Castle, Fortress, Refuge

If castles have a single theme then it is false security. A castle implies a seige, an unscalable wall implies a way up, an impenetrable keep implies a way to sneak in. A castle is a challenge and a castle of any significance in a book is like Chekhov’s gun — if it isn’t besieged or infiltrated then it may seem superfluous.

Isengard, Helms Deep, Minas Tirith in The Lord of the Rings are all besieged. Minas Morgul is not infiltrated as such but the heroes sneak past its defences. Mordor itself, essentially a whole territory that is a fortress walled on three sides with a mighty gate and an inner keep, is infiltrated by Frodo and Sam.

The castle of the enemy is a place to escape from, burgle or rescue a character from. The might and invulnerability of the enemy can be subverted — a weakness found, an entry point, someway in.

But castles are also where people live and specifically aristocrats live, lords, ladies and kings and queens. So a castle overlaps with a palace. I’ll discuss palaces another time but they carry with them the notion of false security. A castle (or a palace) has guards and walls but it is also a place of assassins, secret passages, intrigue and betrayal and as such the theme of false security is common to both.

Castles (and canonically palaces) overlap with labyrinths in that they are places of confusing passages. They can also harbour monsters. Dracula’s castle or Frankenstein’s (in films) evoke labyrinths more than castles in that house monsters but like castles proper, they necessarily fail in providing safety — as a castle in a story can no more constrain a monster it encloses than it can prevent a siege. A castle is not just a false promise to keep things out but a false promise to keep things in (see also Michael Mann’s odd and pretentious film The Keep for another castle with a monster in the middle).

Like the eponymous ‘Castle Doctrine‘ in US law, a castle marks a fear of invasion and the use of violence to prevent it. That fear may be justified but castles can represent consuming fears that mark paranoia or literary madness. Saruman and Denethor sit in the strongest keeps of the fortresses slowly eaten inside by fear (fueled by Sauron via a palantir). Likewise, in The Silmarillion, when Feanor is consumed by paranoia because of the lies of Melkor, he first retreats to his fortress of Formenos.

For places that in reality would be busy mini-towns crammed full of people, castles and fortresses can carry with them connotations of inward-looking retreats. Superman’s Fortress of Solitude doesn’t fit the other aspects of castles I’ve listed above but overtly expresses this idea of a fortress as a personal retreat. In a similar way, Howl’s Moving Castle reflects the wizard Howl’s self-absorption and emotional defences in both the film and book*.

The castles of Britain also marked historical fear of the population — Norman edifices to assert dominance over the population and later English/Norman edifices in Wales and Scotland to assert control of territory. The castle can both embody fear of the outside and project fear and dominance outward. The Death Star in Star Wars maybe technolically and militarily absurd but it captures this dual nature of the castle as a political expression well. It embodies the Emperor’s inate fears and also serves to intimidate the subjugated population of the former Republic. Of course, because the Death Star is a conventional castle in all aspects aside from size, shape and location, it ends up both infiltrated and besieged and its defences overcome.


A castle might be a refuge but I mean something conceptually different. A refuge is a place that offers temporary safety for characters. A refuge and a castle both offer protection but a refuge does not offer false safety. The safety a refuge offers is limited (because otherwise, the story can’t continue) but it is not false. The limitation may be straight-forward i.e. it is a place that can only offer limited defence against the forces or it may simply be limited by the protagonist’s objectives. Tom Bombadil’s house in Lord of the Rings, like Bombadil himself, maybe supernaturally safe but the hobbits can’t remain there because of their own objectives. Likewise, Rivendell and Lothlorien, while not invulnerable can only offer temporary protection because true safety can only be achieved by Frodo completing his quest.

Tolkien made both Rivendell and Lothlorien effectively fortresses in the sense of heavily defended and defensible places but also made them places that don’t physically resemble castles. I presume that he did this to characterise their elvish aspect (in the Silmarillion there are more overtly castle-like elvish cities, Nargothrond and Gondolin, both of which are destroyed despite their impressive fortifications).

Hidden Fortress

A refuge can offer limited safety by being hidden. Akira Kurosawa’s film of the same name refers to the temporary hiding place of a general and princess of the defeated Akizuki clan. As with any refuge, the hideaway can only be temporary. Star Wars, that liberally borrowed from Kurosawa, repeatedly makes use of hidden rebel bases that offer short-term safety to the protagonists.

An awareness of the vulnerability of your hiding place is treated as a virtue of character. To know that your fortress can only hold back your enemies for so long is treated as wisdom. A story about a wise king who had carefully ensured that his impregnable fortress really was impregnable and who had taken great care to ensure that it had more than enough food and water to outlast any feasible siege is not inherently appealing. Instead, the quest has to keep going or the military hero has to take the fight to the enemy. Notably, Aragorn does this twice. In the siege of Helms Deep, he resolves to make a last-ditch sortie out of the keep. Later, having raised the siege of Minas Tirith he takes his forces out of the city to attack the Black Gate of Mordor to misdirect Sauron. Castles are cool but keeping your hero (or your murderous monster) stuck inside is unwise for a story.

[ In another case of synchronicity post-writing this: “Elon Musk is building a medieval watchtower” ]

*[I did read the book once but I know the film better, which is quite different]

17 responses to “Castle, Fortress, Refuge”

  1. The elven realm in Mirkwood is in one sense a refuge with a castle/palace in the center. Now, of course, in the story it doesn’t really work as a refuge, but as a different and nicer kind of danger to the dwarves compared to the rest of the wood. But that is, well, because it is an expedition of dwarves. If Bilbo had been traveling with Aragorn and Gandalf it would have been a kind of refuge. Or, if the dwarves had still been in Gandalfs company (he managed to get them lodging in Beorns hall after all).

    One reason that Rivendell and Lothlorien doesn’t feel like fortresses is probably that although they are defended and safe, they don’t exist in order to subjugate a local population.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Sesuad’ra, the Stone of Farewell from Memory, Sorrow and Thorn serves as a refuge for Prince Joshua’s people for a time. It was a gathering and recruiting place where the fugitive Prince and his followers could rest, regain strength and gain additional followers.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’ve often wondered why castles were worth the trouble, either to build or to try to capture. Your article inspired me to look around a bit, and I found an excellent discussion on Stack Exchange about it. Essentially an invader can’t just ignore castles because the enemy army inside can sneak out, attack from the rear, and then sneak back to the safety of the castle (or attack your supply lines). But taking a castle is also hard, since you need about 10 attackers to every defender to pull it off or you need months or even years for a siege.

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    • If you ever get a chance, stop by Chateau-Gaillard in France. Richard the Lionheart’s prize jewel, one of the pinnacles of medieval fortification, the French took it by storm less than a year after it was completed, because the garrison was so sure it could never be taken so they weren’t paying attention.

      I’ve found a good rule of thumb is that if a castle has never been taken, it’s never been besieged. On a somewhat related note, Maurice de Saxe’s advice was “Entrenchments are made to be taken.” You build fortifications because of the exorbitant costs they impose on the enemy for taking them – the very act of the assault is what realizes the military profit of building them. Castles are probably more permanent than what he had in mind but the same principle can apply; certainly WW1 trench warfare and the seige of Petersburg in 1864 were this specific principle writ large.

      Going back to the literary aspect, I’m having trouble finding examples of sieges where the protagonists are on the defending side. I think Pournelle’s “Spaceship for the King” is one, but he was deliberately copying Rourke’s Drift there. Glen Cook has a few – the Lady’s fortress, or the city in his pseudo-Albigensian crusade where three kings get knocked off one after another (although I think the city was taken afterwards? it’s been a while). The Gaunt’s Ghosts book Necropolis would qualify. More-or-less successful defenses of the Lady’s fortress and Vervunhive coincide with successful resolution of the overall plot – for those specific books, anyway. Probably at least part of the reason we see castles less often as successfully defended refuges in literature is the inherent proactive nature of protagonists: they have to be going out and doing something, and castles by their nature sit still. Waiting out the enemy doesn’t make for good drama.

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      • The Red Knight by Miles Cameron is a fantasy novel that show a siege from the defenders point of view. Siege porn, I think it was called by one reviewer.


      • “I’ve found a good rule of thumb is that if a castle has never been taken, it’s never been besieged. ”

        Hmm … I wouldn’t trust that too far. To take a reasonably close example for me, Fredriksten Fortress on the Norway-Sweden border was besieged some six times but never taken. (The Swedish king Carl XII died during one of the later attempts.)

        As for fantasy novels with besieged characters:
        in Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion, the protagonist’s leadership in defending the castle of Gotorget is a very important part of the backstory. The critical part of book 2, Paladin of Souls, happens during a castle attack where the protagonists are on the defending side. It’s not a drawn-out siege, though, as the attackers have enough sorcerers on their side to wear out the defenders easily.

        A Song of Ice and Fire features several sieges where a POV character is on the inside of the walls – Riverrun, at least two sieges on Winterfell, not to mention the attack on King’s Landing that ends with the Battle of Blackwater Bay.

        In Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Scion, the protagonist Imriel is caught up in a walled city (modelled on Lucca, Italy) during a siege.

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      • I’m not sure about this. Inthe Great Seige of Malta, the first fprtress was taken to massive casualties, and this did a number on the morale of the Turks. I believe the big fortress was never taken.

        The walls of Valetta are thick enough people sunbathing on them look like they’re lying on an apartment roof.

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      • Thanks for those examples. The ones I’m familiar with are in France. There’s plenty of examples of fortifications that bravely held out victoriously, but were successfully taken a few centuries earlier or later. And all the ones I know of that never changed hands – nobody ever tried for them. Clearly my experience isn’t wide enough!

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  4. Re the Death Star. The other day I discovered the existence of “Turkish Star Wars” which was a cheesy Turkish movie that stole effects shots from Star Wars. (

    Here’s what they did with the Death Star:
    The villain tells them he is actually from Earth and is a 1,000-year-old wizard. He tried to defeat Earth, but was always repelled by a “shield of concentrated human brain molecules”, which looks like the Death Star from Star Wars.

    Infiltrate THAT, Obi Wan!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. While I’m thinking about this, one of the rare counterexamples in the other direction: Kenneth Roberts’ Arundel, where the climax of the story is the heroes failing to take the castle-city of Quebec. The whole point of the story is that the protagonist is romantically obsessed with a French temptress who by then lives in Quebec, and he needs to go back to his New England village and realize his true love is the girl next door, so failing to take the city serves purposes both historical and literary.


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