In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Jadis the White Witch bribes Edmund Pevensie with the confection known as Turkish delight. So…where did Jadis manage to obtain Turkish delight in f*cking Narnia? It’s hard enough finding authentic Turkish delight in Canada, and at least that’s in the same universe as Turkey.
When confronted with the appearance of seemingly anomalistic phenomena in secondary fantasy words—food, technology, even figures of speech—objects and concepts that at first glance should have no place in these fantasy worlds, there are a number of possible explanations to which readers can turn.
The easiest course is simply not to worry about it. After all, you’re looking for entertainment. Unless you’re like me, you might not wonder how it is a world utterly unconnected to ours somehow has the phrase “Bob’s your uncle” while lacking a Lord Salisbury (if you believe that origin for the phrase) or a Florrie Forde (if you lean in that direction). Not caring has the advantage of being a huge time saver, because English is rich in words and phrases with very specific histories that secondary universes would not have. If the book is in English, it encodes a whole world and history that is NOT the secondary universe.
Another time saver is to assume that the author, hurried and facing a deadline, messed up. Maybe they didn’t have a chance to reread and wonder if using a turn of phrase inspired by firearms (shoot the messenger, a flash in the pan) made any sense in a world without gunpowder.
It could also be that the author knew the word wasn’t right but it was the closest existing choice and preferable to making up yet another SFF word. Writers do make up words; many SFF books end with a glossary of made-up words. But… at a certain point the reader will bail rather than learn a new language. So, authors opt for some word from our world on the grounds that while it is not quite correct, the reader at least knows what it is. After all, there’s no reason to think any of the people in secondary fantasy universes speak English (or any other terrestrial language). Books sold to Anglophones are in English because (Tolkien fans aside) few readers want to master an entirely new language to read about how XXX did YYY that stopped (or alternatively, caused) ZZZ… with dragons.
Or one can retcon the whole matter by assuming that the gods who created the alternate reality are plagiarists. After all, it’s easiest when creating a new world to just tweak an existing one. This might explain the many alternate realities featuring humanoid species: Look just like humans, act like humans, can mate with humans! But as you know, Bob and Bobette, humans are a species native to Earth with a fossil lineage that goes back hundreds of millions of years. We come from a very specific time and place. Yet, in worlds seemingly unconnected to ours, humans are commonplace. Could it be that a surprisingly large number of gods, having turned their weeklong projects into frantic all-nighters, opted to simply crib a useful species from our world? I don’t think it can be ruled out.
In many cases there is a much more straightforward explanation, which is that our world and the various secondary fantasy worlds are connected. If the works of Clarke, Norton, and Clayton are to be believed, Earth and other worlds are practically littered with interdimensional gates through which the unwary can stumble—gates that cunning merchants might even now be using to convey firearms to Amber. Indeed, A. K. Larkwood’s The Unspoken Name has as part of its background a vast system of interdimensional gates which allow all sorts of bad life choices for those seeking power. The Unspoken Name does not dwell overmuch on the merchants conveying goods along these interdimensional Silk Roads, but I am sure they must exist.
In fact, it is this last possibility that must explain Jadis’ Turkish delight. It is manifestly possible to travel from Earth to Narnia and back. The Pevensies managed it, and as one learns in The Magician’s Nephew, Jadis managed to visit London, although she found the city not to her liking. Perhaps Jadis encountered Turkish delight in England while she was there and brought back a sample; perhaps some later visitor from our realm introduced it to Narnia. Mystery solved and best of all, it has facilitated overthinking of the matter!
No doubt you have your own preferred explanations and favorite examples of this phenomenon. As ever, comments are below.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.