Why Fantasy Castles Should Take a History Class
Castles are grand, filled with hidden secrets and histories behind every door and in every crevice. They stand imposing, with tall towers and many buildings within their walls. This is the image of the fantasy castle, a beautiful, enormous building made for generations of kings and queens to live in luxury through their lives, fending off enemies at the fortified walls and dealing with the drama of court all the while. These palaces have been so ingrained into our minds that the true history has been almost completely eclipsed by them. The seductive idea of grandiose palaces will always be more appealing than the unaltered reality. After all, the fictitious ideas are merely exaggerations of the realities of the times which we are so accustomed to romanticizing past all recognition.
This romanticization we as a culture have so thoroughly embraced often leads people to overlook the practicalities of such establishments. In some cases, the failings of the design could be blamed on the period in which the setting is based. For example, a castle that doesn’t have a secondary outer wall could be lacking such a feature because the setting is based on a time before concentric castles were common, or it is meant to be the home of a lord or noble who is not particularly wealthy, and who could not afford such a thing.
The medieval period, as it is to be defined here, took place roughly between the years of 500 AD and 1500 AD and thus understandably saw a lot of growth and change in the intermediate years, including in the realm of castles. For example, over the years, the castles all across Europe became larger and more extravagant, blurring the lines between castle and palace exponentially. It is a common question in the community of castle enthusiasts to ask where that line is. When a castle stops being a castle and becomes more of a palace.
In fiction, though, the line is surprisingly well defined. The extravagant, massive castles in works such as The Lord of the Rings or even video games such as Skyrim would often be rather defensible against such a siege as most medieval castles were designed to withstand. They are commonly placed atop mountains or plateaus, or against large bodies of water that would make them fairly easily defended, as attacks from the cliffs or the sea aren’t likely to be as threatening as the ones from the flat land. It’s only on flat land that siege towers can be rolled up to the walls, only from flat land that large armies can march undivided, and only from flat land that trebuchets and other weapons of war can be utilized. That being said, there are still a lot of things that would make many of these fantasy castles weaker than their historical counterparts, or that would make them entirely unsustainable.
There are a myriad of things that can be branded as commonly wrong with fantasy depictions of medieval castles, but one in particular is one of the most simple and iconic features of medieval European castles. That thing is the crenulations. Crenulations are the raised, spaced sections of wall aside the walkway at the top of a castle wall on the outer side that allow the defenders to take cover from the enemy. Historically, they are built to be head-height and spaced out so the defenders may take cover behind them in the event of an attack, issuing attacks of their own through the spaces.
In fantasy, these are oftentimes done impractically. Again using The Lord of the Rings as a reference, the theatrical depiction of The Hornburg is a prime example of this being done incorrectly. The crenulations atop the deeping wall are about chest-height and only barely spaced enough to qualify as arrow slits. In the movie, the flaw with this is pretty clearly demonstrated as the people atop the wall are shot down by the attackers, who have unobstructed shots at most of the most deadly areas of the defenders' bodies. As the bodies fall from the wall, one is left wondering why the designers didn’t just build the crenulations in such a way that they would be useful as more than a railing to keep the defenders from falling so easily off the wall.
Nearly every fictional castle has its own weaknesses and inconsistencies. Both Whiterun and Solitude, cities from the game SKYRIM, are far too small to be considered true medieval cities. They would be moderate to small villages if they existed in real life, even though in the game they are considered no such things. Judging by the size alone, the ‘cities’ would be more akin to secured communes or just plain castles, no city attached. Solitude, in particular, is more akin to the size of a large castle, comparable to Spiš Castle in Slovakia.
Another common mistake made is the lack of farmland around the castles pictured. Many of the castles in fiction are made to be massive in scale, larger and often times even older than the Citadel of Aleppo, which is cited by the World Monuments Fund as “One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world...” which was built in roughly the twelfth century AD. Cities of that size with populations as large as they are meant to be in those works of fiction would require a lot of food to maintain, but there is oftentimes no pictured way in which the inhabitants acquire what they need to survive.
At the end of the day, most of the castles seen today in fiction would greatly benefit from a few historical details to add realism, and perhaps to teach the consumer a lesson or two about history. Fiction is a place of creativity and new ideas, but that isn’t to say that it should be completely devoid of historical facts. The fascinating logistics and architecture of castles shouldn’t be ignored, especially when its replacement in fiction is less effective than the reality of the past.