The Tavern in Literature

The local tavern… The inn… The bar… The pub! Whatever you want to call it there is almost no escaping from one when you dive into the deep waters of literature. If those taverns were sharks the waters of literature would be infested with them. Right from the earliest English writings it has been there, hanging around and filling all our favourite characters and heroes with alcohol. They’ve been meeting places and places to tell stories, places where men have played games and laughed and joked. Characters have drowned their sorrows here and others have celebrated. The tavern has transcended boundaries of both time and genre… Everything from science fiction to romance and all points in between. The tavern has been endemic in fiction since time immemorial and perhaps it is time we saluted that fact.

Part of the Beowulf manuscript (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Even in one of the earliest pieces of English language prose we have, Beowulf, there is a tavern of sorts. The hall at Heorot isn’t quite an inn as we would know it but rather a hall, a place for drinking and feasting and generally having a good time. In most cases the mead hall was also where the local chieftain or lord would live but people would still gather there of an evening to drink and hear stories and converse with other villagers. It generally served much the same function as the modern pub does today… And it also means that the local chieftain was essentially the pub landlord (Now go and listen to ‘Master of the House’ from Les Miserables and reflect on that fact 😉 ). Heorot is key to Beowulf’s plot. The first monster, Grendel, attacks it because he is disturbed by the noises and singing of the drunken revelers… Basically, he get’s wound up by a bunch of drunken louts and anyone who has lived near to a particularly noisy pub can probably sympathise with him. Without Heorot there would be no Beowulf. Without Heorot Grendel wouldn’t have been disturbed, Beowulf wouldn’t have come to kill him and then the whole business with his pissed off mother wouldn’t have happened. Essentially, the earliest piece of English language prose hinges around a pub!

Another story which revolves around a pub, though one in which the tavern is somewhat less central but still key to the whole thing, is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Again, the thread that holds everything together is the tavern, though not in the same way as Beowulf. In the story a group of disparate pilgrims from several walks of life come together and tell stories in order to win a free meal at The Tabard Inn in Southwark, where they first meet before setting off for Canterbury. The inn itself has nothing to do with the stories that follow, in fact after the general prologue the Pilgrims move off and tell their stories as they travel to Canterbury and as Chaucer never managed to finish the tales (perhaps because he was murdered on the orders of everyone’s favourite Ming the Merciless look-a-like, Henry IV?) the pilgrims never even got to Canterbury, let alone returned to the Tabard to have the winner declared. Nevertheless, like with Heorot in Beowulf The Tabard is crucial to the story. Without it there would be no story telling competition and so the book would never happen.

Fallstaff enjoys a drink. (Original picture by Eduard Grutzner. Courtesy of Wikimedia.)

And this idea isn’t just limited to Chaucer and Beowulf… Many of the most famous literary inns hold a key place in their respective stories. Without the pub all or a part of these tales can never take place. There is the titular Jamaica Inn, as a more obvious example, but you also have The Boar’s Head from Shakespeare’s Henriad where the key character moments for both Prince Hal and Falstaff take place (Act 2 scene 5 of Henry IV part 1, the scene where Hal and Falstaff enact an argument with the king) setting up for the ending of Henry IV part 2 whereby Hal, now all grown up and king, banishes Falstaff from his presence. There’s the aforementioned Les Miserables where at the Thenardier’s inn, The Sergeant at Waterloo, Valjean discovers Cosette being rather poorly treated (understatement!) and takes her away with him. Again, it’s a key plot point in the book, not only for the obvious reason of Valjean taking Cosette but also because after Cosette is taken away the Thenardier’s become bankrupt and start blaming Valjean, fuelling their actions for the rest of the book. And lastly (though by no means the only last pub I could mention) you have The Admiral Benbow from Treasure Island, the springboard for the whole adventure.

Sometimes the bar isn’t as integral to the plot but important moments still happen there- Again from Treasure Island you have The Spyglass in Bristol where we are introduced to Long John for the first time, getting a hint of true character when Jim spots Black Dog at one of the tables. Then there is Nicholas Nickleby where Nicholas, after being away for a while, rather conveniently overhears Sir Mulberry Hawk talking about his sister. There’s the Inn of the Prancing Pony in the Fellowship of the Ring where the intrepid, bold hobbits, fresh from their rather pointless encounter with Tom Bombadil, come face to face with Aragorn and the first chains of the Fellowship are forged.

Then, of course you have the stories where the inn or bar doesn’t really matter at all. It’s just a setting and it has no other impact. A large proportion of The Sun Also rises by Hemingway takes place in bars that have no impact on the plot- The characters just sit there, drink and talk in innuendos. There is the Mended Drum (Formerly Broken) in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Most of the time it has no real influence on the plot but it is there all the same, frequently inhabited by the various weird and wonderful characters of the disc.

And there are hundreds, thousands even, more bars across the whole of the literary multiverse I could choose to describe or talk about if I wished- The bar where Breakfast at Tiffany’s begins, The Hog’s Head or The Three Broomsticks from Harry Potter (Both of which are in Hogsmeade and probably kept open because of all the Hogwarts staff drowning their sorrows after a day’s hard teaching) or I could even throw in the multitude of Inns featured throughout George R.R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. Any complete list of all the literary bars, pubs and inns there have ever been would certainly be a long one… In fact, chances are that if you pick any random book or play from a shelf (fictional) it will likely have an inn in it somewhere, integral to the plot or not.

But the question is why? The answer lies in the very purpose of a pub or tavern in the real world… It’s a place where people meet, talk and drown their sorrows. It’s a place where strangers come together for the first time and its a place of fun, frolics and hijinks… It’s a respite from the world outside and the grind of daily life. Wherever you go you’ll find a bar or a tavern and, best of all, anyone can go in and be part of it. All of this makes it an ideal literary setting… As in real life characters can go there to meet and talk and discuss things, conspire even. Very few other settings can offer as many variables as the tavern. It is almost the perfect place to set all or a part of a story. So much can happen there and the potential is so high that a writer would be foolish not to utilize a tavern or bar somewhere in his or her work.

(Image courtesy of Sheffield Ale Pubs)

But because taverns and bars are so widespread within human cultures most writers do quite naturally include a bar or tavern without thinking about why. The idea and the purposes of a pub is so ingrained into our subconscious that the inclusion just becomes instinctive. Most writers probably aren’t even aware they’re doing it. If we need a meeting place, even a clandestine one, then we just reach for the local boozer. If we need somewhere for conspiratorial discussion in a corner then there is no place better. Want someone to dispense advice? Who better to pull out than a wise old barman! And if we want to sketch out the bare bones of a community then just having a character walk into the nearest pub will do half the work for us. And as I said, these ideas are so ingrained into our collective subconscious and culture that most writers barely even notice when they do it, probably.

To be honest, with pubs and bars still a constant in the world (though, in places, changing from what we have known for the last few centuries or so) I can’t see them leaving the shores of the literary world any time soon. They’ve been around since the beginning after all and no doubt they’ll be there to bitter end (Pun intended.)

If you have a particular favourite fictional drinking den or if there is any particular character you’d share a drink with then drop it down in the comments and we can raise a metaphorical toast to all the many, many literary drinking establishments!


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