The Secret History of the Potato in the Wold Newton Universe.

by Andrew Brook



It is a mistake to think you can solve any major problems just with potatoes.

  Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe and Everything



  In recent years, the press have lamented the general public’s ignorance of history. It has reached the stage where even the popular old myths—Robert the Bruce and the Spider, Clarence and the Butt of Malmsey, and so forth—are beginning to be lost.


  One myth that I for one would be glad to see the back of is the story that the potato was introduced to Europe by Sir Walter Raleigh. For many years this has been the accepted truth, and generations of schoolchildren have been taught that the potato is native to South America. However, this is a fallacy, as modern scholarship shows.[1]


  The earliest record of the potato in Europe may date back more than two thousand years. Some of the illuminated illustrations to texts of Personalities of the Gallic Wars by the pseudo-Caesar clearly show a man in the act of peeling a bowl of potatoes, an image famously reproduced by Albert Uderzo in Astérix chez les bretons.[2] 


  For potatoes within more recent history, we must turn to Terrance Dicks, the man who has undertaken perhaps the most extensive study into the life and circumstances of the Time Lord known as the Doctor[3]. Although there has been dissent during the last ten years as regards some of his sources[4], his research has identified the presence of potatoes as a staple foodstuff in England during the Middle Ages.


  An eyewitness and active participant in this matter was Sarah Jane Smith, journalist and sometime companion of the Doctor, who describes in her fictionalised memoir Irongron’s Star an adventure wherein her protagonist is transported back in time to ‘Merrie England’, where she is employed in a Medieval kitchen peeling potatoes.


  However, it must be noted that there is every possibility that the reference to potatoes was designed as an unflattering comparison to the physical appearance of Linx the Sontaran, the alien whose activities precipitated the entire affair.


  One must also consider the possibility that the potatoes were genuinely anachronistic and that they had been brought to the Middle Ages by the activity of a time traveller—for whom there are two candidates to consider.


  Firstly Linx, who through manipulating the damaged drive of his spaceship is said to have been able to jury-rig a timescoop. It is theorised that he could have used this to bring potatoes to the past, and this is a theme taken up by William Keith, the translator of the surviving portions of The Ballad of Irongron, which in his version concludes that following the alien’s death his ‘guns and potatoes were quickly forgotten’; however, the origins of The Ballad of Irongron are murky and the little-known ‘three-fingered verse’ form used in its construction is doubtful. According to the Classicist Montalo (working somewhat outside his normal field), there are in fact no other works known to have been composed in this format; the ‘fingers’ are just a reference once more to Linx’s physical form (Sontarans possessing only three on each hand); and ultimately, the poem is a forgery.[5]


  Secondly, Chris Howarth and Steve Lyons have postulated that the potatoes were introduced by the renegade Time Lord known as the Monk; in either scenario, the Doctor presumably had to clear up all the anachronisms at the end of the adventure. However, neither time-travel based theory bears examination since both require the cultivation and consumption of potatoes to be an innovation new to the Mediaeval populace, yet Sarah was immediately expected to know how to peel them.[6]


  The word ‘potato’ itself is supposedly of Carib origin, deriving from the name of the sweet potato Ipomoea batatas. In fact, there is no obvious connection between the two at all, and the English names clearly indicate that the non-sweet potato came first (otherwise the sweet potato would be called the potato and the potato would be called the savoury potato). Rather, the name appears to be Irish in origin (and possibly related to the term ‘poteen’), as it was in Ireland that Sir John Fastolfe encountered the vegetable. According to his 1459 memoirs in the edition by Robert Nye, the young John Fastolfe was part of the English army besieged at Kildare Castle in 1401, where he discouraged the Irish from attacking by bombarding them with barrels of ‘inflammatory liquid’ and where he similarly made it ‘rain potatoes’, knowing ‘that true-born thirsty Irishmen would be far better deterred by potations’ than by vats of boiling oil, and that ‘Your Irish peasant is a great eater of potatoes. He will always lay down his sword and his banshee to pick one up’—the young Fastolfe had spotted that the vast bars of iron being hurled from the battlements were, for the effort involved, knocking aside far too few of the enemy.


  However, even in 1459 potatoes were still practically unknown in England (although variant versions of the story of Chauntecleer as told by Geoffrey Chaucer the previous century in The Canterbury Tales are understood to mention the dish), and the various references to potatoes and other exotic specimens provoked comments by Fastolfe’s stepson and amuensis Stephen Scrope to the effect that the memoirs are plain invention. Knowing that, despite his stepfather’s stories, there is no fig tree growing on the Cerne Abbas giant, Scrope argues that



The fig being untrue, you can take it from me that the rest is as false as the fig.


  For instance, potatoes.


  What are these ‘potatoes’? I have never heard this word. [......H]e claimed to win a battle at Kildare by the employment of an article that does not exist. There are no such things in this world as potatoes.



  Later on Scrope describes Fastolfe’s



usual themes - of fornications, and taverns, and sack, and wine, and metheglins, and drinkings, and swearings.


  (What is ‘Sack’? It is like his ‘potatoes’. It does not exist.)


  How can a man claim to have spent his life drinking a drink which does not exist?



  Now, some critics have pointed to these passages and used them to argue that the memoirs are not only not genuine stories, but not even genuinely Fastolfe’s words. Rather (and indeed ignoring the evidence that the manuscript was formerly in the possession of none other than William Shakespeare himself) they have proposed that Robert Nye is the true author.


  According to the theory, the close references to metheglin and sack is a direct reference to T.H. White’s (significantly anachronistic) Arthurian novel The Sword in the Stone. In the first chapter, there is the following exchange between Sir Ector and Sir Grummore Grummurson; they are discussing the former’s son, Kay, and adopted son, the Wart:



  “Good port this.”


  “Get it from a friend of mine.”


  “But about these boys,” said Sir Grummore. “How many are there of them, do you know?”


  “Two,” said Sir Ector, “counting them both, that is.”


  “Couldn’t send them to Eton, I suppose?” inquired Sir Grummore cautiously. “Long way and all that, we know.”



  Now, when White revised the novel to form the first part of his extended work The Once and Future King, the above exchange continued thusly:



  It was not really Eton that he mentioned, for the College of Blessed Mary was not founded until 1440, but it was a place of the same sort. Also they were drinking Metheglyn, not Port, but by mentioning the modern wine it is easier to give the feel.



  Sack, the preferred drink of Sir John Fastolfe, is a fortified wine, a sweet sherry imported to England from Spain. So too is port, although as the name suggests it is a product of Portugal rather than Spain. Metheglin, conversely, is another term for the fermented honey-drink mead, which depending on how it is produced can be sweet and can resemble table wine. Sack was commonly available in the late 1500s, when Shakespeare portrayed Fastolfe as ‘Sir John Falstaff’ in Henry IV Part One and subsequent plays, and thus (critics argue) Shakespeare gave Falstaff the characteristic of liking a certain type of drink known to his audience but which would not have been available to the real-life Fastolfe during the Wars of the Roses. They then trot out the line about Raleigh and the potatoes for good measure. The appearance of potatoes in the narrative, and the coupling of Metheglin with Sack, are supposedly Nye’s way of hinting to the reader that the narrative is self-consciously fictitious.


  Such arguments have some merit. However, while I will certainly grant that European potatoes were so rare that Scrope may not have known anyone save Fastolfe who had ever seen or heard tell of such a thing, I do not accept that the term ‘Sack’ is an anachronism for the fifteenth-century. Like ‘potato’, neither the goods nor the drink would have been much known but it strikes me as folly to say that there cannot have been any imports of sweet wine to England by the merchants of its oldest ally; or, indeed, to suggest that a man of Fastolfe’s standing could not have afforded to have it imported privately.


 We must also not ignore Scrope’s obvious mental derangement: alongside potatoes and sack, he also denies the reality of Battle of the Herrings, which (although absurd in character) certainly took place and for which there is independent evidence for Fastolfe’s role; he even tries to deny Fastolfe’s own existence, trying to claim that his stepfather was actually the Lollard martyr Sir John Oldcastle somehow escaped from execution—utter nonsense, there is again independent evidence in The Paston Letters for Fastolfe’s existence as a man and as a man of significance and substance in the England of the day.[7]


  However, we should not judge Scrope too harshly. Undoubtedly much of what Fastolfe dictated to him was fantasy (particularly an old man’s sexual fantasy). What is important is that his remarks demonstrate that by the mid fifteenth-century, the potato was practically extinct in western Europe.


  Let us go back now, countless thousands of years, or alternatively forward to the early portion of the twentieth century. J.R.R. Tolkein, in his transliterations of aeons-old Thain’s Book, mentions potatoes several times, most notably in the following exchange:



  “Sméagol’ll get into real true hot water, when this water boils, if he don’t do as he’s asked,” growled Sam. “Sam’ll put his head in it, yes precious. And I’d make him look for turnips and carrots, and taters too, if it was the time o’ the year. [........]”


  “Sméagol won’t go, O no precious, not this time,” hissed Gollum. “He’s frightened, and he’s very tired, and this hobbit’s not nice, not nice at all. Sméagol won’t grub for roots and carrotses and—taters. What’s taters, precious, eh, what’s taters?”


  “Po—ta—toes,” said Sam. “The Gaffer’s delight and rare good ballast for an empty belly. But you won’t find any, so you needn’t look. But be good Sméagol and fetch me the herbs, and I’ll think better of you. What’s more, if you turn over a new leaf, and keep it turned, I’ll cook you some taters one of these days. I will: fried fish and chips served by S. Gamgee. You couldn’t say no to that.”


  “Yes, yes we could. Spoiling nice fish, scorching it. Give me fish now, and keep nassty chips!”[8]



Part of Tolkein’s motivation for his scholarship was mythologising, seeking to find a specifically British-based legend of epic proportions. The location of Hobbiton, the home town of three of his protagonists, is believed to be the modern city of Oxford, and many critics have drawn parallels between what became The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings with the social and political situation in England and Europe at the time he was writing (something which Tolkein flatly denied in the introduction to the latter). Here Tolkein is obviously making a humorous reference to the British national dish, doubtless building on material directly taken from his sources. However, if we take fish and chips[9] with a pinch of salt (and vinegar, wrapped in grease-proof paper) perhaps we must do the same with all references to potatoes. The use of the term may be simply Tolkein’s attempt to provide the reader with a modern equivalent for some other vegetable, and this seems to be the most likely explanation for the material in the following passage:



[...] Bilbo was very polite to him [Gaffer Gamgee, Sam’s father], calling him ‘Master Hamfast’, and consulting him constantly upon the growing of vegetables—in the matter of ‘roots’, especially potatoes, the Gafffer was recognised as the leading authority by all in the neighbourhood (including himself).”[10]



Here Tolkein refers first to roots in general but places the word within apostrophes, suggesting to me not that he is quoting but drawing attention to a colloquialism or to a term he knows to be strictly inaccurate but acceptable. He then qualifies ‘roots’ with the words ‘especially potatoes’ and it could be argued that Tolkein is qualifying the inaccuracy rather than the actual word—that it is the potatoes which are a strictly inaccurate but acceptable name for a similar dish.


  Against this we must balance the fact that the hobbits are depicted not just as eating potatoes but also smoking ‘pipe-weed or leaf, a variety probably of Nicotiana’.[11] The potato and the tobacco-plant are related, both forming parts of the nightshade family. Tolkien transliterates/quotes one hobbit who stated that the



observations that I have made on my own many journeys south have convinced me that the weed itself is not native to our part of the world [the Shire], but came northward [from southern parts....] whither it was, I suspect, originally brought over the Sea by the Men of Westernesse.[12]



Whether this speculation is the case or not (possibly an examination of the fossil record would be instructive), a plant strongly resembling tobacco certainly seems to have grown in what is now Europe, which means that there is no immediate reason to think that the potato could not have been introduced at the same time and so as a result have been known to hobbits.[13] Note that the only mortal creature to survive from antediluvian times to modernity, Mudface the turtle, told the naturalist John Dolittle that many plants were widespread throughout the world until the coming of the Flood.


  So! We may have pushed back the coming of the potato eastward across the sea back millennia before Raleigh. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that Raleigh did civilisation a great service by introducing hardier varieties into England from South America. It had not been eaten at court within at least a lifetime, if we consider the reactions of those present at the Ceremonial Tasting under Elizabeth I. Potatoes were to remain expensive for years to come, while chips were condemned as a typically unEnglish sinful self-indulgence[14] (hence the expression popular amongst the Pilgrim Fathers, ‘French Fries’).


  What of Raleigh? As well as reintroducing the potato to the Irish, he popularised the smoking of tobacco (brought to England by Sir Francis Drake in 1585) amongst the court, imported the earliest avocados to England, and probably did not try and persuade anyone to stick burning parasitic insects up their nose.[15] Eventually he fell out of royal favour, and in 1618 King James VI of Scotland and I of England had Raleigh executed, belatedly invoking a death sentence originally imposed in 1603 ‘for being left over from the previous reign’.[16]






Adams, Douglas, Life, the Universe and Everything


Barnes, Alan, “The Fact of Fiction - The Time Warrior” in DWM no. 368


Brahms, Caryl, and Simon, S.J., No Bed for Bacon


Brook, Andrew, “A Version of Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Sympathetic towards Russell the Fox, as told by Himself” in English and English Literature GCSE Coursework


Carter, Daiana, Zozu the Robot


Curtis, Richard et. al., “The Favourites of Queen Elizabeth I” in Blackadder—The Whole Damn Dynasty 1485-1917


Dicks, Terrance, The Time Warrior


Fastolfe, Sir John, Falstaff: Being the Acta domini Johannis Fastolfe, or Life and Valiant Deeds of Sir John Faustoff, or The Hundred Days War, as told by Sir John Fastolfe, K.G., to his secretaries William Worcester, Stephen Scrope, Fr Brackley, Christopher Hanson, Luke Nanton, John Bussard, and Peter Basset; now first transcribed, arranged and edited in modern spelling by Robert Nye


Goscinny, René, and Uderzo, Albert, Asterix in Belgium, trans. Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge


Goscinny, René, and Uderzo, Albert, Asterix in Britain, trans. Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge


Goscinny, René, and Uderzo, Albert, The Twelve Tasks of Asterix, trans. Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge


Hambly, Barbara, Ishmael

                                                                             ly Useless

Howarth, Chris, and Lyons, Steve, The Complete/|Encyclopedia (Virgin)


Keith, William (trans.), “The Ballad of Irongron” in A History of the Universe by Lance Parkin (Virgin)


Lloyd, John, “Blackadder—The Untold Story” in Radio Times (26 September—2 October 1987 issue)


Philotextus of Chersonnese, The Athenian Murders ed. José Carlos Somoza[17]


Pratchett, Terry, The Last Continent


Room, Adrian (ed.), Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable—Millennium Edition


Sellar, W.C., and Yeatman, R.J., 1066 and All That


Sellar, W.C., and Yeatman, R.J., Garden Rubbish


Shakespeare, William, Henry IV Part One


Shakespeare, William, Henry IV Part Two


Shakespeare, William, Henry V


Shakespeare, William, Henry VI Part One


Shakespeare, William, The Merry Wives of Windsor


Shakespeare, William, Troilus and Cressida


Smith, Sarah Jane, “Irongron’s Star” in the July 1995 edition of Metropolitan Magazine (see also “Moving On” by Peter Anghelides in Decalog 3: Consequences, ed. Andy Lane and Justin Richards)


Stubbins, Thomas, ed. Hugh Lofting, Doctor Dolittle and the Secret Lake


Tolkein, J.R.R., The Hobbit


Tolkein, J.R.R., The Lord of the Rings


White, T.H., The Sword in the Stone


White, T.H., The Once and Future King



Entries for ‘Battle of the Herrings’, ‘Sir John Falstaff’, ‘Sir John Falstolfe’ and ‘Mead’ in Encyclopaedia Britannica Deluxe CD 2000


Murder on the Orient Express (tv movie, 2001)


Remarks by ‘bluelire-72 from The Background’ on 28/4/01 that no longer appear to form part of the Entry for the 2001 version of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ at The Internet Movie Database (


Entries for ‘Geoffrey Chaucer’, ‘Potato’, ‘Sir Walter Raleigh’ and ‘Tobacco’ in Microsoft Encarta ’97 Encyclopaedia


Test Paper.


1) Describe the role of the potato in the lives of the following:

  a) King Edward

  b) Granny Smith (famous amongst horticulturists for her pomme ne pas de terre)

  c) Bodger and Badger

  d) Rowdy Maris Piper


2) ‘One potato, two potato, three potato, four.’ Set out the role of vegetables in general in the teaching of numeracy today.


3) ‘Chocolate’s a kind of potato’. Review possible marketing strategies for McDonald’s restaurants in light of this statement. (Be accurate)


4) What did Raleigh’s cloak?


5) Have you ever considered what the Irish pheasants ate before bread and potatoes were available? (Be honest)


6) Which of my sources is entirely fictitious?


7) Do not attempt to solve the Irish Question but instead undertake an experiment to prove the relationship between potatoes and poteen (excepting candidates in countries where laws restrict the practice of distilling).


8) Uncover the hidden footnote subsequent to the main body of the article.


9) Was Falstaff’s work as equerry to Prince Hal a Good Thing, or should he have been given the Sack? (Be eloquent)


10) Summarise the main points of King James I’s A Counterblaste to Potatoes and propose some recipes acceptable to his tastes.


11)* Spell the word ‘Potato’.


12) Using protractors if desired, illustrate with explanatory notes none of the following:

  a) the relationships between Sontarans, Rutans, and root vegetables.

  b) the effect of warfare on the part of the Silastic Armorfiends of Striterax upon the evolution of the Smash Martians.

  c) The Girl from Ipomoea.


*Candidates named Quayle should not attempt this question.



[1]  It is true that there are some historical sources supporting the orthodox Raleigh theory. However, since The Blackadder Chronicles—possibly the least credible historical document ever written—is one of these, there is much doubt concerning their trustworthiness.


[2]  True, the spoken-word adaptation of Asterix in Britain as read by Willie Rushton suggests that Asterix brought the potatoes back from the Americas during the events of La grande traversée. However, this theory merely supports the argument that potatoes are found more widely than just in South America.


[3]  I hesitate to bring outlandish content such as the existence of aliens into this serious historical study (Zozu the robot notwithstanding); nevertheless, there is good evidence for the existence of such beings, and an excellent introduction to the people of Gallifrey may be found in history graduate J.T. Kirk’s comments in Ishmael; it must be understood, however, that the Doctor is decidedly atypical in his habits, preferring to roam and interact with life rather than merely sit at home and observe creation.


[4]  In re the anachronistic appearance of potatoes in Doctor Who, The Completely Useless Encyclopaedia (published 1996) states that “it is a popular misconception amongst fans that the mistake appears in the televised version as well [as in the novelisation by Dicks of The Time Warrior]. A cursory viewing shows that this is not the case; presumably, the rumour was put about by someone who felt that Doctor Who didn’t already contain enough gaffes to poke fun at.


  “In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-eighties that the series enjoyed its first unambiguous association with the popular root vegetables, as Golden Wonder gave away miniature Doctor Who comics with their crisps [....., the comics being reprinted from Doctor Who Magazine] but with half the story missing in each case; a bit like some BBC videos we could mention. [......] Although come to think of it, ‘The Time Warrior’ is one of those videos. Perhaps someone hacked out the line, ‘Hmmm, thanks for these lovely chips, Sarah’, without our knowledge.”


  According to Doctor Who Magazine (in 2006), “On screen, the roots or fruits that Sarah bundles into her sack aren't entirely clear - we'll have to wait for a future DVD restoration to be sure!”


[5]  Unfortunately, Montalo was prevented from formally explaining his theories in a complete article by his tragic death: he is one of only a few people within recent history to have died as a result of an attack by a wolf-pack, and in fact it has been argued that there is a suspicious quality to his passing, although a full investigation by Hercule Poirot and his Sleuth Supreme television show ruled out any foul play (whether there is a familial relationship or not between the modern-day detective and his more famous namesake is unclear; however, it seems significant that BBCtv’s Crimewatch is presented by a man calling himself Nick Ross).


[6]  All right, so you and I know that potatoes are easy to peel, but then we know what they’re like, don’t we?


[7]  Another absurd claim is that Fastolfe was an old man even back in his youth as a (slightly senior) companion of the future Henry V, and that during those days he was known as Falstaff. Shakespeare seems to have picked up on this from his own reading of the text: he uses the name ‘Falstaff’ for his comic fatty loosely based on Fastolfe in Henry IV Part One, Henry IV Part Two, Henry V (in which Falstaff does not appear, but dies off-stage) and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and also in Henry VI Part One. It is modern critics who have resurrected the name of Fastolfe for the character in the last of these plays, and it is only Falstaff’s death (not originally intended by Shakespeare to take place so early) that discourages theatre-goers to think of Fastolfe and Falstaff as the same man. There is also, we must admit, evidence that Shakespeare did originally conflate Sir John Fastolfe with Sir John Oldcastle, presumably because the latter figure was also one of Prince Hal’s companions and because as a Lollard he would have had appeal to a Protestant play-going audience; however, the comic portrayal must have been considered inappropriate for a Christian martyr, as fossil rhymes in the texts show that the name of ‘Oldcastle’ was dropped for ‘Falstaff’.


[8]  The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: Book IV: Chapter IV: Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit. Note that the accursed Gollum refuses fish and chips; earlier in the story, he refuses food produced by the Elves. The chip as ambrosia, or as the food that can be touched only be the gods or those pure at heart, is an interesting trope, although there is no time to discuss it here: we may briefly note that in The Twelve Tasks of Asterix the chip is the invention of the Olympian gods’ own chef.


[9]  C.f. Astérix chez les Belges, early on in which there are potato-like objects surrounding a roast; then, later on (at least in the English translation) a Belgian discards the idea of eating chipped and fried root vegetables with mussels (moules-frites, typically Belgian) for eating them with fish (typically British).


[10]  The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: Book I: Chapter I: A Long Expected Party.


[11] The Lord of the Rings: Prologue: Part Two.


[12] Ibid.


[13]  For that matter, the fact that tobacco was introduced into North America by the Maya might suggest that the related potato might also have been known to the Amerindians, in which case Asterix could indeed have encountered them during his great crossing.


[14]  [...T]he devil luxury, with his fat rump and potato-finger [.........] Fry [....] fry!” Troilus and Cressida V.ii.


[15]  Another helpful footnote from history preserved in the histories of the Blackadder family.


[16]  1066 and All That (see also the same authors’ Garden Rubbish for advice on tackling potato fly).


[17]  Curiously, in my edition the copyright page—which presumably names the English translator—has been torn out.