|Neuschwanstein Castle. From http://www.neuschwanstein.de/.|
Castle. The word inspires images of romance, desperate battles, glorious landscapes, dank dungeons, and a realm of elegance and power long forgotten in our age of circuits and streamlined metal. Castles, once simply a necessity in a world full of armies and ever-shifting alliances, have transcended from the worldly to the realms of imagination and fantasy.
But why? Certainly, the first inhabitant of castles found themselves far from any portal into dreamland. Nights were cold and damp. Privacy was a rare commodity given only to the lord and his family. Curtain walls, murder holes, and battlement surrounded a castle’s inhabitants with the constant reminder of lurking death. No romanticized ideal held sway, but the pressing needs of the time: safety, survival, and power.
Yet, somehow, these bastions of defense, these places where victory was often determined by who was willing to starve longest, something glimmering and glorious arose.
Perhaps this came from several factors. (I’m sure you can suggest others.) First of all, even in their earliest manifestations, those in a castle were special, guaranteed a greater portion of protection and often provision. As the medieval period progressed until the Black Death, society became more and more regulated and hierarchical. By the end of the middle ages, very few allodial lands remained where a man’s property didn’t belong to the local lord, who often resided in some sort of fortification, often a castle. By its place in society, the castle became something significant, something special.
From significance, over time, castles gathered mystery, wonder, terror, and prestige. Leap Castle in County Offaly, Ireland became a place known for its horrors and paranormal activities. From the skeletons literally found in the walls, the dungeon with a floor that dropped people onto spikes and left them to die, the bloody murder of a priest upon the altar by his cyclopean brother, and the reports of malicious spirit activity, Leap Castle and others like it have encouraged a cultural concept of darkness, magic, wonder and fear.
Blarney Castle in County Cork, Ireland added a bit of legend to our image of castles with the mounting of the Blarney Stone, some say one half of the Stone of Scone, in its battlements. Supposedly, once kissed, the stone gives a person the gift of gab. Though I have kissed the stone, I could not say whether it really bestows the gift of gab or not since I was already quite a talker before. (For those of you planning on trying this, watch your loose change and thumb drives. One of the gentlemen working at the castle told me and my group that kids often stand below the battlements to make off with whatever falls from people’s pockets.)
There is no way to definitively tell whether legends like the Blarney Stone created our fantasized castles or whether they were a result of fantasy. Even as early as the middle ages, castles started gaining a special prestige. In Arthurian legend alone, which goes back even to the early medieval period, several castles of special spiritual or legendary significance emerged: Castle Corbin and, of course, Camelot.
While fantasized castles remained in the minds and hearts of people, Ludwig II of Bavaria went as far as to create a wondrous castle haven to which he could retreat in peace. The castle, begun in 1869, was never fully finished after the death of Ludwig II in 1886. But even in the majority that was completed, Neuschwanstein is a breathtaking structure with all the beauty of fairy tale, one worthy of having stepped right out of legend, for it was legend and story that Ludwig II drew much of his inspiration for the castle.
Taking a step away from the real world, we find numerous castles in fiction that stand out vividly in our minds: Hrothgar’s Hall, Gormenghast, Hogwarts, Dracula’s Castle, King Haggard’s Castle, Cair Paravel, and The Red Keep.
Perhaps castles did not lift themselves into the glamour touched fascination we hold them in. Rather, perhaps the credit should fall to the writers and poets and makers of myth whose imaginations provided us with such splendid examples of fantasy.
So what was it that made these structures such a foundation stone in fantasy? Was it their association with power and the bizarre? Was it their sweeping or looming presences on the European landscape? Was it something else entirely or a combination of all? What are your theories?