasure also extends to food and drink. I love tea. I love expanding my palate by trying out different varieties and preparing it in a multitude of ways. Just as there are numerous different grape cultivars that yield different types of wines, such is the case with the tea plant.

While the constructed worlds of some of the series I’ve read try to capture the diversity of wine and beer, I haven’t seen this effort extended as much to tea, and even less to coffee.

Tea does feature pretty prominently throughout fantasy, it just seems to me that, the majority of the time, it is prepared and consumed without much comment on its varieties or recipes. I’ve observed a remarkable nexus between individuals who enjoy tea and individuals who write fantasy or science-fiction. Perhaps creative people who like to write tend to enjoy tea; perhaps it stems from early British influence on the genre, as many authors were either British or influenced by medieval England.

The worlds of both The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia feature tea — demonstrating how important it was to the authors’ sense of “Englishness.” Yet I find it ironic that tea was unknown in medieval Europe, and was not yet introduced to Britain from China and India until the 17th-18th centuries. Despite this, tea continues to appear in medieval fantasy, such as the more recent worlds of George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson, et al. It’s even possible nowadays for fans to create their own character-inspired blends of tea.

TLeckie_AncillaryJustice_TPo my delight, however, I recently completed a series that treated tea very seriously: the Imperial Radch series, also known as the Ancillary series by Ann Leckie. Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy are often classified as science-fiction as opposed to fantasy, because they take place in space, but the series mostly focuses on characterization, ethics, the nature of empire; it raises questions about psychology and sociology rather than focusing on space travel and technology. In fact, the majority of the series takes place away from space, on planets and space stations, and involves social interaction. One of these planets we visit within her books grows tea and the labor disputes amongst tea pickers (this is a hard task!) is a key plot point.

The dominant empire and culture in the Imperial Radch series are the Radchaai, who are obsessed with tea, as it forms an ubiquitous part of their daily and formal lives. I sometimes wonder if Leckie invented the word to include the term “chaai” on purpose. Leckie confirms that the tea in her series, is actually real tea as opposed to some other product that conveniently uses a familiar word. She further stated that the inclusion of tea within her story was inspired by her own real-life love of tea:

“I’ve been asked if Radchaai “tea” is really tea, or if it’s perhaps just a convenient term for some sort of Space Caffeine. In fact, it’s tea. As in made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis. We sometimes call nearly any sort of vegetable matter steeped in hot water “tea” but technically speaking, if it’s not camellia sinensis, it’s not tea. It’s probably a tisane. Many of which are quite nice! But they’re not quite, you know, tea.”

Even more importantly than the above knowledge, is Leckie’s keen understanding of how tea is produced — how it is grown and shipped — as opposed to the tea of, say, Narnia that just arrives without intermediate steps:

“So now, if you’re still with me, you’re wondering what sort of tea do the Radchaai drink? And the answer is, it depends. Radch space is huge, and no doubt various sorts of tea are popular in various places. But the cheapest, easiest to find tea is bricked, and shipped very long distances, probably quite slowly, so plenty of time to age. So if you want to know what the lowest-common-denominator tea is like, maybe it’s something like pu-erh [a sort of aged, fermented tea].”

Within Leckie’s series, different characters drink and express preferences for different types of tea, most of which we assume are prepared loose-leaf. It’s just like when characters in other works express preferences for products like wine or beer. There’s a luxury brand high-ranking people give each other as gifts called the Daughter of Fishes, that plays a minor role in the plot by signifying status; Leckie describes it as a “really good oolong.” The main character, Breq seems to prefer green tea, a more common day-to-day, get-you-going type of thing for her. The make and design of teapots is also described at length, with one secondary character being particularly obsessed over serving tea in the proper type of teapot for every different occasion.

For me to feel a work of fiction is believable and real, I think the food, drink, terrain, and other aspects of it should have economic and climatic components that are well thought out and discussed within the narrative.

After all, something like tea has to be grown somewhere and picked by someone. It can be prepared in different ways and for different periods of times before being packaged. Like more goods, there are luxury varieties and cheap versions. It has to be served in some sort of vessel, which requires even more thought and elaboration. I love it when an author not only thinks all of this through when writing, but incorporates it within the narrative as well.

Is there anything particular thing-food, drink, item of clothing, trade good–in literature that you like to a  lot of? Are there any particular examples that you particularly appreciate?


*Nota bene: All links to books available for purchase through Amazon are affiliate links, which means Backroom Whispering Productions receive a small percentage of the sales made through that link.


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