Tuesday, June 2, 2009

National borders in fantasy

In medieval fantasies – both for the people writing them and those living in them – it’s probably not going to be as easy to define national borders as it is in modern times. But it’ll be a lot more fun.

Natural borders

Rivers and mountain ranges make natural borders, easy to distinguish and providing some physical separation between different lands. Other geographical features might prove problematic, though – for instance, if a forest lies between two lands, how much of it belongs to each land, and how are hunters or poachers from either land prevented from trespassing?

If a desert separates two countries, is the desert a no-man’s-land where anyone can venture – if they dare? Or is the desert divided, in case it’s later found to contain oil reserves or archeological treasures? In which case, how are the lines in the sand drawn?

Constructed borders

The solidity of this construction depends on the specific purpose of the border. In my land of Iternum, the border is marked simply by stakes driven into the ground, sharp-pointed but widely spaced. Any Iternan can cross that border, but once that happens, the Iternan become a hunted fugitive. So the intention behind the stakes is to mark the border, not to deter crossing in and of themselves.

On the other hand, the Great Wall of China was built as a defence against nomadic tribes, made in large part from stone and brick and constructed with watchtowers and signal forts. A similar but even stronger wall is the one in the north of George R. R. Martin’s Westeros, which marks the end of the civilized land and keeps out wildlings.

That Wall is built from ice, and any fantasy world with powerful enough magic could construct walls from something similar – for instance, obsidian, shards of unbreakable glass, the bones and tusks and claws of any creatures which have attacked it in the past.

Larger borders could be constructed as well. In Holly Lisle’s world of Matrin, magic has caused circular rings of mountains to spring up randomly over the world, some of these enclosing seas and others more or less open.

Magical borders

One thing I love about the Ravenloft RPG is the magical border of each domain, each different and each controlled by the lord of the domain. When the lord wishes to close the borders, they spring up or manifest themselves as walls of swirling sand, barriers of thorns and so on.

There’s a lot of potential here. For instance, lands could have magical borders permanently in place, like a much larger version of those pet restriction methods that produce an electric shock if your dog strays past a certain point.

Or the borders could be assigned an arbitrary access method. In Fredric Brown’s short story “Arena”, the barrier between human and “Roller” can be crossed by any creature which is unconscious or dead. Perhaps other such borders can be crossed only by people who are blind or maimed, giving a medieval society a good reason to shelter and feed – or even produce – such people.

I'd also love to see magical borders which functioned like Moebius strips or M. C. Escher drawings, sending anyone foolish enough to cross them in circles which led nowhere.


elizaw said...

Or... alternatively, one could have no borders at all.

13th century Italy, for instance. The land was hard to work and there weren't much natural resources (hence why people can shoot western movies in Italy and make people think it's California), but the area was fabulously wealthy because of trade around the Mediterranean. What happened? The city-state. A prince ruled over his own city, hired mercenary bands to defend it, and whatever lay between? Well, it could be farmed, sure, but it wasn't really their problem. Their wealth was from trade.

It's very much a feudal concept that land equals wealth, but in fantasy that doesn't always need to be the case. Make the land hostile enough, and it can just be a danger.

writtenwyrdd said...

Interesting thoughts. I like the last idea where blind or crippled persons can cross but normal folks cannot. You could also make it that mentally damaged people can cross, thus starting in industry of sorts (perhaps within the confines of the religious cloisters) where people are half-killed to instill brain damage and the means to "talk to God." Cool idea. I might have to use that one.

Borders between lands weren't clearly established in many places because the lands between city states were so sparsely populated. A general border would likely be claimed on one side of a forest or the other side, and disputes would likely take place over who actually owned the forest. Likewise for rivers, because why allow your 'enemy' an advantage like a trade route when you can deny him that advantage by taking it all?

But you've written a very thought provoking post here.

Barbara Martin said...

I have a border consisting of a tunnel in bedrock that leads to a parallel world much like 12th century France. Those who wander in unknowing have the shock of their lives learning they're not in the 21st century.