Classically Inclined

December 14, 2012

By A Wall That Faced The South: A Sneak Preview

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:18 am
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I’m delighted to share that I have my conference abstract accepted to Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space: The Fantastika and the Classical World in Liverpool in June! I’m really quite excited, as it’s going to give me a chance to develop some of the monster theory ideas that I’ve been working with in the Harryhausen paper, and try to look at some of the same sorts of phenomena in a different context. For those of you who are interested, I’ve put the abstract below the cut. It should be a very exciting conference, and I’m already looking forward to it.

“By a Wall that Faced the South”: Crossing the Border in Classically-Influenced Fantasy

Boundaries are profoundly significant in the literature of the ancient world; fantasy also often features explicit “crossing the border” episodes where characters travel from normality into fantasy. Examples of this trope in fantasy with an ancient setting have continued to shape representations of borders through the genre’s development. This paper examines two examples from early works in the fantasy canon and traces their legacy through two modern works.

Charles Kingsley’s The Heroes; Or, Greek Fairy Tales for My Children (1856) retells the stories of Perseus, the Argonauts and Theseus for a mid-nineteenth century children’s audience. Borders in this work are mainly represented by geographical features which the heroes must pass in order to journey into mythical territory. Hope Mirrlees reinvents the geographical border in Lud-in-the-Mist (1926). She takes Kingsley’s description of the mountains that Theseus purifies before reaching Athens and of Perseus first leaping from a cliff using Mercury’s winged sandals, but withholds any knowledge of what exists on the other side of the border from the reader, creating a fantastical realm only known through the liminal area immediately before the fixed border.

By contrast to natural boundaries, the man-made Hadrian’s Wall plays a central role in Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906). The wall serves as a barrier between the Romans on the one side and the native European tribes on the other. Whenever Parnesius, the Roman narrator, crosses the wall, norms are subverted and he enters a world already othered by Puck’s intervention. Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (1998) combines the two traditions, interweaving Mirrlees’ imagery with the idea of the wall as a strict dividing line between reality and faery; he thus creates a new incarnation of Kipling’s Hadrian’s Wall. The concept of the boundary inspired by the ancient world continues to shape fantasy’s representation of transitional points.


  1. Regarding Hadrian’s Wall inspiring fantasy novels, have you come across Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series? The first book, Sabriel, predates Stardust by a couple of years (1995), and introduces the ‘ordinary’ world, a place that is a kind of idyllic England just prior to the First World War, and the ‘magical’ world, where no man-made technology will work, only magic, and there is a wall that separates the two (a bit like the Berlin Wall) that is guarded by soldiers and can only be crossed with special permission. I won’t tell you any plot details, because that would spoil it!

    Comment by Jane — December 14, 2012 @ 11:45 am | Reply

    • Oh, no, I hadn’t heard of these books! I shall have to look out for them – I don’t think they’ll make it into the conference paper (after all, there’s only so much you can do in twenty minutes), but they’ll definitely be helpful for working out its wider implications! Plus they sound quite fun 🙂

      Comment by lizgloyn — December 15, 2012 @ 10:24 am | Reply

  2. That sounds fascinating. I love the sound of “monster theory” as well. I shall have to keep reading! 🙂

    best wishes, Gareth.

    Comment by Gareth Thomas — January 8, 2013 @ 1:55 pm | Reply

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