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.
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?
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.
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.