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Fantasy is in the mind of the beholder

Will Wiles

Writing a fantasy novel is making Will Wiles rethink how to depict architecture - so he can leave readers to build places in their imagination

Stranger than fiction: A Sea of Steps – Wells Cathedral, photographed by Frederick H Evans in 1903 and used to illustrate the cover of Gormenghast.
Stranger than fiction: A Sea of Steps – Wells Cathedral, photographed by Frederick H Evans in 1903 and used to illustrate the cover of Gormenghast. Credit: The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, LACMA

We live in a golden age of lavish screen adaptations of works of fantasy.  Amazon Prime has thrown huge sums of money at the genre, adapting Robert Jordan’s sprawling Wheel of Time saga, and making The Rings of Power, a prequel to Lord of the Rings – a passion project of Mr Bezos himself. Netflix’s The Witcher recently released its third season and has adapted Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone. And HBO will soon air its prequel to Game of Thrones, the show that started this boom. Though it’s on the sci-fi side, Apple TV’s lush and vivid rendition of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books belongs in this list. On the big screen, Denis Villeneuve has given beautiful new life to Frank Herbert’s Dune saga.

It’s a feast for anyone who enjoys the genre, though perhaps bittersweet. All literature works on the imagination, even the lapidary psychological portraits of Henry James. The mind illuminates the spaces carved by words. But it’s fantasy that fully exploits the ability of the imagination to exceed reality. This makes the experience of reading fantasy personal, as our inner image of Gormenghast is ours alone. Fantasy books often give the imagination images to work on: they have covers, and illustrations – sometimes by authors themselves, as Mervyn Peake and JRR Tolkien both did. But the imagination has a way of overruling those images. I never found Tolkien’s drawings for The Hobbit very satisfying – especially his odd, Anderson Shelter-like depiction of Bilbo’s home. And is that cricket pavilion really Rivendell? The words are luminous – the pictures do not matter much.

The screen is another matter. If a film or a big-budget TV adaptation does a bad job of portraying a fantasy world it can be disappointing. But strangely, a successful depiction can be a subtle tragedy of its own. Peter Jackson’s colossal early-2000s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings did supreme justice to the potential of places like Rivendell, Minas Tirith and Barad-dûr. Reinforced by its enduring popularity over two decades, that communal hallucination has somewhat overwritten the private visions we might once have harboured. Who can picture Barad-dûr now without seeing Jackson’s obsidian tuning-fork, and that blazing reptilian eye?

Once I probably had my own idea of what Barad-dûr looked like, and yet I can’t summon it now. There’s not a lot to go on in the text: ‘wall upon wall, battlement upon battlement, black tower of adamant’ – fabulous prose, with that rhythmic assonance, but not a lot of architectural detail.  We are given immensity, complexity, blackness and firmness, but little else. What diverse structures this fragment must have raised in generations of readers. And we don’t even have to picture the whole, an impression is enough. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast – an unending, mouldy gothic castle – is deliberately unimaginable and impossible to depict, and the better for it. Our conception of it must always stay fragmentary and dreamlike.

After more than 20 years of writing about real architecture, where precise description matters, I’ve been writing a fantasy novel. Naturally, I’ve thought a great deal about the appearance of the cities, forts and palaces therein – but how much to say, and what to leave to the reader? I must be careful because I’ve thought carefully about the why of my architecture as well as the what – the historical, cultural, climatic and material reasons for the appearance of these imagined places. It’s easy to drown the reader in detail. Tolkien’s economy is a hard but necessary example. 


The copy of Gormenghast I read in the 1990s had a memorable cover illustration by Mark Robertson – two flights of worn stone steps flowing together into one, in a perpendicular gothic chasm. Years later I discovered, to my delight, that this was based on a real photo of a real place: Frederick H Evans’ 1903 photograph of the ‘sea of steps’ at Wells Cathedral.

Will Wiles is an author. The Last Blade Priest by WP Wiles will be published by Angry Robot on 12 July 2022.