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).
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” https://www.cnet.com/news/elon-musk-is-building-a-medieval-watchtower-the-boring-company/ ]
*[I did read the book once but I know the film better, which is quite different]
Writing about libraries set my muse off on an essay about libraries in fiction but thinking about libraries set my head in the direction of the Name of the Rose and its geographical puzzle of a library which set me thinking about castles and before you know it I’d written more about castles than libraries.
So it looks like I’m writing two posts now which led to a couple more. Which is fine but I needed an introduction because it has been awhile since my previous plot geography posts and that introduction got longer…
Plot geography! Not a thing, just me rambling. The posts last year started after Alex Ack’s thought-provoking posts on the geography/geomorphology of Middle Earth. That set me thinking about how Tolkien used different terrain to mark thematic changes in the plot. I’m not a scholar of fantasy fiction so the sources I drew on are just those that came to hand in my head: Middle Earth, Earthsea, Gene Wolfe’s Ruth in the Book of the New Sun, as bits and bobs from other sources such as Star Wars.
I’m not trying to be either authoritative or normative. If somebody wants to write about a swamp that isn’t much of an obstacle and in which nothing lurks quasi-supernaturally then I have zero problems with that. Likewise I’m not railing against cliches here, if a story has a swamp with a tentacled thing waiting to pull you under then I’m all for that as well (sorry, I mean ‘you’ generically – I don’t want any readers to actually be drowned by a tentacled monster in a swamp.)
The emphasis in that last set of posts was on places that characters travel through. That is not a feature confined to fantasy but stories that set people off on journeys will place characters in a dynamic with the landscape.
These next posts are more about locations. Dots on the map of a fantasy land rather than features. Places you travel to rather than zones you travel through.
It’s not an exhaustive list. I’ve intentionally left off inns, villages, towns and cities. I’ll be mentioning those but I don’t have enough things to say about them currently. I don’t have monasteries, schools or tall towers lost in a dark forest as specific topics but I’ll touch on them. Not everything in the list above will get its own post as some are pairing were I want to contrast their roles. I don’t want to be overly literal about locations either for example in Lord of the Rings the elven kingdom of Lothlorien has some of the features of a fortress: its is a defensible position where the characters are not in immediate danger of direct attack by the forces pursuing them. Yet Lothlorien has no stony walls or battlements. I believe plot wise it is something other than an unusual castle but I’ll get to that later and I wouldn’t look askance if somebody included it in a list of castle-like places in Lord of the Rings.
As always feel free to add your own examples, argue against my examples or suggest aspects I’ve forgotten.
I was going to say that they seem to be everywhere these days but actually I can only think of three recent ones. But three is a lot right?
The junkyard in Becky Chamber’s A Closed and Common Orbit (reviewed here). The book has two interwoven stories one about an AI trying to live as an embodied being with help from her friends and the second story told in flashback about Jane – a cloned child who (along with other cloned children) works in a giant junkyard on an isolated planet.
The San Jose junkyard zone in Blade Runner 2049.
Without spoiling the plot Ryan Gosling visits this hi-tech scrap heap to interview the owner of an orphanage which turns out to be…a child slave labour workshop where kids recycle hi-tech junk. Given the timing of the film and Chamber’s book it is unlikely either cribbed from the other but the visuals in Blade Runner 2049 almost work as visuals for Chamber’s book.
Less focused on the horrors of child exploitation we’ve also had recently the giant intergalactic junkyard from Thor Ragnarok (review here):
Is it just me or do junkyards only exist on cloudy days?
The city in Borne isn’t technically a junkyard but it has similar tropes of gangs of scavangers making use of the remains of technology but with the twist that it is discarded bio-tech. I guess The Phantom Menace has the child-labour-junkyard trope but without the giant space junkyard.
As a piece of plot territory, the giant junkyard is one that is implictly science-fictional rather than fantasy or at least requires a society in which mass manufacture is a thing and hence the disposal of used goods is a thing. A junkyard can then become a place in which the fringes of society live but also a place where technology can be found.
A junkyard is also a place that hides in plain sight. They are by their nature visible but exist where people with wealth can ignore them. There is an in-built critique of capitalism (whether an author intends that or not) with an implication of the ugliness of waste. The inhabitants of the junkyard are also people being discarded by their society – the sfnal junkyard is rarely a day job but instead home to gangs or slaves or slave owning gangs.
There’s an implication of secrets, forgotten knowledge, death and also rebirth in the fictional junkyard – dead things coming back to life for good or ill. An alchemical theme to the junkyard.
In Earthsea islands are large and numerous, in Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, islands barely appear and are small. In both cases they are locations and destinations and themselves contain terrain.
In Tolkien’s wider work, Númenor is the most notable island – a version of Atlantis, which itself gives us a classic inspiration for islands in Western literature. Oceanic islands can be countries with their own terrain but cut off from surroundings. Le Guin depicts the islands of Earthsea more like medieval era city-states with a wider common culture but no central authority.
It is interesting to me that Tolkien, who draws on many aspects of Britain and Britishness in building Middle Earth, avoids the island quality of Britain. This despite a tendency to mythologize the insular quality of Britain in English propaganda-history both in high-culture (Shakespeare’s ‘sceptered isle’) and low-culture (‘fog in the channel, continent cut off’). George R.R. Martin’s Westeros does this by having it be an eratz England circa the War of the Roses (with Scotland being another place full of ice zombies). Westeros’s scale seems flexible but it’s primary plot role as an island is to be a container. Events are within Westeros (up to the Wall) or beyond (either over the wall or on another continent).
The point being – oceanic islands are treated as political units rather than as terrain.
Really big lakes are no different than seas, so I’ll assume we aren’t talking about really big lakes. Tolkien puts islands and towns in lakes, Wolfe puts floating reed islands in a lake and lakes in general distinguish themselves from rivers plot wise by what they might contain.
Small lakes (and pools) maybe places of magic or sacredness. In Stephen Donaldson’s Covenant books, Glimmermere is a magical lake that even gets a magic sword thrown in it and later retrieved.
Small Islands (and other things, in lakes and rivers)
Laketown in The Hobbit is not quiet an island as such but effectively it is and rather like big islands, we have an island as a kind of political entity. People live on and next to lakes, so it makes sense to have islands in lakes as communities. Which in turn makes islands on which people don’t live somewhat mysterious. Deserted islands are spooky in the way a deserted structure is spooky.
Flipping back to island’s in oceans, A Wizard of Earthsea includes a section on an island so small that it is little more than a sandbar. There Ged encounters two castaways with a mysterious past which goes unresolved in that book but which provides a bridge to the sequel.
Swamps have a dual nature. Death and decay on the one hand and overly fecund on the other. The Dead Marshes in Lord of the Rings, literally contains dead bodies whereas other swamps and marshes and mangrove-like environments can contain an excess of insect life or harbor unusual creatures (e.g. the rodents of unusual size in the Fire Swamps of the Princess Bride).
Like forests, swamps are places where navigation is difficult and in which becoming lost is an active danger.
Wastes, wilderness, deserts and ’empty’ lands
The notion of wilderness is a politically charged one. The notion of land that cannot be settled and hence is empty is, to but it bluntly, a colonial lie. If it isn’t Antarctica, then people live there, if less densely than other places. However, the idea as a part of a fictional territory continues. Wilderness is empty AND the people who live there are dangerous AND it is a frontier.
To see the contradictions consider Tatooine. It is a desert, it is empty and yet it is where the Sand People (and Jawas I assume) live. Luke lives on what is a frontier farm that echoes Western settlement of empty-not-actually-empty lands in North America and Australia.
Like swamps and forests, wastelands are places in which becoming lost is an ever present danger. Exotic creatures may live in the desert but unlike swamps and forests the desert (or snowy wastes) are characterized by a lack of life. What joins old growth forest, swamps, deserts, and snowy wastes together as threatening places in which survival is at risk is they are not managed land (again in reality even this may not be true).
Swamps, sandy deserts and snowy wastes share a common feature that other wastelands do not necessarily share: the ground itself is treacherous and you may become pulled below it. Quicksand, mud, a crevasse covered by snow or sand all are dangers that subvert the idea of solid ground.
Journeys through the wastes are wearisome and psychologically and physically tiring for characters. Again, assuming the default for classic fantasy of European like people from towns or from farmed land. As such, the wastes are like the ocean and characters may survive by encountering people who know how to live in this different environment.
In The Farthest Shore, Le Guin uses an encounter like this using the open ocean outside of the archipelago as a kind of virtual desert for Ged – who, despite being from a sea-faring culture is beyond the terrain in which he can live.
I’m intentionally trying to avoid talking too much about ethnic stereotypes in fantasy literature with regard to terrain in these posts. Too big an issue to address properly at this point and better served with its own discussion. Much harder to avoid with sandy deserts as Western Orientalism brings its own baggage along to deserts and desert societies.
Speaking of which…jungles. Forests but with swamp elements. Wet and fecund and dangerous and exotic. Again loaded with colonial baggage and assumptions about both emptiness, ‘untamed’ nature and ‘savagery’.
I’m wandering off on a tangent from this post. That post was mainly considering geographic elements as plot elements in Tolkien and Tolkienesque works. Having reached lakes and oceans my head went to Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. Now I haven’t read it in a long time, therefore beware of errors and misunderstandings on my part. Also, if you haven’t the books then there are sort of spoilers (in so far as it can have spoilers – arguably the specific events don’t matter). [Also: the auto-correct keeps changing “Urth” to “Ruth”. I think I got them all but if you see a reference to Ruth, I didn’t add a new character – it should say “Urth”.]
Arguably, the novels in The Book of the New Sun aren’t fantasy at all but science fiction. The setting is the far future and the story concerns alien intervention in the long-term future of Earth (or rather Urth). But let us not stand on ceremony or taxonomy today. For most intents and purposes this is a fantasy story about one man (with a very big sword) on a journey of discovery which involves some freaky monsters and technology that may as well be magic. It is also late enough in the evolution of sub-genres that Wolfe knew what he was doing when he deployed tropes and themes from both science fiction and heroic fantasy.
The story is also another good example of the deployment of terrain and geography to shape the plot and atmosphere of the story while being geographically plausible. Wolfe doesn’t invent a terrain though, instead, he borrows one wholesale.
It isn’t hard to recognise a chunk of South America in the books. Various clues point to the setting being in the Southern Hemisphere (warm jungles to the north for example). With only a little more thought the geography more-or-less matches a cross-section running from (plausibly) Buenos Aires* to Bolivia and Peru. Starting a huge sprawling city and that mouth of a great river, the story takes in grasslands, jungle, and huge mountains. There is a city that like La Paz clings to the sides of a steep valley, there are Incan like ruins and enormous mountains.
Late in his journey, Severian finds himself at a huge inland lake high on a plateau that is indistinguishable from lake Titicaca down to communities on floating reed islands. Although oddly it is possibly the body of water in the novels that is the most straightforwardly a body of water. Elsewhere, the novel treats rivers and lakes as boundaries between earth and the heavens. ‘Heavens’ here working both in the sense of an afterlife but also in the sense of the realm of stars. The metaphor is taken literally by Severian who does not clearly distinguish between space travel and ocean voyages and further unlined by spaceships apparently resembling sailing ships (made clearer in the quasi-sequel Urth of the New Sun).
In the story, life/death is marked by an early event in which Severian nearly drowns in the river as a child (or maybe does drown). Later, in the story when he falls into an ornamental lake he rescues a young woman (Dorcas) who, from context and based on later events, is probably a revived corpse (and possibly his grandmother).
The cosmic aspects of bodies of water appear in encounters between Severian and being connected with the Undines – enormous cosmic beings whose role in events is unclear. They appear to be antagonists but on occasions appear to be helping Severian.
Looking at my last post on fantasy geography there are differences and similarities.
Mountains are not obstacles as such. This also fits with a different cultural perspective on mountains. Whereas Tolkien treats mountains as wilderness, the mountains in the Book of the New Sun contain aspects of civilisation. In a memorable section, Severian discovers the mausoleum/sanctuary of Typhon – a figure from a more assertive and aggressive period of Urth’s history. The location is deep in the mountains and is a literal pinnacle and a metaphorical pinnacle of technology.
Mountains could be just mountains but plot geography also means that mountains echo multiple tropes based on cultural preconceptions about different mountain ranges. Tolkien’s mountains are a British perspective on the European Alps – barriers that separate one country from the next. Wolfe draws on the Andes which were the home to an extensive civilisation that used the varying vertical climate to create an empire that could span north-to-south. The Himalayas have their own set of tropes and myths and cultural stereotypes based on everything from actual history to Orientalism and colonial distortions.
On the other hand, forests play a similar role to Tolkien’s forests in that they are a place of both danger and transformation. In particular, Severian changes in nature in forest/jungle encounters but forests are also used to indicate a change in other ways.
The life/death aspect of journey’s underground is less distinct and overshadowed by the more overt life/death aspect of rivers and lakes in the books. There are two (that I can recall) cases of a journey underground. The clearest one is in The Claw of Conciliator when Severian is tricked into entering a cave. Inside the cave are strange man-apes creatures, ruins and some other huge thing which we never see. Although there are revelations about the possible powers Severian has gained, there is an odd subversion here. Rather than being changed, the journey in the cave returns Severian back to the story and the events which sent him to the cave. In the same book, Severian later finds himself imprisoned in the royal palace The House Absolute, which exists mainly underground. Here, the life/death/rebirth elements play out in some ways more conventionally (in so far as the book can be said to do anything conventionally other than its sexism).
The books do not come with a map and despite being a story that layers puzzles on metaphors on lies on top of time paradoxes and theology, the geography and the physical journey are uncomplex and plausible. The setting has a city on a river near an ocean and inland there are more settlements and eventually mountains. To the north is a jungle and a war. The terrain changes with the story and with the journey. The journey itself is a huge loop physically (ignoring metaphorical and time-travelling loops of other kinds).
*[Although one notable map places the city of Nessus on the Pacific side of the Andes]
There is a new good article on fantasy maps at The Map Room Blog: http://www.maproomblog.com/2017/09/the-territory-is-not-the-map/ The point being that much of the discussion of fantasy maps is not the map as such but rather the implausible territories that they depict. Fair point. However, I wanted to loop back to the post I made on the simplified Middle Earth map. A successful fantasy geography requires the terrain to shape the story and The Lord of the Rings does this well. It matters to the story whether the characters are in forests or towns/villages or mountains.
Roads, paths trails
These imply places where the story covers a greater distance. Travel is either uneventful or involves encounters with others. Leaving the path implies not only danger but a shift from the main objective. They are also (random encounters aside) boring but may also imply more personal conversation between characters. Outside of fantasy, a road trip has its own conventions and expectation of bonding between travellers.
Forests require finding a way through. As noted in the earlier post, in both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, forests are transformative to characters. They can both be benign and threatening, magical and spooky. There is an implication of things being hidden – characters are hidden from pursuit but also things of power hidden among the trees (consider Merry and Pippin fleeing into Fangorn to escape the Uruk-Hai and encountering Treebeard).
Hills are minor obstacles, vantage points and places of note. They can be sanctuaries, objectives or scenes of battles. Weathertop is the definitive hill in Lord of the Rings but Bag End is also in/on a hill. People have built defensible settlements on hills for millennia.
Are either major obstacles or really big hills 🙂 By “really big hills” I mean examples from Tolkien such as The Lonely Mountain, Minas Tirith and Mount Doom. These are singular locations that serve as objectives to be reached and which contain structures and may also be scenes of battle. Sets of mountains, on the other hand, are major obstacles that divide the terrain into different sections. They force characters to make decisions about the direction they need to take. In both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, the Misty Mountains divide the terrain and the story.
One way to deal with the obstacle of mountains is to find a way through and over. A mountain pass is a forced choice for characters and a physical challenge. I can’t recall an epic fantasy where the characters suffer altitude sickness but that alone could fell a mighty hero who isn’t properly acclimatised. Accidental death is a plausible danger as is a need for shelter.
Caves, and journeys underground
Caves are naturally spooky and comforting as shelter – natural houses but also possibly homes for various beasties. Journeys underground are something else. Western myth (and beyond Western myth) associates passage through an underworld with a spiritual journey of the soul. This evokes ideas such as the Christian hell but also pre-Christian underworlds (Hel’s realm, Hades’s realm), mystery cults (and Orpheus’s journey to the underworld) or pre-scientific notions about the journey of the Sun at night.
Like forests, a journey underground is transformative. In The Hobbit, Bilbo finds the one ring and encounters Gollum. In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf dies (ish) and the tone of the story changes. A journey underground naturally hits mythic resonances with death-and-rebirth transformations. A cave (even if it is just a shallow cave) is a potential gateway to a world within a world.
Rivers are perhaps the most flexible geographic element of a fantasy terrain. They are minor obstacles (the require fording), they are locations (bridges and ford are specific places you need to get to), scenes of battle (a good place to stop an enemy), they are also major obstacles and divide the terrain into regions. Also, they are a means of transport and present more rapid transition from one location to the next. In The Hobbit, the barrel trip moves the story rapidly from Mirkwood to Laketown. In Lord of the Rings the trip down the Anduin is slower but shifts the characters from one level of the map to a different level. Consequently, rivers have a transformative quality for characters and story in a way not dissimilar to forest and journey’s underground but at the same time have road-trip elements as well including random encounters.
Are the ultimate obstacle and often delineate the setting of the story. Where stories cross oceans, the ocean separates different kinds of territories (a good exception is Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King where the ocean is more like a highway for a Viking like people). Alternatively, an ocean is a setting for an archipelago of which the paradigmatic example is Earthsea and acts more like the default empty bits of other maps.
Ships and ocean journeys
Ships combine elements of both road-trips and towns. A ship is a location and a means of transport. Characters are placed together and the journey covers significant distance punctuated by conversation and random events. Tolkein only uses ship journey as bridges between life and after-life. Lord of the Rings has ships only in two places – Aragorn brings the dead spirits to relieve Gondor (but the ship journey is not itself depicted in detail) and at the end, Frodo leaves Middle-Earth from the Grey Havens by ship to journey to the undying lands. In the Silmarillion ships also play a role moving people from being closer or further away from the gods. The great ship-travelling civilisation of Numenor is one that lies halfway between the more earthly and the divine.
Islands, lakes, islands in lakes and other things
I’ll save for another time and I’ll need to branch out into other fantasy stories. 🙂