The author of MAGEBORN and BATTLEMAGE shares his thoughts on ale, fantasy and fantasy ale
I’ve been reading fantasy since my early childhood and in those books, beyond the swords and magic there’s been one constant; beer.
‘YOU ALL MEET IN AN INN’
Whether it’s a mug of ale at the Prancing Pony with Merry and Pippin in Lord of the Rings, a pint of beer with Tanis and Cameron in the DragonLance novels, or a stout drink alongside Druss on the walls of Dros Drelnoch in Legend, beer is always there as part of the world building in dozens of fantasy novels.
In the Canterbury Tales, the pilgrims first meet in a tavern. It’s no coincidence that almost every Dungeons and Dragons gamesmaster starts their story in a bar. Every quest has to start somewhere, and whether it’s the chance for a bar brawl, an overheard rumour about hidden treasure or a quest given to the protagonist by the hooded stranger sitting in the corner, the call to adventure is most often found in a bar, (much like the authors at every fantasy convention).
When I was growing up I didn’t pay too much attention to what characters were drinking in these bars, but looking back I can see that a huge number of important conversations between principle characters have taken place over a pint. To be fair, sometimes a glass of wine, mead or something a little stronger is involved like whisky, but for the most it’s ale. This is because ale is relatively fast and easy to make, it’s cheap and it’s a drink for the working classes. Most of the time heroes don’t have a lot of money, nor are they members of the nobility who can afford something more expensive, so beer is the drink of choice. A hero might one day become a King or Queen who sits around on a throne sipping wine from a crystal glass, but at the start, when they’re heading out the door on their first adventure, they stay in cheap taverns and drink beer from a cracked tankard.
‘A HISTORIC BEER’
In ancient times the Egyptians used to reward people with beer for their labour, both adults and children drank it because it was seen as a source of nutrition. There are also stories of the Egyptians giving beer to their slaves at night to make them sleepy and prevent them rebelling. In Roman times they tended to favour wine and claimed beer was the inferior brew of barbarians. While some countries, like Japan, had a relatively late start brewing beer from the 17th century, it has a much longer history across Europe and the Middle East — the historical periods that tend to be the inspiration for many epic fantasy novels.
So even though beer has been brewed for thousands of years it’s only in very recent times that a lot of people are discovering the variety available and they’re starting to appreciate it for the taste. You see beer isn’t just beer. There are dark beers, porters, stout, wheat beers, fruit beers, IPAs and many others. Just like wine, where the type of grape dramatically changes the flavour, so it is with hops and malt for beer. So whether a story is set in Middle-Earth, Krynn or Earthsea, it’s not a stretch at all to have many different types of beer available in taverns from coast to coast for thirsty adventurers.
‘BEER AND BANQUETS’
In fantasy stories it’s common that epic quests are planned over a mug of ale. Secrets are shared, true feelings are revealed, friendships are made and bonds form as characters begin to lose their inhibitions and sink into their cups. And sometimes a glass of beer is raised in remembrance or poured upon the grave of friends and heroes who are lost along the way. In countless novels there are feasts where massive tables are laden with food and drink.
Some of the most critical moments take place in such surroundings. I need only mention The Red Wedding or, to avoid spoilers, make a vague mention of Arya’s revenge to evoke a clear mental picture. Humans being are social animals and we gather to celebrate key moments in the lives of the people we know. So whether it’s a wedding, the birth of a child, someone’s birthday later in life or a funeral, it’s often done with a glass of something in hand to mark it as a special day. However, sometimes you only need to bring together a group of people (fantasy fans and authors) in a room and they’ll use that as a reason to celebrate with a drink.
Much as there are racial stereotypes in fantasy series, such as dwarves being gruff, beardy men with a love of mining, there is a corresponding alcoholic stereotype. In The Hobbit and The Lord of Rings, the Elves are lofty, beautiful beings who drink fragrant clear miruvor, which is apparently sweet and refreshing. (As it turns out miruvor is mead). The Orcs drink Grog, a hearty brew that numbs pain, and the Hobbits drink everything they can get their hands on. Everyone gets a favourite drink in Tolkien’s world. Even the trees have Ent-draughts, which made Merry and Pippin grow taller when they had some! It’s a kind of shorthand — each of these drinks tells us something about the culture or character that favours it.
A fun fact: you can still visit the Eagle and Child in Oxford, the famous pub where Tolkien and C. S. Lewis planned many of their best known works of fantasy.
As you can no doubt tell I’m a big fan of both fantasy and beer. To celebrate the publication of Mageborn, book one in the new Age of Dread trilogy, I decided to combine two of my two hobbies to create my own special real ale.
I contacted a local brewery here in the West Midlands, Fownes brewery, because I knew the owners had a love of fantasy and because they brewed some great ales. Working together we created a special limited edition porter, MAGE, which was on hand earlier this year when I launched Mageborn in Birmingham. While RJ Barker (Age of Assassins) and I chatted about magic and world building, we and the audience were able to enjoy a glass or two of dark tasty MAGE which I’d helped brew.
So the next time you’re reading a fantasy book and a character stops off at a tavern for a drink, make a note. What are they drinking? And what does that tell you about them?
Look out for Stephen’s fan-favourite Age of Darkness trilogy BATTLEMAGE, BLOODMAGE and CHAOSMAGE, or start his brand new Age of Dread series with MAGEBORN, available at all good bookshops.
Coming in February, read the ebook-only novella OF GODS AND MEN, the first short fiction set in Stephen’s breathtaking epic fantasy world.