In Tim Burton's re-imagining of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," Willy Wonka, played by Johnny Depp, is given a back story not found in previous versions of the tale, namely the original Roald Dahl story or the 1971 film. In this new version, the fantastic factory, with its sugary streams and candy contraptions, is for Wonka a haven from--and retaliation against--his father, a sweets-eschewing dentist. The factory is, of course, an edible Eden for everyone else. This connection between the factory and the idea of an earthly Elysium is made even clearer in the 1971 "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," where Wonka, played by Gene Wilder, sings, "If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it."

While Wonka buffs will certainly debate which film better portrays Dahl's vision of paradise, what cannot be debated is that his sugary Shangri-La owes much to past descriptions of paradise. Throughout the long history of mythological depictions of paradise, many were associated with great wealth, such as El Dorado, the mythical South American country of gold and the lost island of Hy-Brasil. Others featured perfect health and an end to aging, like Shangri-La, the imaginary paradise depicted in the novel "Lost Horizon" by James Hilton. But one conceit that most visions of paradise seem to share is the abundance of food.

This goes back long before Roald Dahl ever imagined a factory with chocolate flowing like water. Numerous medieval European tales, songs, and poems described a mythical paradise called Cockaigne, which offered ideal living conditions, at least ideal for those in the Middle Ages. The Christian paradise, the Garden of Eden, was already shut tight, man had to labor and toil to stay alive, but "Cockaigne was open to everyone," notes Herman Pleij, who lectures on Dutch historical literature at the University of Amsterdam.

"Throughout the centuries," writes Pleij in his book "Dreaming of Cockaigne," "dreamlands and pleasure grounds have had a lot in common, especially as regards eating."

"This is remarkable," continues Pleij, "since it can't be explained by mutual influence or borrowing, certainly not if one takes into account only written texts."

In Cockaigne, for example, roasted pigs roamed about with knives already in their backs, and cooked fish would jump from the rivers right into your mouth. Even the architecture was edible, with dwellings being made of meat, fish, and pastry. One 13th-century French poem describes Cockaigne as having houses made of barley sugar and cakes and the streets lined with pastry.

In more recent days, "The Wizard of Oz" depicted its own vision of paradise, as Dorothy steps out of her black-and-white world to a land of bright colors, singing munchkins, and lollipops so important they have their own guild.

The food-paradise connection is not only prevalent in fiction and mythology, but also in a smorgasbord, so to speak, of religious faiths.

In Pure Land Buddhism, those who merit rebirth in the Pure Land, a paradise for the highly worthy, are provided with ready-made food.

In Muslim texts, we find the idea that heaven will be filled with rivers of milk and honey. The book of Matthew likens the Kingdom of Heaven to a wedding feast. And, of course, there's the original biblical paradise, the Garden of Eden, a place lush with abundant fruit, some so enticing that they were irresistible; Adam and Eve were tossed forth from a place where God willed all to grow, because they willed to eat an apple.

Certainly, it is easy to understand why authors living in biblical and medieval times would conceive of a palatable paradise; food was scarce and the fear of hunger was dispelled by images of abundant food in multiple varieties. But, what about in modern times, when food--for most Americans, at least--is readily abundant and affordable?

Angelic Atkins, a paradise for the 21st century

_Related Features
  • The Dark Side of Roald Dahl
  • The Connection Between Chocolate and Yoga
  • Heaven and the Afterlife in Different Faiths
  • Join the Discussion
    comments powered by Disqus