Castles in the Air

15 Nov

One seemingly inescapable fact about fantasy novels is that, if you’re going to write one, then you will almost certainly have to, at some stage, put a castle, fortress, palace, tower or fortification of some type in it. This is hardly surprising given that so many ‘fantasy’ worlds are actually based on a fairly narrow period in our own history when castles were of supreme importance as seats of power, symbols of prestige and, in many cases, bastions of civilization in an ever dangerous world. What I remember best about some of my favourite fantasy novels are the places as much as the characters.  A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, has dozens of wildly different citadels which are home to the series’ various warring families. The Starks of the north live in the brooding stronghold of Winterfell, while the powerful Lannisters are based in the gold-rich fortress of Casterley Rock. The severe island citadel of Dragonstone, the mountain fortress called The Eyrie and bustling King’s Landing, seat of the rulers of all the Seven Kingdoms, are some of the other memorable locations in George R R Martin’s saga, all brought vividly to life in the HBO adaptation. In creating these castles Martin is carrying on the fine tradition of the many fantasy authors who went before him. J R R Tolkien named the second book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy after the opposing towers of Minas Tirith, last rallying point of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth in the War of the Ring, and the Barad-dur, stronghold of the Dark Lord Sauron. Mervyn Peake created one of the most iconic castles in all of literature in the form of the vast, crumbling ruin of Gormenghast, seat of the Groan dynasty in the trilogy of the same name. But what were the real world inspirations behind these fantastic creations?

When a kingdom was attacked in the middle ages, its strength lay in its castles and fortified halls. A castle usually had nobody inside its walls except the lord and his household, as well as the men who defended it – whereas the town had its ordinary inhabitants as well. A fortified town usually included a castle, but the town’s position was generally decided by merchants rather than soldiers, whereas a castle on its own would be placed in a good position for defence. A castle was often built on a route, perhaps overlooking a pass or a river crossing, where the garrison could stop an enemy advancing or at least cut off his supplies if he did get by. A line of castles sited in this way, as on the Welsh Border for example, could defend a whole frontier. However, the exact position of a castle was often influenced by other factors: solid rock to build on, a natural crag which would be hard to attack, a good supply of water and a quarry nearby to provide building stone. Some of the earlier castles consisted only of a single keep, or tower, but these gave no space for stables or even comfortable rooms. It soon became necessary to add an outer walled or palisaded enclosure, called a bailey, so that both animals and men could live within its protection at the foot of the keep. The outer walls were often strengthened with projecting towers from which the defenders could shoot sideways at enemies who tried to climb the walls. Round the outer walls was a deep ditch or moat, which not only hindered direct attacks on the walls between the towers but also helped to stop the enemy from digging tunnels under the castle.

The castles of the middle ages were the fortified dwellings of the kings and nobles and their retainers. As mediaeval households moved about from place to place, the buildings inside the bailey, facing into the courtyard, were designed to allow for a long stay. There would generally be a great hall, a kitchen and a chapel, with private rooms for the nobles, storehouses, barracks and guard rooms for the soldiers, together with a grain store, a blacksmith’s shop and a stable for the horses. Sometimes there might be a cattle shed and there would always be a well. Most castles also had their own prison, sometimes situated in the depths of the keep. Many other features were built in anticipation of a potential siege. The gate was the weakest point in the defence and so a small outer walled enclosure, or barbican, was often built to screen it and give extra protection. Opposite each inner gate (for in the larger castles there might be several) the moat was crossed by a drawbridge – a bridge which had hinges at the inner end so that it could be pulled up at night or when the alarm was given. At the inner end was the portcullis, a grating of wood or metal through which arrows could be fired. Among the finest examples of all defensive fortifications are the castles built by the English in north Wales at the end of the 13th century by Edward I, such as Harlech, Beaumaris, Conway and, above all, Caernarvon. Some of these castles were never besieged and many were never even finished. They still show all the elaborate defences of the later middle ages – the complicated galleries and wall passages, the loopholes through which defenders could fire their arrows and the turreted wall-tops along which the defenders could move to drop missiles on the heads of the attackers below.

Amongst the most famous castles in Britain which have lasted to the present day are Windsor Castle, in Berkshire, still a regular residence of the royal family, and the Tower of London, which served through the ages as both a palace and a prison. In Scotland, Edinburgh Castle has stood nobly on its great rock for nearly 1,000 years, while Caernarvon Castle in north Wales stands much as it did more than 600 years ago. The remains of a lighthouse dating from Roman times stand within the outer defences of Dover Castle in Kent. Another famous castle by the sea is Tintagel, in Cornwall, where King Arthur is supposed to have been born. Stirling Castle is finely situated on a steep rock and it is not surprising that this was the last stronghold in Scotland to yield to Edward I at the beginning of the 14th century. The Norman castle at Berkeley, in Gloucestershire, where Edward II was murdered in 1327, is one of the best preserved castles in Britain, as is Arundel Castle in Sussex. One of the most famous castles outside Britain is the Krak des Chevaliers in Syria, a Crusader stronghold built by the Knights Hospitaller, who held it between 1142 and 1271. There are also many magnificent castles in mainland Europe. Two of the best known are Chillon on Lake Geneva in Switzerland; and Chinon in western France. The best examples of the combination of castle and walled town built in the middle ages are at Carcassonne in the south of France and at Conway in north Wales.

The age of the mediaeval castle came to an end with the coming of gunpowder and cannon in the 14th century. Against artillery the stone walls of castles were defenceless and they were gradually replaced by low-walled fortifications, defended by cannon. While the castles of history were grim, cold and ultimately redundant, the same is not true of the castles of song and story. Invariably crafted from bright stone and polished wood, their buildings arch toward the sky, rearing towers of fine design. Steepled roofs and slender spires give their dominions a joyous air. Bright colours and grand carvings decorate each surface, and each citizen dresses well. Unlike the true mediaeval castles, many in fantasy seem to magically have sewage and sanitation, clean water and ample crops. These castles in the air never change, crumble or fall, for they are gateways to the otherworld, whose only limit is the human imagination.

2 Responses to “Castles in the Air”

  1. mqallen November 15, 2012 at 3:05 am #

    Aboslutely have to have castles 🙂 And my current work-in-progress as a castle of the flying variety (and griffins and dragons). Castles changed quite a lot over the centuries, though. Most people think of the massive concentric ones, build for example in the Holy Land during the crusades or by Edward I in Wales but those were created only for a few centuries. CAstles were always extremely expensive and closely matched to offensive technology.


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