Issue 66 – March 2012


The Romance of Ruins

Little excites our sense of adventure more than an attractive ruin: a castle on a hill, a vine-clutched pyramid, a masonry wall sheltered in a natural cave. Ruins appear in a variety of roles in the fantasy tale—and it's rare indeed to find a fantasy without them. Some are indelible settings for pivotal scenes, like J. R. R. Tolkien's Weathertop. Others are destinations in themselves—fabled cities that hide secrets the protagonist must discover. Still others suggest a deeper truth to the story, a layer beneath the obvious reality: a ruined rocket at the center of an apparently medieval city.

What purposes do ruins serve in the fantasy story, short or long? What resonance do they create? How does this sense of history enhance the tale at hand? Looking at the history of European interactions with ruins provides interesting insight into how and why they appear in the realms of fantasy, and how characters respond to them.

[Heidelberg Castle, Germany, one of the most striking of European ruins.]

The origin for our fascination with ruins is likely found in the work of the medieval humanists associated with the Italian poet Petrarch, famed as an author and speaker even in his own time. Like many of his intellectual contemporaries, Petrarch disdained his own time as decadent, a dark period when men and morality had fallen from grace. Rather than look to the future for improvement, these early humanists instead took their inspiration from the works they translated and disseminated: the writings of ancient Rome.

Clearly, the Romans possessed wisdom and skills lost to their weak descendants, but it might be possible to reclaim that Golden Age. Especially in Italy, but also across much of Europe, the physical remains of the Roman Empire still loomed over their medieval counterparts. In some cases contemporaries incorporated the broken architecture of the ancients into their own structures, creating hybrid buildings with elements constructed a thousand years apart.

[A later period house built into part of the ruined abbey at Bury St. Edmund's, England.]

In places like Trier, Germany, this consumption was a deliberate act, with the former Imperial Palace transformed into a church, its awe-inspiring proportions and ingenious forced perspective harnessed to serve religion rather than state. Petrarch urged the popes, then residing at Avignon, to return to Rome, wresting it back from anarchy and using that rich landscape as the center of a new Golden Age. He even supported the military coup of the peasant Cola di Rienzo, an uprising that briefly succeeded at ruling Rome, only to degenerate into a Roman-inspired madness and collapse.

The landscape of Europe—the origin of many influential fantasy authors and the inspiration for many great fantasy works—grows thick with ruins. To the Italian humanists, Rome dominated the local imagination. Meanwhile, in the Celtic regions from France and Spain to Ireland, pagan tumuli, standing stones, and earthworks rise up as well, creating a palimpsest of history, tangible and mysterious. Ruins of all ages dot the maps of European cities, serving as literal playgrounds, open-air museums, and secret hideouts for the seminal authors who established the fantasy genre. Ruins formed the backdrop of their lives, creating a sense of the richness of history beneath every footstep, around every corner.

[Ruins in the garden at Bury St. Edmund's, England.]

It's not uncommon in a fantasy novel to find ruins embedded in the landscape and essentially treated as part of the scenery. In the work of many lesser fantasists, scenes may take place in a picturesque ruin, but the ruin itself remains in the background, not drawing the characters' or the reader's attention—just as those ruins that spot the landscapes of Europe must become mundane for many who live there and pass them on a daily basis. And for authors like Tolkien and Lewis, whose works inspired not only generations of readers, but American writers as well, this deep history would be fragmented and layered yet again by the ruin of World War II.

In this way, the ruin can speak to the very heart of its world. David Farland echoes the sense of tradition being destroyed in the first volume of the Runelords series, when his characters are led by mysterious compulsion to the Seven Stones rumored to be the foundations of the world itself. They find most of the standing stones already toppled, and the last one breaks while they watch, foretelling great change, perhaps the destruction of all that they know.

The Victorians explored, exploited, and domesticated the ruins around them. Victorian gardens often feature mysterious pathways or broad vistas deliberately constructed to call attention to elaborate and artificial follies made after the fashion of medieval and ancient structures. Monasteries broken by Henry VIII became pleasure gardens and walking paths, and artwork featured delicate human figures dwarfed by the remnants of the past, even as the inhabitants devour the fruits of the present. Ironically, the Victorians turned for their own Golden Age to the very height of the medieval period that Petrarch despised.

[c. 1800 engraving from Trier, Germany shows the medieval church built into the Imperial Baths (artist unknown).]

Pre-Raphaelite painters created images of King Arthur and his knights in a process of both recovering and creating of the myths of chivalry that underlie so much fantasy fiction. The Arthurian tales beloved of the courts of 12th-century Europe were embellished with heroic values even then, and more so in England and America of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Little wonder that the generation of authors we now think of as fantasy's founding fathers looked to the Middle Ages amidst the horror of their own time—a degraded and decadent age if ever there had been one. And they packed their fantasy realms with ruins, both inspiration and reminder of that brighter time.

The most obvious use of ruins in fantasy, then, is the evidence of that Golden Age when humans were greater and more worthy, often possessing nobility, wisdom, strength of arms, and semi-magical talents their descendants no longer have. Tolkien's Middle Earth is rife with ruins of this kind, the symbols of the prior age. They serve not only as reminders of the fall, but also as hope for the future—that the True King, Aragorn, could return the land to its richness and glory. Indeed, the city of Osgiliath, introduced as a ruin, and the hills of Emyn Arnen, the traditional homeland of Gondor's stewards, are given to Aragorn's designated prince, Faramir, to be restored to prosperity.

C. S. Lewis, Tolkien's friend, offered an interesting example of this conception of the Golden Age in the course of his Narnia series. The children crowned as kings and queens in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, reside in the fabulous palace of Cair Paravel, ruling over a prosperous, peaceful land. But when they return in Prince Caspian they find their beloved home now a ruin, their own age regarded as legendary. The structure of Lewis's series allows the residents of the Golden Age to return and witness how the very adventure they participated in is elevated by time in the memory of those who are good and true—and despised by their conquerors. Lewis offers the same characters a rare chance to inhabit both the Golden Age and its fallen successor.

Other authors have taken this Golden-Age-ruin concept a few steps further, creating more deliberate echoes that question our understanding of history, confusing past and present. In The Shadow of the Torturer, the first book of Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun series, a city very medieval in feel is dominated by the curious Matachin Tower—residence of the torturers—which is subtly revealed to be an ancient rocket-ship. Does Wolfe want to reimagine our own time as the Golden Age? The modern ruins standing among a medieval-style society call to mind Petrarch's obsession with ancient Rome, to the denigration of his own (now revered) time. Thanks to the presence of such clearly non-fantastic elements, The Book of the New Sun is often described as science fantasy, with its merging of fantasy tropes into a setting that must be our own far future, taking the dreams of its readership and mercilessly forging them into the ruins of Urth.

While the ruins in Middle Earth and Wolfe's Urth alike are significant in the setting and in the mind of the reader, they are rarely so attractive to the characters. Even during Roman times, early tourism centered on the locations of great battles and other moments of legend and history. This enthusiasm vanished for centuries, as peace was overtaken by collapse and war, the Roman roads fell into ruin themselves, and travel became a difficult and dangerous pursuit. Religious travel remained important, but travel for its own sake emerged later on, with stability in local governments easing their way.

For the wealthy European, this often meant an expedition to an exotic locale, perhaps cruising the Nile River to view the pyramids of Egypt, or even mounting camels to cross the desert to the rock-cut tombs of Petra. As explorers and travelers ventured deeper into the unknown, the ruin became a tantalizing destination, a place of mystery and discovery, and the lucky tourist might even take home a mummy or chip off a bit of statuary as a souvenir.

In this role, ruins are often divorced from those who created them. They represent not some Golden Age of our own history that we might mourn or aspire to, but a strange realm already half-fantasy, now invaded, however benignly, by the blundering foreigner. In fact, some hypothesized that the most wonderful or challenging ruins could not have been created by the locals at all, but required the intervention of outsiders. Even today there are those who claim that wonders like the Great Pyramids were created by aliens (or at least with some extraterrestrial engineering expertise).

A new generation of authors, questioning the values of our own societies as well as the legacy of the early fantasy writers, bring a somewhat different approach to the ruin. David Anthony Durham's The Sacred Band features the juxtaposition of these two views—a post-colonial take on the role of ruins—when a party of travelers composed of a wealthy prince and a few of those apparently fallen indigenous people stops outside a ruined city. The prince displays excitement, eager to explore and learn about this fascinating place, a perspective armchair explorers are likely to echo, wanting to get inside the walls. But to the native travelers, the ruin is a reminder of their former glory, a piece of their own history rather than just a pretty place.

The view of earlier peoples on discovering a ruin is often less positive, with the ruin serving as a source of corruption and superstition. In Europe, attitudes toward pre-Roman ruins reflected concerns about the pagan past. Standing stones and barrows did not represent the wisdom of a greater time, but rather the sinister lurking of a troubling past. The stone circle at Avebury presents a startling example. During a restoration effort in the 1930s, one of the stones was lifted to reveal the crushed remains of a medieval barber, apparently killed while engaged in the popular hobby of pulling down the stones to bury them as pagan artifacts. Dangerous magic may linger in places like this, places we no longer understand or relate to.

[Stonehenge at dawn evokes the mystery of the pagan monument, Salisbury Plain, England.]

Even the travelers in Farland's work know to fear and respect the power represented by the stones at the heart of the enchanted forest, and do not tread there lightly. Carol Berg uses this charged atmosphere to shroud the ruins of a magical rift town in The Spirit Lens. Destroyed by the battles of a sorcerous family decades before, the place remains a bit outside of reality, where magic is more acute. The hero comes to grief while searching the ruin—even as his companion is tempted by the power that it represents.

Power lurks at the heart of ruins both real and fantasy. Though many visitors to ancient ruins are merely tourists, willing to take photos and stand in awe beneath the sublime destruction of the past, others come deliberately seeking knowledge—and willing to risk the dangers to acquire it. The discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922 by Howard Carter revitalized the thrill of the ruin for many who followed the story: He opened a chink in the wall into a cave of gilded majesty. Just as familiar is the legend of the Mummy's Curse, which then pursued Carter and his team, warning against the seeking of treasure and hidden knowledge.

There is, alas, no truth to the legend of the inscription said to curse the tomb-breaker (although such curses do exist elsewhere). But a tale combining extraordinary riches with great tragedy is sure to retain its appeal throughout the ages. While Berg's travelers are searching for kidnap victims, the seekers in Daniel Abraham's An Autumn War explicitly brave the dangers of the ruined city to bring back forbidden knowledge which they hope will help them to defeat magic once and for all. The reader does not witness the journey of General Balasar Gice and his men, only the terrible aftermath as the handful of survivors stagger back from the desert, successful, but forever haunted by what they experienced. The knowledge concealed by the foreboding ruin is dangerous, seductive, but often vital. In Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, the palace of men is built atop the ruined palaces of the conquered Sithi—similar to elves—but the voices of centuries of combatants linger in the shadows, distracting the unwary. Ultimately, it is only by respecting the ghosts of the past that the present struggle can be concluded.

A novella written by Charles Coleman Finlay brings our tour of ruins full circle, with a young man raised by trolls seeking refuge and rest in a mysterious ruined city. Like the fantasies in which the ruin's history is never at issue, this story seems to present the ruin as a backdrop, as the character's ignorance about the past and his own concerns distract from the ruin itself. The ruin becomes a source of fear—not because of what it inherently contains (as in the Berg novel), but because of the rival madness of its two other inhabitants, a troll woman wild with loneliness and a human searching for a jewel we never learn the meaning of. Finlay's ruin escapes architecture and history into a realm more purely symbolic. This broken city stands in for the darkness, mystery, danger, and betrayal in the human mind, reflecting the hopes and fears of those who approach it—as ultimately all ruins do. The title of Finlay's work is, of course, Abandon the Ruins.

[Tunnels beneath the Imperial Baths, Trier, Germany—a maze of darkness pierced by light.]

Author profile

E. C. Ambrose is the author of "The Dark Apostle" historical fantasy series about a medieval barber surgeon to start in July 2013 with Elisha Barber from DAW books. E. C. blogs about history, fantasy and writing at and can also be found on twitter @ecambrose. E. C. spends too much time in a tiny office in New England with a mournful black lab lurking under the desk.

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