These days, most people are familiar with Hogwarts, Harry Potter’s boarding school. The building itself is a castle, and seems to resemble an Oxbridge College or public school more than anything, if its dining hall and common rooms are anything to go by. Of course, there are magical additions which make it all the more appealing, such as staircases that change position, and invisible rooms. We can’t invent something from nothing, so we have to have a starting point. Castles are particular favourites in fantasy land, and C.S Lewis used them a lot. Cair Paravel is all that is good about a building like this, colourful and full of feasting and tapestries and golden goblets. The domain of the White Witch, with its stone statues in the courtyard created from living beings and a gateway guarded by wolves, is cold and grey and all that is bad. Harfang, inhabited by giants in The Silver Chair, gives a child’s view of a medieval castle, seen from the perspective of someone very small. The house in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a day out at a National Trust property, with its lawns and ivy-covered stone walls, and Mr Beaver’s house in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is every child’s dream den in the woods. But they all had to begin somewhere.
In The Divide, my children’s fantasy set in a parallel dimension,
They flew over another building. They were lower now, and Felix could see it more clearly. This one was made of wood, with asymmetrical window-frames and doorways. Pear-shaped windows, kidney-shaped windows, twisted beams, sloping walls, an undulating roof. It was almost as though the place had grown there, like a tree. The wood went from cream to chocolate, with every shade of coffee and caramel and butterscotch between. Each piece of timber was as smooth as a polished pebble, though whether it had become like that through craftsmanship orweathering was difficult to say. The structure was very big, although it was only one storey tall.
I became very fond of the library. Betony, an elf, lives in a tree house. When The Divide was published in Japan it was re-illustrated, and the artist, Miho Satake, drew something that was faithful in every single detail, as well as being a really beautiful picture. When I wrote to her to say how much I appreciated her work, she sent me the original. This was the description from which she worked:
Felix had never been to Betony’s home…The ladder led up to a platform, which went all the way round the tree trunk. There were three rooms on the first floor; a living room, a storeroom, and a dispensary for preparing potions. Sawn-off branches made a spiral staircase to the next floor, which had two tiny bedrooms and a bathroom. A barrel stored rainwater for showers, and drained onto the garden below. Above that there was another floor, with two more bedrooms. The kitchen was in a covered area on the ground, where the stove was. The living room was the only room that had been properly finished; the floor was sanded and varnished, and there were colourful cushions scattered around to sit on. Candles stood in lots of little niches and the door was a curtain, made of some thick blue material. There was a painting of some toadstools on one of the walls, and a weird and wonderful plant was growing in a blue ceramic pot on the window ledge. It looked like a succulent of some sort – a desert plant, anyway. Its stem was thick, bulbous, swelling out like a beer belly beneath rolls of pale green flesh. If it had possessed a head instead of a coronet of spiky leaves it would have looked like a football-sized statue of a sumo wrestler, or a jade Buddha. In the middle of the coronet sat one bright red flower.
“Hello Socrates,” said Betony to the plant. “I haven’t seen you for ages.”
“Socrates?” queried Felix.
“What’s wrong with Socrates?” demanded the plant. “Good old-fashioned mythical name. Betony, I’m as dry as a fire-breather’s backside. Tansy’s awfully forgetful.”
Felix’s mouth dropped open.
Betony watered the plant, and then she went around lighting candles with a wave of her hand, muttering the incantation.
And this is the drawing…
In Beware of Men with Moustaches, which was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize in 2013, I once again used a castle, only this time it was based on one that I’d seen in Prague. A small group of English poets are on a cultural exchange to the fictional ex-soviet state of Karetsefia.
They tied up at a small quay, and scrambled out onto the towpath. There was a flight of steps leading upwards. And upwards. And upwards. By the time they reached the courtyard Steve was lagging some way behind, so they waited for him beneath an enormous ornate clock that didn’t look quite right.
“This is famous astronomical clock,” explained Svetlana. “It was made by Kazimir the Killjoy…”
“Killjoy?” queried Ferris.
“I think this is right word. Peasants believe that this clock will tell them day of their death – see how hour is struck by skeleton with hammer?”
Steve mounted the final step, and paused for breath.
“You OK?” asked Ferris.
“Fine,” said Steve. “It’s on occasions like this that I start to feel my age. I am after all, the most senior member of our little band.”
“No you’re not,” said Sybil. “I am.”
“Shall we go inside?” suggested Igor. “No more steps. Now there is ramp.”
It was a long ramp, too. When they reached the top they found themselves in an enormous hall, which ran the whole length of the castle. The wooden floor was uneven and worn very smooth, and it looked extremely old.
“This is very famous room,” said Svetlana. “When Mongol Hordes bring Black Death to Karetsefia, king and his family leave city and seek refuge here. Then they catch the plague anyway. Mongol Hordes take over castle, but they do everything on horseback, so they build audience hall for men on horses.”
“You mean they rode right into the castle?” said Julie.
“Yes. When Mongol Hordes leave, new king turns it into room for dancing. There is painting of him on wall at end. There are many paintings here, including very famous one of poet being shot by firing squad.”