Given the richness of fantasy writing, why begin with borders? Because they symbolise one of fantasy's central tropes, the idea of a crossing. Of the four types of fantasy Farah Mendlesohn identifies in Rhetorics of Fantasy, three involve borders. In portal quest fantasy, the protagonist enters a new world; in intrusion fantasy, the fantastic breaks into the primary world, which may or may not be our own; liminal fantasy is aware of borders even though it may not actually pass over them . Crossing from what is marked as 'real' or 'normal' into the fantastic is generically powerful in these contexts; for such crossings to be effective, they must be clearly marked by obvious borders. In these kinds of fantasy, the moment of transition, particularly what one passes over and how one passes over it, is critically important to the structure of a novel. This article argues that that there are two particular archetypes of border crossing that occur in classically-inspired fantasy, symbolised by the cliff-edge and the wall; it traces the development of these tropes, and shows the considerable influence that they still have on the way the genre as a whole visualizes border crossing. These case studies demonstrate the continued power of images arising from classical sources in modern fantastical writing.
I begin with Charles Kingsley's The Heroes: Or, Greek Fairy Tales For My Children (1883), written for children of the mid-nineteenth century. In The Heroes, Kingsley retells the mythical stories of Perseus, who saved the Princess Andromeda from being eaten by a sea monster by turning it into stone with the head of Medusa; the Argonauts, who quested for the golden fleece; and Theseus, who conquered the labyrinth and killed the Minotaur. The Heroes opens with a preface that praises the Greek myths for their moral benefits and situates them in a Christian framework—the explicit relationship of ancient mythology to the Christian moral system occurs in this introduction and so does not intrude into the stories themselves . The Heroes offers a fairly traditional recapitulation of the Greek myths, and uses language appropriate for its youthful audience; however, Kingsley feels the need to add an apologetic note to "the few scholars who may happen to read this hasty jeu d'espirit" for his inconsistent spelling of Greek names. The borders that appear also take the traditional forms of geographical features which the heroes must pass in order to journey into the realms of the mythical.
The earliest example of such a border occurs in the story of Perseus, who tells king Polydectes that he will bring him the head of the gorgon Medusa. Realising his rashness, he calls upon Athene, who obligingly appears to him with Hermes to set him on his journey:
And Athené cried, "Now leap from the cliff and be gone."
But Perseus lingered.
"May I not bid farewell to my mother and to Dictys? And may I not offer burnt-offerings to you, and to Hermes, the far-famed Argus-slayer, and to Father Zeus above?"
"You shall not bid farewell to your mother, lest your heart relent at her weeping. I will comfort her and Dictys until you return in peace. Nor shall you offer burnt-offerings to the Olympians; for your offering shall be Medusa's head. Leap, and trust in the armour of the Immortals."
Then Perseus looked down the cliff and shuddered; but he was ashamed to show his dread. Then he thought of Medusa and the renown before him, and he leaped into the empty air.
And behold, instead of falling he floated, and stood, and ran along the sky. (Heroes 24-25.)
Perseus must make a split-second decision about whether to trust the winged sandals Hermes has given him. He is stuck between two possible worlds—one in which he must face the embarrassment of his impossible promise, and one in which you can jump off a cliff without making a nasty mess at the bottom, so it is hardly surprising that he hesitates. The act of boundary crossing is a test of trust—does Perseus really believe that Athene and Hermes have his best interests at heart and wish to help him?
This being a traditional sort of retelling, they do, and Perseus speeds off over the sea. His leap from the cliff signals the beginning of a long journey which the beginning of the next chapter narrates:
So Perseus started on his journey, going dry-shod over land and sea; and his heart was high and joyful, for the winged sandals bore him each day a seven days' journey.
[…] And he walked across the Ister dry-shod, and away through the moors and fens, day and night towards the bleak north-west, turning neither to the right hand nor the left, till he came to the Unshapen Land, and the place which has no name.
And seven days he walked through it, on a path which few can tell; for those who have trodden it like least to speak of it, and those who go there again in dreams are glad enough when they wake; till he came to the edge of everlasting night, where the air was full of feathers, and the soil was hard with ice; and there at last he found the three Grey Sisters, by the shore of the freezing sea, nodding upon a white log of drift-wood, beneath the cold white winter moon; and they chaunted a low song together, "Why the old times were better than the new." (Heroes 26-27.)
The passage recounts the flight from familiar Greece to barbarian lands to the Unshapen Land in some detail. The process of journeying through changing landscapes is a feature that will appear again, but for Kingsley's Perseus, the jump off the cliff is the key transition point that lets the sandals get the adventure started. The leap of faith becomes literalised and physically enacted, and serves as the starting point of his encounter with the fantastic.
Similar tropes appear in Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), which adopts and repurposes several of Kingsley's geographical borders. We know Mirrlees was familiar with The Heroes—in an interview, she claimed that her first desire to learn Greek came from her father reading the book to her . Her reworking of the section of The Heroes we have just examined indicates that she took more from Kingsley than an interest in Greek myth. Her adaptation comes near the end of the novel, so a brief précis of the plot is in order. The main action takes place in the free state of Dorimare, the capital of which is Lud-in-the-Mist. The inhabitants exist in an uneasy relationship with Fairyland, which encroaches on their world despite their efforts to legislate it out of existence—an example of Mendlesohn's intrusion fantasy at work. Duke Aubrey was once ruler of Dorimare, but was expelled from Lud-in-the-Mist by the mercantile classes. The main protagonist, Nathanial Chanticleer, had a childhood encounter with Fairy that has always haunted him. The plot begins with his son, Ranulph, claiming to have eaten Fairy Fruit, which both has a reputation for driving people mad and, according to the laws of Dorimare, doesn't exist. Ranulph eventually vanishes into the mountains and into Fairyland; Nathanial follows to bring him home.
To get to the true border, Nathanial follows a lengthy bridle path up into the mountains between Dorimare and Fairyland, passing through a market of souls:
Then the road took a sudden turn, and before them stretched a sort of heath, dotted with the white booths of a fair.
"That is the market of souls," whispered the invisible cicerone. "Of course, of course," muttered Master Nathanial, as if all his life he had known of its existence. And, indeed, he had forgotten all about Ranulph, and thought that to visit this fair had been the one object of his journey. (Lud-in-the-Mist, 214.)
This space serves as a testing ground for Nathanial's resolve; he runs the risk of being distracted from his journey to the actual border between the real world and Fairy. The mercantile and economic aspects of the market come to symbolise the diversionary and misleading, qualities that we might have expected to find inside Fairyland itself but that instead challenge Nathanial on his journey there. The market of souls offers a space of altered reality that Nathanial must negotiate safely to reach the proper border, which takes the form of another cliff where he meets Duke Aubrey:
Then Duke Aubrey raised his arms high above his head and cried out in a loud voice, "By the Sun, Moon and Stars and the Golden Apples of the West!"
At these words the uplands became bathed in a gentle light and proved to be fair and fertile—the perpetual seat of Spring; for there were vivid green patches of young corn, and pillars of pink and blue smoke, which were fruit trees in blossom, and pillars of blue blossom, which was the smoke of distant hamlets, and vast meadow of cornflowers and daisies, which was the great inland sea of Faerie. And everything—shops, spires, houses—was small and bright and delicate, yet real. It was not unlike Dorimare, or rather, the transfigured Dorimare he had once seen from the Fields of Grammary. And as he gazed he knew that in that land no winds ever howled at night, and that everything within its borders had the serenity and stability of trees, the unchanging peace of pictures.
Then, suddenly, it all vanished. Duke Aubrey had vanished too, and he was standing alone on the edge of a black abyss, while wafted on the wind came the echo of light, mocking laughter.
Was Fairyland, then, a delusion? Had Ranulph vanished into nothingness?
For a second or two he hesitated, and then—he leaped down into the abyss. (Lud-in-the-Mist 222-3.)
With this literal cliff-hanger, the chapter abruptly ends. The striking thing is that the chapter ends at this point of transition. The next chapter returns to the activities in Dorimare, specifically a clamp-down on the illegal trafficking of fairy fruit; eventually Nathanial returns and a rapprochement is achieved between the inhabitants of Dorimare and Fairyland. But we never actually see inside Fairyland, apart from this brief tantalising glimpse from the wrong side of the border . Fairy remains unknown to the reader, despite the reconciliation between Fairy and the 'real' with which the novel will close.
That said, Nathanial must still cross over into the other world, and the way in which he does bears remarkable structural similarities to the leap of Perseus. The novel includes other Kingsley-an overtones; for instance, the characters frequently exclaim "By the Sun, Moon and Stars and the Golden Apples of the West!" as Duke Aubrey does here. The link is once more to Kingsley's Perseus, who has an early encounter with the nymphs who guard the golden apples of the Hesperides (Heroes 32). Nathanial's vision of Fairyland and his subsequent leap into the abyss are thus announced by a Persean marker, and his leap follows the same pattern as Perseus'—a moment of doubt followed by a commitment to a seemingly perilous action. But where Perseus' jump begins his adventure for the reader, Nathanial's brings it to an abrupt end; where Perseus is encouraged by Athena and Hermes, Nathanial is abandoned, and taunted by the laugh of Duke Aubrey. His choice to trust Aubrey's vision is, in a way, a greater achievement. Mirrlees has also inverted Perseus' journey into the fantastic. Where the cliff-leap begins an expedition which ends on a little-trodden path through a world where dreams and reality blur, Nathanial has to pass through that territory to get to the final barrier which he must cross to enter Fairy proper. Mirrlees reworks the mythological barrier of the cliff, where the hero quite literally takes a leap of faith to get to the next stage of his adventure. However, where Kingsley takes us along on the journey, Mirrlees abruptly returns us to the centre of the normal world. The barrier here is one that her protagonist can cross, but that remains impassable for her readers.
So this is one form of barrier, the geographical, in particular the mountain and its offspring the cliff. In The Heroes, Kingsley uses the sea as another feature for the hero to pass before reaching his destination; Mirrlees never has Nathanial negotiate seas, only the mountainscape which offers both comforting protection from and a threatening nearness to Fairyland throughout Lud-in-the-Mist. There is, however, another type of border with its roots in classically-influenced fantasy, and that is the wall.
Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill (1906) recounts the adventures of two children, Dan and Una. They accidentally summon Puck to be their playfellow by acting out A Midsummer Night's Dream in a theatre in their garden. Although they meet a wide range of interesting and fantastical people as a result, Puck always wipes their memories by touching them with Oak, Ash, and Thorn before sending them home. One of their encounters is with Parnesius, a Roman centurion whom Una meets when Dan is kept inside for having come to grief, appropriately enough, over his Latin. Parnesius tells the children about his childhood and his career in the Roman army. He ends up on Hadrian's Wall and makes a great friend called Pertinax; he also is tangentially involved in Maximus' campaign to overthrow Gratian as emperor before Maximus himself is overthrown by Theodosius, thus providing the reader with an incidental intensive lesson in late imperial political history.
In Parnesius' story, the Wall is represented as a barrier between the Romans on the one side and the native tribes on the other. The Romans on the Wall do not represent utopia—Parnesius and Pertinax are eventually tasked with re-establishing military discipline—but the Wall itself is always presented as a marker of opportunity. The novel establishes this early in the story, when Dan asks Parnesius if he had any adventures when bringing his soldiers up to the Wall:
'And did you meet any adventures?' said Dan.
'There are no adventures South the Wall,' said Parnesius. (Puck 169.)
Adventures don't belong in the safe South—they only occur beyond the frontier of the Wall. Before Parnesius himself even reaches his destination, it is presented as a dividing line which one has to cross to reach danger and adventure. Once Parnesius reaches the border, he offers a description of the Wall:
'Is it just a Wall? Like the one round the kitchen-garden?' said Dan.
'No, no! It is the Wall. Along the top are towers with guard-houses, small towers, between. Even on the narrowest part of it three men with shields can walk abreast, from guard-house to guard-house. A little curtain wall, no higher than a man's neck, runs along the top of the thick wall, so that from a distance you see the helmets of the sentries sliding back and forth like beads. Thirty feet high is the Wall, and on the Picts' side, the North, is a ditch, strewn with blades of old swords and spear-heads set in wood, and tyres of wheels joined by chains. The Little People come there to steal iron for their arrow-heads.' (Puck 173.)
Parnesius' description gives you an impression of an impenetrable barrier, with a desolation of junk behind it. Later context makes it clear that the reference to the Little People coming to steal iron for arrow-heads is meant to mean the Picts, but at first glance it looks like an allusion to fairies, for whom such euphemistic language is often used, thus adding to air of mystery surrounding the Wall.
The Wall turns out not to be as solid as it first appears; it can be crossed through the ritual of taking the heather, as Parnesius explains to Dan:
'Going out hunting in the Pict country with a tame Pict [i.e. one who trades with the Roman forces]. You are quite safe so long as you are his guest, and wear a sprig of heather where it can be seen. If you went alone you would surely be killed, if you were not smothered first in the bogs. Only the Picts know their way about those black and hidden bogs. Old Allo, the one-eyed, withered little Pict from whom we bought our ponies, was our special friend. At first we went only to escape from the terrible town, and to talk together about our homes. Then he showed us how to hunt wolves and those great red deer with horns like Jewish candlesticks. The Roman-born officers rather looked down on us for doing this, but we preferred the heather to their amusements.' (Puck 178.)
The world on the other side of the wall is accessible, but only with a guide; otherwise, the transgressing Roman risks death at the hands of the inhabitants or the landscape itself. This custom in and of itself marks the Wall as a boundary where rules are inverted and power balances shift. The hierarchies of control are reversed so that in the North, old Allo becomes a protector figure and teacher rather than an inferior trader, even a father figure. Activities beyond the Wall also provide a cultural reversal. The Romans on the south side of the Wall indulge in 'amusements' which are implicitly suspect, whereas Parnesius and Pertinax participate in the healthy outdoor sport of hunting. This cultural demarcation foreshadows the Wall's greatest inversion of all. On one of their trips over the wall, Parnesius and Pertinax unexpectedly encounter Maximus, emperor of Britain:
He was dressed like a hunter, and he leaned on his little stick; but I knew that back as far as I could see it, and I told Pertinax.
"You're madder than Allo!" he said. "It must be the sun!"
Maximus never stirred till we stood before him. Then he looked me up and down, and said: "Hungry again? It seems to be my destiny to feed you whenever we meet. I have food here. Allo shall cook it."
"No," said Allo. "A Prince in his own land does not wait on wandering Emperors. I feed my two children without asking your leave." He began to blow up the ashes. (Puck 182-3.)
A carefully balanced conversation follows in which the men bargain over power. At its conclusion, Parnesius and Pertinax are given control of the Wall, so that Maximus can concentrate on military matters in Gaul. But their conversation can only exist because of the disturbance of the natural order of things on the 'wrong' side of the Wall, outside Roman territory. Several signs point to this disruption. First, Allo refuses to acknowledge the authority of empire, as embodied in Maximus; second, Pertinax rebels against imperial threats of discipline and implicitly threatens Maximus' life:
"Not long since," he went on, "men's names were sent up to Caesar for smaller jokes than this."
"True, Caesar," said Pertinax; "but you forget that was before I, your friend's friend, became such a good spear-thrower."
He did not actually point his hunting-spear at Maximus, but balanced it on his palm—so!
"I was speaking of time past," said Maximus, never fluttering an eyelid. "Nowadays one is only too pleased to find boys who can think for themselves and their friends." (Puck 184.)
The boundaries of imperial power are threatened and destabilised, but the fact that these disruptions take place in the othered space north of the Wall mean that no action need be taken to re-establish order. Maximus accepts the situation, because when the participants in the dialogue leave the north, normal conventions will reassert themselves. The productive disruption of the space on the wrong side of the wall enables the conversation to happen, and its consequences to then play out in the world of Roman order. The Wall serves a vital role in delineating which space operates under which rules, and marks a definite point of transition from one world to another, in a narrative which is already othered by Parnesius and Puck's presence in the everyday world of Una and Dan.
My final novel illustrating these themes is Neil Gaiman's modern fairy tale Stardust (1999), which combines the traditions of both geographic and man-made borders. By interweaving Mirrlees' imagery with the idea of the wall as a strict dividing line between reality and fairy, Gaiman creates a new incarnation of Kipling's Hadrian's Wall. The main plot of Stardust follows the life of Tristran Thorne, who goes through the wall to find a falling star to give to the woman he thinks he loves, and rescues the star from witches and various other perils. The novel is set in Victorian England, in the town of Wall, named after its wall:
Immediately to the east of Wall is a high grey rock wall, from which the town takes its name. This wall is old, built of rough, square lumps of hewn granite, and it comes from the woods and goes back to the woods once more.
There is only one break in the wall; an opening about six feet in width, a little to the north of the village.
Through the gap in the wall can be seen a large green meadow; beyond the meadow, a stream; and beyond the stream there are trees. From time to time shapes and figures can be seen, amongst the trees, in the distance. Huge shapes and odd shapes and small, glimmering things which flash and glitter and are gone. Although it is perfectly good meadowland, none of the villagers has ever grazed animals on the meadow on the other side of the wall. Nor have they used it for growing crops.
Instead, for hundreds, perhaps for thousands of years, they have posted guards on each side of the opening on the wall, and done their best to put it out of their minds. (Stardust, 5.)
Here we have a wall with a seemingly easy crossing, but one that is guarded—mainly to keep village children or strangers from using it. But the guard is not maintained at all times; a fair sets up in the meadow every nine years, and then people are allowed to pass over and trade. The fair and its attendant trade operate as transitional space in the same way as in Lud-in-the-Mist, and the tightly controlled circumstances of permitted border crossing constructed by Kipling are repeated. The wall remains the target and end-point of Tristran's journey—it remains permeable so he can bring the star home.
However, for Tristran the wall also becomes symbolic of identity. He is, although he does not know it, the child of his father and a woman from the other side of the wall, conceived during a previous fair. His passing over the wall is, in fact, a homecoming of sorts, as his father reveals when he negotiates Tristran's initial crossing:
'I suppose you both know about where he came from,' said Dunstan Thorn.
Mr Bromios nodded, without speaking.
Harold Crutchbeck said he had heard tales, although you should never mind half of what you hear.
'Well, it's true,' said Dunstan. 'And now it's time for him to go back.' (Stardust, 59.)
The arrangement of passage is justified explicitly through the language of identity and origin. Conversely, when Tristran eventually returns to the wall and tries to cross back, he is forbidden from doing so, at least in part because he is not recognised as his old self:
Mr Brown nodded, slowly. Then he said, as one talks to an idiot, 'And if you are Tristran Thorn—which I'm only conceding for the sake of argument here, for you look nothing like him, and you talk little enough like him either—in all the years you lived here, how many people came through the wall from the meadow side?'
'Why, none that ever I knew of,' said Tristran.
Mr. Brown smiled the same smile he had been used to use when he docked Tristran a morning's wages for five minutes' lateness. 'Exactly,' he said. 'There was no rule against it because it doesn't happen.' (Stardust 239.)
The policing of the wall and the traffic through it boils down to rules, regulations and how things have been done before. Tristran has nobody to help him in his crossing, and so fails in the attempt; he has no guide to lead him. However, when his sister comes to fetch him and vouches for his identity, she enables him to come over to Wall:
'Come on, now,' and she mentioned, impatiently, for him to walk through the gap in the wall, and come to her.
'But the wall—' he said, eyeing the innkeeper and the Vicar a little nervously.
'Oh, as to that, when Wystan and Mister Brown finished their shift last night they repaired to the saloon bar at the Seventh Pie, where Wystan happened to mention their meeting with a ragamuffin who claimed to be you, and how they blocked his way. Your way. When news of this reached Father's ears, he marched right up to the Pie and gave them both such a tongue-lashing and a telling-of-what-for that I could scarcely believe it was him.' (Stardust 246.)
Tristran crosses back on his own, not with the star. This is in retrospect a good thing, as she will turn into a lump of stone on the Victorian side of the wall—the crossing contains a threat to her and her identity of which Tristran remains largely ignorant. His second homecoming is not entirely successful, not least because Tristran discovers the girl he went to fetch the falling star for is engaged to be married to someone else. He then crosses back into the fair, realises he is in love with the star, and remains on the other side of the wall with her.
In this way, the act of passing between worlds becomes not just about the border between the known and unknown, or the Apollonian and Dionysian, or the orderly and the carnivalesque, but about the process of working out one's identity and place in the universe. Tristran's ability to cross the wall is intimately bound up with the circumstances of his begetting and his need to resolve them; the same crossing is just not possible for others, either because they do not have the same connection to the meadow side or, like the star, because the crossing means the alteration of their essence to fit the mundane real world. Gaiman repeats the motifs of transition space, a clearly defined border to cross, and trade as a medium of communication across the border. However, he reworks the border to become part of his character's essential discovery of self, adding an extra dimension to its symbolic role in the novel. Unlike Mirrlees, he takes us well into the world on the meadow side of the wall—but Gaiman's location of his story in Victorian England, at least initially, contrasts to Lud-in-the-Mist, which never leaves the fantasy world of Dorimare. Theoretically one could argue, using Mendlesohn's categories, that Lud is more of an intrusion fantasy while Stardust is a portal quest, and that the two novels' use of borders helps establish this structural difference between them. Stardust's interface between the 'real' world and fairy resonates with the way that Kipling used Hadrian's wall to establish a transition between fixed rules and flexibility, but uses it to enable a portal quest narrative structure.
Borders of both a natural and a man-made nature existed in classically-influenced stories from very early in the fantastical tradition, and they continue to have an influence now. Kipling's incorporation of Hadrian's Wall begins a tradition that extends far beyond Gaiman; for instance, George R. R. Martin gives Hadrian's Wall credit for inspiring his Wall in the North . Few people probably read Kingsley's Heroes now, but Mirrlees' reliance on his tropes is clear, and Gaiman is both openly influenced by Mirrlees and influential among contemporary writers. Tracing back the tropes to their sources helps understand the routes that these chains of inheritance follow, and the features of the ancient world that continually fascinate writers in the fantasy genre. Even if the imagery has been altered and repurposed on its journey, the underlying classical inspiration remains .
Gaiman, Neil. 1999. Stardust. London: Headline Book Publishing.
Kingsley, Charles. 1883. The Heroes; or, Greek Fairy Tales For My Children. London: MacMillan and Co.
Kipling, Rudyard. 1961. (First edition 1906.) Puck of Pook's Hill. London: MacMillan & Co.
Mirrlees, Hope. 2005. (First edition 1926.) Lud-in-the-Mist. Cold Spring Harbour: Cold Spring Press.
- The fourth kind is immersion fantasy, where the protagonist is part of the fantastic world. For more on these various categories of fantasy, see the introduction to Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 2009), xiii-xxv. [return]
- More explicit and continual moralising can be found in Kingsley’s earlier work, The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby (1863). [return]
- See Henig, Suzanne. 1972. “Queen of Lud: Hope Mirrlees.” Virginia Woolf Quarterly 1: 10. [return]
- Joanna Russ noticed this omission, and used it as the inspiration for her 1983 short story 'The Zanzibar Cat’, which is part homage and part pastiche of Lud-in-the-Mist. [return]
- Redman, B. (2006), 'George R R Martin Talks Ice and Fire’ (accessed 20 December 2013). I thank Stephe Harrop for bringing this interview to my attention when we both gave papers at Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space. [return]
- This paper was first delivered at Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space: The Fantastika and the Classical World organised by the Science Fiction Foundation in June 2013 at the University of Liverpool. I thank all those who heard it in its original form for their thoughts and suggestions; Vanessa Phin for inviting me to submit it to Strange Horizons; and the editors for their feedback. [return]