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?


About Melissa

generally in love with things Celtic, mythological, fantastic, sharp and pointy, cute and fuzzy, intellectual, snarky, cheerful, or some combination thereof. Such things as sarcastic bunnies wielding claymores might come to mind...

Posted on October 4, 2011, in Fantasy, History, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Melissa Rogers, Story, World Creation and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Melissa,

    I love the Holder Wars – only read one portion of it – where the lead character has to escape across a cliff to a doorway that requires a leap of faith into nothingness – to escape her friend’s dreamscape.

    I could not put the book – um – the laptop down until it came to the end – it was compelling reading. I then googled in frustration to see if there were more chapters available…nada!! My grief, I hope, is palpable.

    I am a tour guide in Ireland… originally from the UK (but born in Uganda – long story…). Near us there are 5,800 year old neolithic tombs – Sliabh na Caillighe – the “Hill of the Witch” – witch in this case meaning “wise woman, queen” as it was a matriarchal society in those days.

    When one is up on those hills, there is such energy and stillness that it is nearly a magical experience, so ancient and so ponderous. Seems like a contradiction – but the weight of history is immense – and yet energising.

    How does one convey that in a book? I suppose by having the characters come across these ancient sites in their own travels…much like you and I do today – fast lives, social networking – yet we come across these places that make us slow down and consider the other, the impossible.

    For example – I am often told about a “fairy mist” that appears in these regions – and if the mist touches one, time slows down in a Rip van Winkle effect – so maybe a character around here could – in a quest of their own accidentally become entangled with ancient history…

    I am not a writer but I am a reader and I enjoy the output of people such as yourself.

    If you are still in Scotland maybe you can hop across the pond and find out for yourself!! Would be delighted to take you round the old sites in Ireland.


    • Lucy, if you want to start at the beginning of the story found in the e-zine that Lantern Hollow produces each quarter, here is the link: There are three parts up so far. I think you found the taster from the story posted on the website? That is actually coming up in the next e-zine!

      I agree that stories, when appropriate, might include some ancient sites and other indicators of the past as characters travel across the landscape. Now that I’ve seen them, I can’t imagine a good old fashioned fantasy story without them!

      I am 100% planning on visiting Ireland. I have a lot more castles to see, but I also want to visit some of the sites that have connections to history and mythology other than castles – Tara, as an obvious example. What a wonderful job it must be to give tours to these fabulous places!

  2. Wayne the Shrink

    It’s more than simply something there. Just as Bilbo stumbled across the grave mounds of an ancient civilization and not only had an adventure but there found Sting – a palpable connection to that ancient history carried into the story. That one knife, sword for a Hobbit, carries that ancient history into the present through out the four books. The Ring, of course, did the same but that was developed more slowly. It is more than the history simply being there, it is in some way your character’s interaction with it that brings it to life.

    • I think that is a valid point and definitely true of such amazing novels as the Lord of the Rings. The ruins they pass are rarely just there for scenic effect. I think a bit of both is probably appropriate. If every single historical artefact that one stumbles across is an enchanted sword or the Book That Will Change Everything, it becomes a bit predictable. Some things might just be there for the sake of showing the reader a bit of the world. But other things, like you said, can play a critical and powerful role in tying the past, present, and future together, which is always a really fascinating element to consider after finishing an excellent book.

  3. Ah! Wayne, you beat me to it- of course Lord of the Rings is a fantastic example, because that timeless weight is exactly what Tolkien was attempting to recreate, having discovered it in the ancient cultures he studied, and that myths he loved. I think it’s very interesting to note that that weight was there even before anyone knew about that history, which was yet to be printed in the Silmarillion (much to Tolkien’s annoyance).

    Also, wasn’t it Frodo and his group that got caught by the Barrow Wights? They found Numenorian swords there, but Bilbo had Sting with him in Rivendell, didn’t he?

    If I remember correctly, Bilbo found Sting (and Galdalf found Glamdring) when they all got nabbed by the three trolls, in The Hobbit.

  4. I too enjoy the weight of history. I think that’s one reason I love old books. I hold a book printed in 1801 and wonder, who purchased it originally and why? Was it carried or delivered to their library via satchel or trunk? After reading it, what did they think? Did it provoke discussion? Did it sit on their shelf, forgotten? The hands that held that book at the beginning of its life also did who knows how many other tasks that were a part of everyday life back then (guiding a horse’s reins? Lighting oil lamps? Dipping a pen into ink to write?)

    1801 isn’t old for a castle, I know. But living far from said castles, perhaps it’s the next best thing.

    • I adore old books. I hope to pillage a few bookstores while I’m in the UK and find some good old copies to ship back! I look for anything earlier than 1900, ideally. I just love how they were made and how they feel, as well as that sense of holding something old and lovely in your hands.

  5. Brilliant post, and great pictures! 🙂 Thanks for this. It’s very helpful to me as I’m about to embark on a post apocalyptic science fiction story. It may not be castle ruins that my crew finds, but many of the same things (the historical perspective etc) can be said for it I think.

  1. Pingback: For Valentine’s Day: A Romantic Note to Big Old Stone Buildings | Lantern Hollow Press

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