Daily Archives: October 4, 2011

The Weight of History in Fantasy: How Castle Ruins Can Tell a Story

This past weekend, I saw my very first castle ruins in Scotland.  Sure, I live next to Edinburgh Castle, but I haven’t actually been inside there yet.  I’ve been waiting until I could go in for free with my shiny new Historic Scotland membership.  The membership also gets me into a ton of castles and other sites across Scotland.  It is a dream come true for someone who loves castles as much as I do.

Standing on top of Tantallon Castle, you can see where the North Sea meets the Firth of Forth. This castle was strategically located up on these cliffs to guard that entrance.

The ruins were fabulous, dating back to the early medieval period.  Plaques throughout the grounds described the families who lived there and the strategic positioning of the castles (Tantallon on the cliffs and Dirleton further inland) and their potential weak points.  Exploring the ruins was fabulous.  Stairs and corridors led to dark rooms or wide open areas that used to be covered.  Tantallon had stairs in good enough repair that you could get all the way to the top towers and look down on the grounds and beyond the cliffs into the North Sea. The aesthetic appeal to me is a reason in and of itself to see the castles, but the added appeal of knowing that knights and lords gathered in this room for banquets or that prisoners were tossed into that dark pit for their misdeeds or unlucky political connections makes the experience of exploring the place so much more fun.

I mentioned to one of my friends how much I lamented the lack of castles in America and my general disdain for “poser castles.”  If it’s not hundreds of years old, it’s not “real” to me.  It might be pretty, but the oldness and the history matter as much, if not more, than the prettiness.

Portal to Narnia? Sadly, no...

Looking around the castle ruins made me think more about giving a fantasy world a real, tangible history.  I know that a lot of writers keep this idea in mind and I’m definitely not telling most seasoned, or even a lot of amateur writers

something terribly new.

Still, I think it is something to consider and if you, like me, hadn’t given it a great deal of thought, this might be some good material for discussion.

Or maybe I’m the only one who finds this a new and fascinating aspect to focus on, in which case you can just appreciate the pretty pictures.  That’s okay too.

Pretty much everyone has either read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or at least seen the movies.  For all the complaints that Tolkien scholars might have about the movies, one thing that I don’t think would be a fair accusation is that the movies ignored the weight of history that Tolkien invests into his novels.

Throughout the books (and the movies) the characters stumble across history, whether it is the ruins of an ancient underground city or a story of the distant past that has intense impact on the present and future.

Naturally, very few writers will ever go as far as Tolkien did with his Silmarillion and actually record the history in painstaking, yet fascinating detail.  Even the sheer volume of historical detail found in the trilogy is a bit much for your average fantasy author.  I would guess that many authors who try end up with a novel that is far more ponderous and dull than they had hoped for.  Most readers don’t want overt history lessons.

The grounds at Dirleton Castle were not as grandiose as the cliffs of Tantallon, but they were beautiful in a different way - full of massive old trees and gardens and hills.

So, somehow, the author has to infuse a story with the weight of history without that weight becoming a ball and chain that makes the plot drag.  I think the balance is different for each writer and different stories will require more or less history to provide an acceptable level of reality and “past”.

For me, that weight does not need to be very heavy.  My stories are light hearted and live in the moment.  The past influences them, but not much.  However, I think I would do well to consider the past at least a little.  For instance, in my serial The Holder Wars that I have been writing for Lantern Hollow’s e-zine, my characters move from one town to another and there is very little sense of the development of that world.  I give a brief explanation of the Holds and the history of the magical races that are relevant, but that’s about it.  What else could I add?  Since the story is told from a first person perspective, it makes less sense to include a lot of historical explication.  Mikaela doesn’t have the time, knowledge, or interest to stand around pondering the past.

Well, seeing castle ruins gave me a clue.  If your world only has things that are new, still in use, rooted in the now, your world might not feel like it really was ever old.  So where are the ruins?  Where is that old fort that fell apart because a better one was built up the road?  Where are the broken down roads that have fallen into disuse in favor of newer, better ones?  Not every fantasy world has to be littered with stone ruins like the ones I was climbing all over on Saturday.  That doesn’t fit every story.  But unless your world literally exploded into existence within the last few years (now, there’s a story that might be interesting to write…), that world should have some sense of oldness here and there.

Who wouldn't want something like this lurking on the landscape of their story? I mean, really...

For stories like mine, it may not make sense to catalogue the past in detail because it interrupts the flow of the story.  However, leaving little hints and remarks that show a reader that there is history behind the palace where your character might be sneaking through, that political schemes, battles, and tales of past heroes and villains are connected to the places that weave their way in and out of your story, will go a long way in giving weight to a story without weighing it down.

But these are just thoughts that I’ve had since I traipsed across castle ruins in New Berwick.  What do you think?  Am I putting too much emphasis on history?  Or not enough?  Can a good book or story get along without it?  How do you use these elements in your writing or do you tend to avoid them, as I have, because they seem unnecessary or ponderous?