For those of you who are familiar with Oxford, you may recognise this photo as the alley at the back of the Clarendon Shopping Centre.
For those of you whop aren’t familiar with Oxford, let’s just say that it’s an alley I’ve walked past just about every day for at least seven years. There’s dozens of alleys just like it in every town and city in England and very probably around the world; nicely built at one point, but long-since forgotten about while the front facade gets updated every decade or so.
It’s totally ordinary and unremarkable, I always thought.
You’d think by now – this being Oxford and all – I would know better!
Because the other evening I was walking past it – running late as always and keeping a dear friend waiting for dinner – when I suddenly noticed something…
Why is there a stained glass window sandwiched there between the fire escape and the bike shed? I mean, I’m sure that there’s no wrong place to put a stained glass window and all, but it wouldn’t have been my first choice, I’ll tell you that!
And wait… Is… Is that…?
Yes, that is indeed an angel looking back over its shoulder at us like it’s in The Office, apparently 1000% done with the sea serpent. Look at them! You can absolutely hear the exasperation in the angel’s voice, can’t you?
Sidney, I say, Sidney will you stop flashing your fangs around? No really, they’re completely unnecessary, old thing. The poor artist’s already struggling to get your whole body in frame what with all the coils, do you think you could just… not?
I mean, why not have an angel and a sea serpent in your windows, right?
Makes complete sense, that does.
Naturally, I had to investigate a little further…
Sure enough, over top of the skip (because of course it was over the skip!) there was another stained glass window! It’s a little unclear, I know, what with being so high up, but I think that’s St George, mercifully without his dragon up there:
Yep, there he is! Valiant steed at the ready and everything!
Now, I know what you might be thinking: Cameron, why are we looking at this building? And fortunately, I do have an explanation which in turn explains so much about Oxford!
Because it has been my personal belief for some time now that there is a magical department hanging around somewhere in Oxford, even if I could never quite figure out where it might be. The Bodleian was too obvious, and besides, have you ever actually met an Oxford librarian? They are specially trained to take out a potential book-scribbler at a thousand paces! You even think about crumpling the pages and they will have your hide, never mind trying to do any magic around their books! Any of the museums are out for similar reasons, although one does also have to factor in the various Outreach activities to get kids into History they have going on: there’ll be no doing of magic while the PVA glue and glitter is right out, it doesn’t bear thinking about!
And at last! I have found it! It’s perfect! Right next door to a gardening and DIY shop too, which I’m sure will come very in handy for iron nails and oak wood and things. They probably have an extra room at the back with the cauldrons in…
After a bit more searching, I finally found the front door, and look! Definitive proof if I do say so myself!
I mean, if you were designing the head quarters of the Magical Faculty of Oxford University, what else would you stick over the door? Naturally it would be an owl!
Alright, so the sign next to the door says it’s the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, but that is just what you would say, isn’t it? What other crowd would be more at ease with magical undergraduates, huh? They’ll all have their cover stories at the ready; when they say that their DPhil topic is the correlation in accounts of dragons and witches in the 15th century, you’re not to know that either of these things really exist, are you?
I can’t tell you how much of a relief it is to have finally found confirmation of the Magic Faculty after all this time! And to have simply stumbled across it too! Mind you, isn’t that always the way it happens in the stories?
Coming to you next time with further wonders, miracles and mysteries of Oxford…
New to this blog? Check out some of my other series down here:
So I’d like to start this post with a special dedication to all my friends who live with me and my writing. Friends are the un-celebrated support network behind any artist or writer and we just don’t give them enough thanks!
This post was born out of the following, I swear I’m not making this up, real-life conversation:
Me: Hey, I’ve just had a thought
Me: What are fairy cities like? What do they look like?
Me: I mean, do they have large cities? Do fairies have a social structure that would support that? Because they seem like they’d be ‘Bigger Is Better’ people-
Friend: … Cameron…
Me: – but they also seem to have a pretty feudal society and that only really allows for kind of small ones. And would they be too territorial for close-quarters living?
Me: And what do the buildings even look like? Do you think they’d be all tall and ethereal? Or one story high and made out of sturdy rocks? Like super-defensive?
Friend: …It’s gone midnight, Cameron. Talk to me later, yeah?
To all of my friends who bear with my madness; your patience is noted and appreciated. I thank you all.
Anyway, this post is going to look at world-building from one very specific direction; choosing a specific end result – in this case the final ‘look’ of Tir Na Nog’s cities – and working backwards to figure out what would need to exist to allow this to happen.
I’m a big believer in looking at a lot of different approaches to world-building, and trying out all of them. Even if you find this helpful, please don’t feel like you need to use this for everything you go on to build or indeed feel like it should work in all scenarios, because it probably won’t. Different approaches force you to ask different questions and that’s what’s fantastic about world-building. Go crazy and try everything you can get your hands on! The end result will be much better!
Why Think About Cities This Much?
So, Cameron, why are you giving any though to what the cities of the fairies look like?
I hear you ask.
Well, fantasy fiction has historically had a bit of a leery relationship with the idea of cities. They tend to feature cities as far off in the distance, mentioned and referenced maybe but only entered, if ever, during a fraught quest or at the climax. (Also, is it just me that keeps finding cities as being almost exclusively where The Bad Guy™ lives, rather than normal places of normal people with lives and businesses?) So the focus is never on the city itself as a functioning population hub but as the place where the action happens. And for good reason.
Fantasy tends to really like to base itself in medieval feudal societies and they don’t have the sort of social structure to maintain big cities like the modern world does. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t cities, but by our standards they’d be pretty small, and they are rare and they usually are the result of very specific factors coming together, like the joining of two or more main roads, or a crossing place on a river…
Mostly the population lived in smaller towns and villages; the larger your settlement is, then the more people living in it, and the more food it needs to keep going. Since the middle of a settlement is not where the good agricultural activity is, that means that the ‘hinterland’ (the land which is essentially there specifically to feed the town) gets larger too, but now the distance food has to travel from the outskirts of that hinterland inwards is larger, and after a while it’s not worth it. Pre-industrialisation, goods just take a lot longer to move than we can easily conceive of now – a horse and cart laden down with food can travel around 12 miles in a day, according to my research, assuming that there aren’t highwaymen or robbers or flooding…
Plus, once you get a lot of people into a single area, you need to keep the peace between them, dispense justice, collect revenue to keep the public buildings and infrastructure maintained and pay the people who are keeping that peace I just mentioned. It’s a lot more complicated than just shoving people together and calling it a city. There’s hierarchies to sort out and maintain and differentiate. The priorities of the society will shape the city’s major centres – hospitals, libraries and universities, banks and markets, churches and temples, public parks, etc. Trade routes to be established so goods can come in and out, and industrial areas to develop and spread. And then of course cultures change and develop…
No, wait! Don’t panic! I know it sounds complicated but that’s not really a bad thing! You’re a writer after all! You get to be the boss of this world, and you get to make those decisions now! Just be aware that you might need to think about these things if you want to go into detail.
It’s worth stressing at this point that some writers do not go into detail, and that’s not necessarily going to impede your narrative at all.
In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien has the Fellowship rest at the city of Caras Galadhon, the largest city of Lothlórien. What do we know about it? Well, it’s built up in the massive mallorn trees, on platforms connected by stairways and ladders, and it’s lit by “many lamps”. That’s not a whole lot of description of a major city. We get some highlights of important places; the fountain, the mirror of Galadriel and there’s a palace that Galadriel and Celeborn live in, but none of them are described in that much detail. And did that affect the plot at all? Nope!
So please don’t read this post and panic because you haven’t really described your city (if you have one). Especially if the plot is just glancing through it, the city doesn’t have to matter all that much. Books are there to tell stories with words, they aren’t a visual medium like comics or film where designing a set is vital for the whole narrative to work.
I personally made the decision to tackle the idea of fairy cities. I haven’t read about a lot of them and I really wanted to take the opportunity to really think one out. I like a challenge and it’s something that is potentially distinctive in my writing. I don’t even know if they are going to be a major feature, but I know I want to give them a try. I want to see how the cities built by fairies – who are not and never have been human and who have had very limited and mostly rural experiences with humans – would be different from our own. I wanted to experiment to see how their political structures would affect their physical surroundings. What would be the same and what would be alien to us?
You will have your own ideas which are different and unique and you’ll want to play to those strengths.
What Buildings have to do with People?
OK, so architecture says a lot about the people who built it. It says a lot to those people as well, actually. Before the rise of literacy among the general population in Europe, architecture was the main way that ideas and concepts could be spread to the masses.
There’s a reason that the Catholic Church built those huge cathedrals with their stained glass windows depicting Biblical scenes and lessons, and (pre-Reformation times) were decorated inside and out with painted statues and huge murals also depicting important stories and ideas: Heaven, Hell, Saints and Angels protecting the innocent and punishing the wicked, Devils are bad and do bad things, what the major sins are and what happens to those who succumb to temptation.
You get the idea.
Also buildings reflect the changing power dynamics and attitudes of societies too.
This bit is grossly over-simplified, I’m sorry, and I should stress that I am not a qualified architectural historian or anything of the kind!
The Renaissance saw a revival of what became known as the Neo-Classical style of architecture, which reflected the period’s renewed interest in Greek and Roman culture, ideas and society. The ‘Middle Ages’ (as they were now called, since people had clearly lived beyond that age and into a new one) were despised as the ‘Dark Ages’, a time without all this clearly superior Classical literature and scholarship of science. The backlash to that dismissal was then seen in the rise of the Neo-Gothic architecture of the Later Victorian Era (timings approximate) where the revival of medieval ‘gothic’ architecture was used to celebrate the poetically reimagined vision of the Middle Ages as a more exciting and untamed era of adventure and great deeds – just as the Europeans imagined their own actions and innovations to be; exploring new lands and conquering mountains, seas and desserts instead of dragons and griffins.
What I’m building up to here is the idea that architecture is a reflection of the people who design it, and therefore these two things need to match. If you give me a peace-loving society with no recent conflicts, but everyone lives in well-built and defensive castles and fortified towns, I’m going to have some serious questions. Which could be answered with something interesting like ‘There was a war recently and no one wants to talk about it, but that’s why they love peace so much’ or ‘The masses are told that they are a peaceful nation, but the Powers That Be are war-lords and are preparing for a terrible war.’
See? Inconsistencies can add up to fascinating world-building on their own. A war-faring culture that lives in undefended settlements might simply be terrifyingly good warriors, like the Spartans who had no walls to defend their towns because their army was amazingly effective.
So about these Fairies?
OK, so I always say this: When you sit down to do some world-building, start with what you already know, then work out from that. This approach has never let me down, because I stop focussing on the things I haven’t worked out and start focussing on all the things I’ve already figured out, which is both more positive for me as a person, and means I’m not figuratively looking at a blank page, but at a puzzle piece which just has some gaps in it. (Sometimes big gaps, but they’re still just gaps, right?)
What did my image of my fairies tell me?
My version of fairies are based on the Early Medieval folktales’ version; not demigods like the pagan Celtic peoples knew them (Tuatha Dé Danann), but more powerful and interesting than the little house spirits the Church would make them into by the time of Shakespeare (he describes them as being small enough to hide inside acorns when frightened). The best concise description I have ever found for fairies as I pictured them comes from (who else?) Terry Pratchett, in Lords and Ladies:
Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
No one ever said elves are nice.
Elves are bad.
That’s it, that’s it right there! Those are my fairies! Beautiful but cruel, interested in beautiful things but not with lives, covetous and jealous and magical. That old phrase about a person who could “kill you or kiss you”? Those are my fairies.
I knew that they would have an elf king and a fairy queen, that each ruler had their own distinct court; so they’d need palaces. I knew that they liked music and dance for the sounds and the colour and the movement, that they liked theatre and the inherent falseness of the magic of the stage; so they’d have large public venues to enjoy them in. I knew that they would have big parties to celebrate and show off in, so some big open spaces to “dance upon the green” would need to be incorporated.
But there’s another side I needed to conceive of. I knew that all the glitter of my fairies would be – not hiding exactly, but definitely distracting from – another, darker set of priorities. I knew that they would collect lives like some people today collect action figures – to be kept on a shelf and displayed for pleasure but never ever used. That they would consume more than mere food, and that they would barter in dark secrets and blood-stained memories. I knew that they would craft beautiful artworks and terrible weapons in the same shops, and sell lucky potions and deadly poisons in the same markets, and not always tell you which it was you were buying, because they’d get a kick out of watching you take a gamble with your own life and lose.
So now I needed to think about what aesthetic best fitted that sort of culture.
So About Those Cities?
These days with the wonders of the internet, whenever I need to find a specific ‘look’ to fit an amorphous concept, I use Pinterest, but any other way you have for finding lots of images will work just as well! Go forth, scramble around and collect every single imagine that strikes you as fitting. They don’t have to match, they don’t have to be exactly fitting. You’ll go through them later and throw out the ones that don’t work anymore, or find patterns you didn’t even realise you were tracing out in these little snippets.
I have a whole set of photos cut out of old magazines at home which are literally just windows and doors and I am reliably informed that they have no visible common aesthetic at all. They do. They are the doors I think belong in a character’s house, which is large and has a lot of different types of rooms, like any large old house, and it was only later that I realised that they were also the doors into different realities…
Anyway, I went away and looked at lots of pictures of buildings. Lots of them. And finally I found something that really worked for these fairies: Gothic Architecture! … Sort of…
So, if you’ve ever been inside a Gothic cathedral the first thing you’ll probably have been struck by is all those massive windows. They’re huge and (or at least they were) filled with coloured glass, and they have these amazing spiders’ web of stone and lead running between all these pieces? I’m fascinated by Gothic stained glass windows, they’re just so pretty…
But the thing is, Gothic architecture can be beautiful and romantic and intricate and absolutely full of tiny details and little carvings that just add so much… but they are also really sinister too. At least to me. Like, there’s a reason why Gothic architecture is associated with vampires and evil spirits and malevolent magics too. Those walls are really tall, and they just loom over you, and all the angles come to sharp points of stone that catch the light and throw claw-like shadows everywhere, and the halls are full of these statues that may or may not be watching you, right? I love visiting old cathedrals, but sacred ground or not, you will never pay me enough to stay inside one overnight. Nope, not happening! Nuh-uh.
So I started to imagine an entire city based off of the sort of design that went into a Gothic Cathedral. All that grand sense of height and looming presence, filled all over with stained glass caught up in these intricate webs of silver-lead and impossibly fine stone, throwing glittering points of coloured light everywhere. All those sharp-edged columns and pointed arches upon arches to build a ceiling like a ribcage over top of huge, echoing, cavernous halls. Lots of wide spaces, yes, but lots of twisted shadows too, that you aren’t sure are occupied or not…
And like the real cities of old, lots of hungry people living tightly together with not much food… and there you are, all alone…
Thanks for reading this post, I know fantasy architecture is a weird topic!
If you liked this and found it helpful, check out the rest of the series here.