Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Borders in fantasy

Politics and geography are not my fortes, so I first became interested in the borders and boundaries of fantasy lands when I read about Ravenloft.

Ravenloft is divided into domains, each of which has a ruler. The ruler can’t leave the domain, but wields a great deal of power within it, including the ability to close the borders of the land at will. When the borders are closed, supernatural effects prevent anyone from leaving. I love this, because it’s so varied and imaginative.

When Caleb wants his borders sealed, an army of tornadoes whirl to life all across the desert, throwing up sandstorms…

When Játiva wishes to close Ricoba's borders, thousands and thousands of rats swarm from the shadows themselves to gather at the edges of the domain.

Another magical border – albeit not a temporary one – is the Raraku Whirlwind in Stephen Erickson’s Gardens of the Moon. A border could also take the form of a great abyss around a city or land. Falling into such a chasm might be instant death, it might result in falling forever or it might drop a person into whatever subterranean settlements have sprung up inside such a fissure.

As this article points out, many such borders in fantasy worlds are geographical barriers such as mountains and rivers. But constructed borders are fun too. There’s the Wall of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels – a slab of ice hundreds of feet tall that “defends itself”. When raiders from the north try to climb it, part of the ice breaks off and they fall to their deaths.

There’s the Great Wall, which seems to have made an appearance in every Civilization game so far. Granted, that wasn’t so successful, but there’s no reason things can’t be different in a fantasy world, though the logistics of having many troops to man the wall will have to be taken into account. Martin does a great job of that. Because of political issues in the south, the Wall is becoming neglected, and fewer and fewer men are being sent to patrol and watch over it.

Organic walls would repair themselves and might enjoy nothing more than to snack on whoever’s trying to cross without authorization. Or a wall could be not a solid block but instead a mass of cylindrical-esque pieces joined at random and with lots of odd angles, like a demented pick-up-sticks game.

And some walls are there to prevent the people within from leaving, rather than the ones outside from getting in. Though some of them will cross regardless…. because where there’s a wall, there’s a way.


JH said...

(Warning: anime posting ahead)

The Ravenloft domains reminded me of the political divisions in "The Twelve Kingdoms" ( Each nation's borders are defined as part of the world's metaphysics, and each has a one true ruler, chosen from among the people by a divine beast when the old ruler dies. One ruler can attempt to exert influence on other nations, but it's a Bad Idea, on the level of crossing the streams or saying "Beetlejuice" three times or trespassing in the forbidden crypt of the pharaohs or turning back to look at Sodom as God destroys it. Which is the plot of the first book/season. It's basically a fantasy treatment of the Mandate of Heaven. And it owns compleat.

ralfast said...

Real life borders are something that many fantasy writers get wrong or throw up arbitrarily. There is a reason why many real borders are made up coastlines, river banks and mountain ranges:


In essence a border exists for two reasons, as a clear demarcation of the nation-state (or it's ancient equivalent be it kingdom, warlord territory or empire) and as a place to defend against incursions from beyond.

A magical border should reflect both the limits of the rulers power (socioeconomic and military) as well as threats that lie beyond (if any).

Marian Perera said...

JH - I checked out the Wikipedia article but it didn't say exactly what would happen if one ruler tries to influence another nation. That sound intriguing. Do you have any more info?

ralfast - Thanks, that's a great point about borders demarcating lines of defense. Uncrossable expanses of land (dangerous forests or deserts) might also be borders for that reason.

JH said...

Generally speaking, you can't really influence another nation directly. I think you can try to "invade" but your armies will be like cursed or something? More importantly, subverting the divine order in such a blatant way is something an unvirtuous ruler does. Being unvirtuous is very bad! The basic metaphysics are "fisher king" type stuff, where the health of the land is connected to the virtuousness of the ruler, part of which is proper respect paid to the mandate of heaven. Good ruler = prosperous, peaceful kingdom. Bad ruler = OH SHIIIII-

The status of ruler is conferred by a magic beast, the kirin (I think this is a "Chinese unicorn"). The kirin cannot bow to anyone but the ruler, which is how you can tell who the real new ruler is when the old one dies. But, let's say you are friends with some notable in another realm, who you're sure will serve you in exchange for power and influence. If you can, for example, ensure that the rightful ruler is banished to another world (i.e., our world), then capture that land's kirin and use sorcery to enslave it, you can probably fool people into thinking your pal is the ruler. After all, the kirin's bowing to her! Kinda odd that it can't turn into a human to act as an adviser, pretty sure that's pretty common for public appearance, but you only see the kirin in beast form, huh wonder what that's about, oh hey another crop failure? A hurricane dropped hail the size of cobblestones on a city and obliterated it? You can't go from one town to another without being attacked by demons? Every firstborn son is developing horrible boils which bleed until they die? Huh, fancy that.

It's been a while since I watched it, so I only really have vague memories that subverting the natural heaven-mandated political order causes the world to break locally, and slowly decay, plunge into chaos, etc. Had to check TV tropes to get a better idea of the exact nature of the slow decent into ruin that occurs when you fuck with the gods' plan. There might have been something about really blatant violations resulting in really bad shit happening directly to the ruler, maybe even dying, not sure about that though.