Plot Geography: Labyrinths and Libraries

This post was meant to follow directly on from this one but I forgot to finish it.

I can only think of one library that is literally also a maze and that is the library at the unnamed monastery central to the mystery in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose (see here for some of Eco’s sketches https://www.architecturalpapers.ch/index.php?ID=75 ). Eco’s novel which mixes musing on Medieval thought, the nature of inquiry, and Sherlock Holmes pastiche remains a delight. However, despite filling the criteria of having author generated maps in it and crossing genre boundaries, it is not a fantasy novel.

Eco’s library also knowingly echoes the more overtly fantastical work of Jorge Luis Borges whose short story The Library of Babel examines questions of infinity and knowledge that mirrors his story of an infinite labyrinth The Garden of Forking Paths. Borges himself was a librarian, famously so when Argentine dictator Juan Peron attempted to ‘promote’ him from his position to that of poultry inspector as part of a purge of critics of his regime.

Libraries and mazes and labyrinths share physical and metaphorical features. To enter each of them is to set yourself on a search for hidden knowledge. Arguably, a genuine library is not actively trying to thwart your search and actively hide secrets but practically both mazes and libraries require understanding the hidden principles to navigate them.

Physically, all three kinds of structures are dense spaces. Their exterior size is misleading compared to the distance you have to travel on the inside. Both use convoluted paths to pack more into a finite space than is usual. This convoluted packing of linear routes into an enclosed 2D space creates a wonderful visual metaphor with the convolutions on the outside of a human brain.

Mazes can be unintentional. Any building with twisting corridors and oddly joined rooms and frustrating dead ends can serve as a maze. So castles and stately homes, shopping centres and natural cave formations can act as maze-like structures. This transformation of all settings into potential mazes is most obvious in video-game settings but also in table-top role playing games, where characters must navigate through maze like structures that mirror plot elements.

The Lord of the Rings, (one of the works I try to reference in these plot geography posts) does not feature a library or an overt maze. True, Gandalf describes searching for hidden accounts of rings of power in Gondor but we don’t ever get to see the library of Minas Tirith. However, the Mines of Moria work as a more metaphorical maze and also contain hidden written knowledge throughout. To gain entry requires a play on words and once inside, the Fellowship must navigate the passages until they find two key pieces of writing. One are the words on a tomb (oh, and how delightful it was as a child to discover that the runes could be transliterated in the illustration) and the other is a book — an account of the lost dwarven colony of Moria. I don’t doubt that Tolkien was echoing the classic Minoan labyrinth by placing at the heart of Moria a monstrous and murderous beast of quasi-divine origin. The balrog may be more fierce than the minotaur but they share a role of the horror at the centre of the maze.

In the Avatar cartoons (both Ang’s and Korra’s) the spirit library of Wan Shi Tong serves as a physical (in a cross-dimensional way) library and an effective maze. Vast in size and maintained by knowledge hungry foxes, the palatial library is maintained by a spirit in the form of a huge barn owl. It is literally a place that some people never escape from and shares the dual purpose of collecting knowledge and hiding it.

The notion of being lost, whether it is in a library, in your quest for knowledge, in a maze you must find and/or escape from, as a lost soul looking for enlightenment in church labyrinth or just simply as a reader lost in a book, is central to the common ideas. The garden of forking paths is a metaphor that mirrors mathematical tree structures that might describe a literal maze or a categorical system like the Dewey Decimal‘s nested hierarchies. Where libraries and mazes differ from other places characters can get lost, is there is method to place.

In church labyrinths, the method is to simply keep going. The way is twisted and uncertain but all you have to do is follow the path. The trick is not a cognitive one (there is only one path) but a test of patience and character and a metaphor for the narrow path to salvation. What is hidden is that twisted path is actually simple: an unbranching straight line folded in two-dimensions. It’s not unlike the plot of a story, in that the twists and turns suggest complexity but the story is constrained to one path that must be followed.

In the Tombs of Atuan, provides may ultimate favourite maze map. The twisted cave-like tunnels hide many wonders but at their heart is a treasure room which contain the fragment of a great talisman. The map le Guin provides is a wonderful distraction. I remember tracing out the routes in the maze long before I read the story (it was an older sibling’s copy) and it was an offer of mystery but also a gift of privilege. By providing the map, Le Guin implies that the reader themselves can see the route through the maze. However, the story reveals that the solution is not a physical one but an emotional and interpersonal one. Ged the wizard, despite his youth, his powers and his research cannot navigate the maze and cannot escape it because of the nameless powers that rest in the titular tombs of Atuan. It is only by winning the trust and genuine friendship of Tenar/Arha that Ged can find the heart of the maze, retrieve the treasure and escape. Fittingly, the treasure is the missing half of the ring of Erreth-Akbe and it is only by bringing the two halves together that the world can re-learn a missing rune i.e. word. There are no books in the Labyrinth of the Tombs of Atuan but there are words to be found.

Bicycles are the fantasy hero’s friend

One thing that became rapidly obvious looking at a day’s travel time is just how good bicycles are. It ran against my assumptions about horses being an obviously ‘better’ form of transport on the grounds that the horse is doing a lot of work for you. That assumption doesn’t play out for several reasons.

Firstly, from what I’m told, riding a horse is itself quite tiring. A slower horse trained to have a more comfortable gait were used in the past but by their nature they didn’t travel very quickly. The net effect is there are limits to how far you can comfortably travel by horse.

The horse itself has limits on how far it will travel in a day. Horse based distance transport has historically required systems for a regular change of horses. The same limitation applies to coaches. They can go quicker and travel further if there are regular horse changes. Horse drawn wagons heading off over long distances without places to change horses (e.g. 19th century American wagon trains of settlers) went slowly – basically walking speed.

On foot humans and horses are surprisingly well matched and even more so for longer distances. I was sort of aware of this famous (and slightly silly) race in Wales which is a competition between horses and people (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_versus_Horse_Marathon ). Over a distance of 35 km (22 miles) the horse usually wins but the times (just over 2 hours usually) are comparable between human and horse.

Humans are quite good at going long distances by foot and over an extended period. When Tolkien sets his main part of adventurers off on foot, it’s not a stupid choice. People can walk great distances and if you don’t have access to a regular change of horses, walking is probably the most reliable way of getting from A to B. A testament to that is the vast network of foot roads established by the Incas up and down the spine of South America. Donkey’s or mules for carrying gear make sense but riding has limitations.

The bicycle though takes that human advantage of bipedalism and puts into work by pedalling. Range and speed increase markedly. I freely confess that my numbers are far from perfect but modern bikes appear to easily match ye olden times horse travel and may exceed it.

The major obstacle to have your party of adventurers hop on a bike to cycle their way to Castle Macguffin is simple: the non-existence of bicycles until the industrial age. I’ll come back to that. What else is there?

Bikes certainly operate a lot better on smooth, level, well maintained roads. Horses (and walking) is less impacted by terrain. However, so long as there is something road-like, a modern bike can cope with rougher roads and dirt paths. What the impact is on distance, speed and fatigue, I don’t know because a lot depends on the terrain.

Carrying gear is an issue as well but I’ve seen bikes with trailers and all sorts of bag carrying schemes (eg https://road.cc/content/buyers-guide/195494-beginners-guide-cycling-luggage-how-carry-stuff-your-bike ). A pack animal can carry more but a cyclist can carry at least as much as a walker and more if they have good equipment.

So the hard limitation is technology. A post-apocalypse is surely perfect for cyclist heroes. There are roads, abandoned bike shops and supermarkets to loot on your way thus saving you the effort of carrying a lot of gear.

A bicycle looks out of place in high fantasy and adding one might seem comical but what are the actual limits? Ancient roads in magically good condition are not uncommon in fantasy (relics of the lost civilisation). Amazingly advanced metal work is practically de rigueur for fantasy. Tolkien’s mithril (super light and strong and non-brittle) would be a perfect material for a bike if it wasn’t for the fact that it is so valuable that you’d need a very, very good bike lock to stop your steed being stolen.

Highly skillful metal workers and cunning but simple mechanism are also hardly forbidden by the standards of high fantasy. It’s aesthetically weird for a magical dwarven smith to craft a bicycle but there’s really nothing there that is out of keeping with the kind of exceptional technology that appears.

However, ‘exceptional technology’ is insufficient. A sustained bike trip needs people along the way who can fix a bent spoke or a twisted wheel. Rubber tyres is a level of material technology that is really out of keeping to a fantasy setting.

And yet…how much of a stretch is it to wave a magical pretext for bicycles to exist in your fantasy world? None at all if we can have sentient harps or walking statues or rings of invisibility. What prevents our fantasy heroes from cycling to Mount Horrible is that bikes just scream “modern” in a way that our fake medieval setting won’t accept.

[Note 1: I am not a cyclist and my bike riding capacity would be best described as ‘marginal’. If I fall through a wardrobe to Narnia, then I’m walking]

[Note 2: I’ve been trying to think of fantasy examples of bike riding and I can think of examples with modern world collides with magical worlds but even then not many. I vaguely recall the kids in Alan Garner’s Weirdstone books riding bikes around Cheshire at some point. Any other examples?]

[Note 3: I should have mentioned Steampunk fantasy obviously. Bicycles fit perfectly into that setting.]

The world building of Us (deep spoilers)

Jordan Peele’s frankly terrifying film Us really unnerved me. I wanted to see it again before writing more about it but I don’t think I’m going to get an opportunity anytime soon. I really want to talk about how the intentional absurdity of some of the premises in the film work really well i.e. the underlying explanation of events doesn’t stand up to pedantic scrutiny and that not only doesn’t detract from the film but is played as an advantage.

This means spoilers, so I have waited a week. I will be talking about most of the big reveals in the film, so don’t go further if you haven’t see it and don’t want spoilers.

Don’t go into this fun house of mirrors

A Tube Map of Earthsea

[Version 2]

The first three books anyway. Tehanu would be better shown with a hiking map of Gont.

[ETA: I’d left off brief stops at Hosk and Astowell from the Wizard line and a semi stop at Obehol (they are driven away by spear throwing islanders) from the Farthest line. Typo “Nintey” corrected (thanks to Vicki Rosenzweig).

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.

Refuge

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” 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]