Today is the birthday of Piers Anthony Dillingham Jacob (born 6 August 1934 in Oxford, England). He “is an English-American author in the science fiction and fantasy genres, publishing under the name Piers Anthony. He is most famous for his long-running novel series set in the fictional realm of Xanth. Although I’m an avid reader and love the SciFi/Fantasy genre, I have not read any of his books. But using Google Books today to search through some of his work, I kept coming across something interesting, that I thought should really exist, but sadly does not: “beer-barrel trees.”
Apparently, a lot of his books take place in “the fictional realm of Xanth,” which is shaped suspiciously like Florida.
There’s a long-running novel series set in Xanth, which is his most popular work. There are currently 41 novels in the series, beginning with A Spell for Chameleon, which was first published in 1977. The most recent Xanth book is 2017’s Ghost Writer in the Sky, and there are at least four more in various stages of development.
One thing I learned is that the realm of Xanth has a very interesting feature:
Plants may bear fruit of all descriptions (pie trees and shoe trees are common) or they may be carnivorous (such as the tangle trees), making travel in Xanth risky.
I remember in the Wizard of Oz books, there were trees that grew entire box lunches and dinner. They were called Lunch-Pail Trees and Dinner-Pail Trees. You’d pluck them like fruit, described as “square paper boxes, which grew in clusters on all the limbs, and upon the biggest and ripest boxes the word ‘Lunch’ could be read in neat raised letters.” In the Dinner-Pail Trees, which were heavier, Dorothy found “a small tank full of lemonade, slices of turkey, slices of cold tongue, lobster salad, bread and butter, a small custard pie, an orange, some strawberries, and cracked nuts and raisins.” That appeared in the third book, “Ozma of Oz,” from 1907.
But in the Xanth series, Anthony takes the concept to new heights, with the various trees providing all manner of things. In “Geis of the Gargoyle,” the 18th book from 1984, for example, there’s a bread tree that grows loaves of bread and growing next to it, a butternut tree. Squeeze the butter onto the bread, and you have bread and butter.
But my favorite, of course, is the beer-barrel tree, which from what I can piece together is a tree with a tank of beer beneath the bark. You can tap the tree, and drink the beer from it. The beerbarrel tree is first mentioned in the first book, A Spell for Chameleon, on page 15, early in the story.
“Bink glanced across at the unique tree she indicated. There were many kinds of trees in Xanth, a number of them vital to the economy. Beerbarrel trees were tapped for drink, and oilbarrel trees for fuel, and Bink’s own footwear came from a mature shoe tree east of the village. But Justin Tree was something special, a species never sprouted from seed.”
And then it comes up again in Chapter 16:
“‘I think we’d better hide,’ Trent said.
Good idea. They went around a beer barrel tree and watched silently.
The thumping became very loud. The whole tree shook. TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP! Small branches fell off the tree, and a leak sprang in the trunk. A thin jet of beer splashed under Bink’s nose. He fell back; even in the human state, he had never liked that drink. He peered around the trunk, but nothing was there.”
In the fourth book, “Centaur Aisle,” they’re mentioned again and also mentioned are winekeg trees.
“Dor soon found himself thirsty, for the pudding was highly spiced, so he drank—and found the beverage a cross between sweet beer and sharp wine from indifferent beerbarrel and winekeg trees.”
And in the fifth book, “Ogre, Ogre,” it’s revealed there are even trees whose fruit will make you think you’re smart.
“You were smart enough to fool everyone into thinking you were ogrishly stupid! Smash, Chem told me about the Eye Queue vine. Its effect wears off in hours. Sometimes its effect is only in self-perception. It makes creatures think they’re smart when they aren’t, and they make colossal fools of themselves without knowing it. Like people getting drunk on the spillage from a beerbarrel tree, thinking they’re being great company when actually they are disgusting clowns. My father used to tell me about that; he said he’d made a clown of himself more than once. Only it’s worse with the vine.”
And this perhaps may be the first mention of chocolate and beer-pairing on Xanth, from the sixth book, Night Mare.”
“The Spy I balls showed the Nextwavers making camp and foraging for food and drink. They were catching on to the bounties of Xanth and now, instead of burning out the “region, they were hammering out chocolate chips from an outcropping of chocolithic rock and tapping beer-barrel trees for flagons of foaming natural brew, to which they seemed to be quite partial.”
By the seventh book, “Dragon on a Pedestal,” there’s a longer passage about the beerbarrel tree.
“Irene looked around. “There’s a beer-barrel tree behind us.” She dismounted, picked her way through the treacherous stones of the riverbed, keeping a nervous eye out for snakes, and went to the huge, swollen barrel of the tree. Now she realized why the streambed was dry—the magic snake had caused all creatures here to drink until the water was gone. Too bad that had not been obvious before!
She used her knife to punch a hole in the bark. Yellow beer spouted out. This might not be the best liquid for the golem to drink, but there was plenty of it, enough to quench the thirst of a hundred golems.
Grundy hurried up and put his little mouth to the stream of beer. He gulped the stuff down insatiably.
Irene watched with growing amazement as the golem swallowed more than his own mass in beer and kept on drinking.
The stream seemed to be flowing into a bottomless hole. His body swelled up like a watermelon, but still he drank.”
I especially like this passage, from the eighth book, “Crewel Lye,” from 1984.
“It was dusk, and I had scrounged up some sugar sand and tapped a beer-barrel tree for beer, the true barbarian beverage. My head was spinning pleasantly, detaching my mind from my tired feet.”
By book ten, “Vale of the Vole,” creatures were using dead beerbarrel trees for hideouts.
“His hideout was in the hollow trunk of a dead beerbarrel tree. He had been lucky: he had been in the vicinity in the month of AwGhost, when barrel trees gave up the ghost if they were going to, and had seen the spirit departing. “Aw, Ghost!” he had exclaimed in the classic ogre manner, and that had enchanted the tree so that he could take over the husk without creating a local commotion. He had cut a door in the fat trunk that sealed tightly so that it didn’t show from outside, and made vents so that the steamy beer smell could dissipate; his mother, Tandy, would never understand if he came home reeking of beer!”
In book twelve, “Man From Mundania,” we learn that the beer from beerbarrel trees in different regions taste different.
“One day Girard spied a new human settlement, deep in the forest. He knew he should stay clear but it happened to be one of his favorite forests, so he remained to see what was going on. It turned out that the beerbarrel trees of this region were especially potent, and the man who was tapping them was hauling the beer to a distant village.
He kept the secret of the trees’ location so that only he could tap them. Realizing that, Girard was satisfied, because it meant that no more humans would be coming here, and it would still be safe for giants as long as they watched out for this one homestead.”
Apparently, using old beerbarrel trees for homes had become commonplace by book 17, “Harpy Thyme,” from 1993.
“They walked on, refreshed, waving goodbye to the nice man. They found a convenient path around a small hill. There was a tree house: someone had cut a door and windows into an old beerbarrel tree and made it into a house. There was no longer any smell of beer, so the tree must have drained some time before. It was surrounded by fancy iris flowers. Nearby were assorted fruit trees, and one spreading nut, bolt, and washer tree.”
This is from 1994’s “Geis of the Gargoyle.”
“They finished with some fluid from a leaning beer barrel tree; someone had kindly provided it with a spigot, and there were some mugwumps nearby with pretty mugs. The stuff was dusky colored and it foamed, but it tasted good and Gary drank several mugsful. After that he felt better than ever, if somewhat unsteady.”
After some absence from several books, in the 23rd book, “Xone of Contention,” published in 1999, beerbarrel trees reappear and are explained again.
“What are those?” she asked, pointing to several grossly fat-trunked growths.
“Beerbarrel trees. Their trunks contain beer They are rather popular in some circles “
“You mean people get drunk in Xanth?” she asked, surprised.
“Some do. I confess I do not understand what they see in such activity.”
A few years later, in 2005’s “Pet Peeve,” which is book 29, we discover there are also ale trees, which are cousins to the beerbarrel tree.
“The zombie brought another bottle. “This will do,” Breanna said. “This is ale, from a local ale-ing tree. They are cousins of the beerbarrel trees.” She popped it open and poured foaming glasses. “This is honey brown ale, because we have bees nearby. We avoid the ones growing near wild oats.”
“Oh? Why?” Hannah asked.
“Because men who drink wild oat ale become unduly attractive to nymphs, and attracted to nymphs,” Breanna said tightly. “And women don’t like it. The ale, I mean. It tastes cheap.”
Goody sipped his ale. It was heady stuff.”
Apparently the beer from beerbarrel trees have medicinal uses, too, which we learn in book 30, “Stork Naked.”
“But the man was not annoyed. “I came to see the Good Magician to learn how to nullify my blue nose. But the Gorgon knew the answer and gave it to me free: I have only to drink the liquid of the beer barrel tree. So now I don’t have to serve a year for my answer.”
Here’s another nice passage about Xanth beer from book 31, “Air Apparent.”
“He walked to an old beerbarrel tree. Someone had installed a spigot in its trunk, with a mug. That was thoughtful. He took the mug, turned the spigot, and got himself a foaming mug of beer. Then he sat down and leaned his back against the tree as he drank it. The beer quickly went to his head, making him reminisce.”
In this book, we also learn that every beerbarrel tree also has a beer cellar.
“I can see that. Did you happen to see any—any bodies here?”
“No, but we know where they are. In the beer cellar.”
“Do you mean wine cellar?” Wira asked.
“This was a beerbarrel tree, not a winebarrel tree. It has a beer cellar.”
The woman and centaur exchanged a look of burgeoning hope. “A cellar!” Debra said.
They inspected the ground, and discovered a square panel embedded in the center. It had a heavy ring set in its metal. They hauled on the ring together, and slowly the panel came up. There was a dark hole below, with steps leading down.
“Time for some help,” Wira said. “Ilene! Nimbus! We need the illusion of light here.”
In less than a moment the two were there. “I can’t make illusions,” Ilene said. “They have to exist first.”
“Isn’t my glow an illusion?” Nimbus asked, gazing eagerly into the hole.
“Maybe it is,” Ilene agreed. She focused, and the boy’s faint glow became bright.
“Still, I had better go first,” Wira said. “I don’t need light, and I don’t want to put the children at risk.”
She closed her eyes and started down the steps.
“This is fun,” Nimbus said.
“It seems safe,” Wira called from below.
Nimbus and Ilene went down, his glow illuminating everything. That helped, because Debra was far too large to join them. “What’s down there?” she called.”
“Ninety-nine bottles of beer,” Ilene called back.
“And some orange cones,” the boy added. “Dodging around.”
This hardly made sense. “Cones?”
“There are words printed on them,” Ilene said. “Nundrum.”
Debra groaned. “Cone-nundrum. A pun.”
“I found the bodies,” Wira called. “They’re alive!”
Debra was so relieved she sank to her knees. “Thank you, fate,” she breathed.”
In “Two to the Fifth,” from 2008, which is the 32nd book, we find out a little more about ale trees.
“This was a beer-barrel tree, with a huge cylindrical trunk filled or partly filled with beer. Or was it? He tapped again, analyzing the sound. No, not beer, but ale; this was an ale tree. Its beverage would be a bit stronger.”
In 2010, it’s revealed in book 34, “Knot Gneiss,” that beerbarrel trees have some odd personality quirks.
“There was an old dead beerbarrel tree in the direction Wenda was pointing. From it leaked a few muffled laughs.
“It got infected with bad humor and died,” Wenda said. “Beerbarrels can’t stand bad taste.”
During a tour of the plant life in Xanth, in book 36, “Luck of the Draw,” we get a sense of how puns work in the realm.
“They encountered a copse of huge-trunked trees with patterns of tightly fitting boards. “Those look like beer barrels,” Bryce said.
“They are. Except these ones are alebarrel trees. Tap them and you get ale. But they’re standard; no pun there.”
“Still, Rachel is pointing.”
They followed the direction of the dog’s point. It looked like a small mint plant growing next to one of the trees. “I don’t recognize this,” Mindy said.
“A mint,” he said. “Next to an ale tree. An Ale Mint. Ailment?”
The plant dissolved. He had gotten it.”
But in the end, the real question is just why aren’t there any Beer-Barrel Trees in the real world?