It’s Friday, which means I have a bit of time for another spot of writing, hooray! If you have seen my previous blog post on “Writing Britain,” the wonderful display at the British Library, you will know that I greatly admired the techniques that classical and contemporary authors used to describe the landscape and settings in their novels. It got me thinking about how settings are used as “characters” and treated just as lovingly as their walking, talking and breathing counterparts. “Writing Britain” uses the description of rural and urban settings to make up a back-story and are perfectly placed. Could I find examples in my own books, I wondered; and if so, where? Did I treat them with as much respect as those poets and storytellers down the ages, etched on paper in front of my eyes in the rooms of the British Library?
So, beginning with “The Balance of Four”, I reviewed a journey that I had begun many years ago, looking for examples of setting as character. I chose three specific examples from each book, starting with the moment the universe is created. Tuathal’s universe is not our universe, where dragons co-exist alongside humans, but the care with which he and his mate Valentia created it is evident, and the presence of the gods, if not physical, remains a comfort to Tafari and his friends throughout the course of the story:
In three days, the two gods fashioned the world. The sun was the first creation to burst fiercely into life, an everlasting ball of fire, set into motions by flames the gods expelled from their bodies. The sea and sky reflected each other, a marvellous radiating blue, swinging gently and rhythmically between dawn and dusk. The dancing water flowed with its own texture, its own rhythm and its own music, as the rising moon tugged with a gravitational force. The whole body of water swelled with a mysterious force, the rhythm of the very heartbeat of the universe. Dragon song rang through the cosmos, boundless, the sounds quivering with joy at what had been made.
Stack by stack, layer on layer, stone upon stone, the gods then formed the lush provision of the countryside. This formed the setting for towns and villages which gradually sprang up into great Cities. Amidst this rich and profitable landscape, they placed creatures of their own image, dragons, and produced humans to exist peacefully alongside them.
Moving onto Drakewood City, this urban setting is of the utmost importance to Tafari. It is where he has spent most of his life and it was one of my favourite landscapes to describe:
The beauty of the City was even more pronounced by moonlight and lamp-light. The darkened criss-crossing maze of backstreets and alleys, where Tafari felt perfectly at home, gave way to wide streets with walkways and arched bridges. During the day, wagons and horses trundled here and dragons skimmed gracefully just above the cobbles. Further out, the river split into tributaries, snaking in its branches along banks where grand buildings sprawled. Statues of Drakewood stood outside every ancient museum, gallery and Library which in turn boasted shows, exhibitions, productions and sales every day of the week. The starlight tinted everything with a ghostly milky touch, gleaming when the onlooker was far away and dulling when approached. Sweeping helical steps and concrete platforms with marble perimeters ornamented the outskirts of the main square. Tonight, to greet the revellers, the dragons had organised the setting of fiery torches into the ground, heralding the four entrances. Tafari delighted in seeing his City shown off and looked forward to basking in Drakewood’s reflected glory later that night.
Once Tafari is forced to leave Drakewood City, he is plunged suddenly into the rural world of Rustica, a region that is as wild as its namesake. However, the “wilderness” of Rustica does not emerge for a while, and very much like travellers in the well-known stories such as The Hobbit, the party is cheerful to start with and a sense of adventure is in the air:
A pattern set in over the next few days. They awoke just after dawn, fed and watered the horses, ate breakfast and set off for a few hours on the road. To pass the time, they chatted, told stories and jokes and sang melodies […] In the afternoons, they would strike out again across the countryside, heading south east for the Sea. The three humans snacked on plump, ripe blackberries they found growing from the miles of hedgerows alongside the road, while Melchior turned up his nose at the “squirrel food” and surged ahead in the air, his keen eyes scouting for what was to come the next day.
It is now time to move on and examine the middle section of Tafari’s journey which occurs in At the Edge of the World. This scene again describes a city, but it is Eirian’s Firebrace City that is now in focus. Tafari is not too impressed:
Firebrace City was not nearly as grand as Drakewood. It boasted no glittering river, no statues of Firebrace the founder and very few majestic sweeping buildings. If there was a main square, which Tafari couldn’t see from the gate, it had to be only a quarter of the size of Drakewood’s. Most of its amenities that gave it the name of City, such as the central library or cathedral, were comprised of grey stone and not colourful marble. Tafari shook his head. How Drakewood must have crowed over Firebrace and the other contemporaries of five hundred years ago when seizing the City to mark it as his own!
Inevitably, Tafari is soon on the road once more, and other sights greet his eyes as his party again strike out across Rustica:
At night, Vidar could be relied on to find them a tavern or small boarding house in a small town or village. Tafari would have liked to linger in these places for more than just an evening and morning; there were plenty of interesting events occurring such as small festivals, village competitions and fêtes, exhibitions and tours. When he looked back on the buildings in these short stops, his memory held one long blur of cosy kitchens, low-ceilinged rooms with the smell of wood smoke and a barbecue haze, squashy sofas with stuffing spilling out of the arms and old books crammed into shining cases just polished by a maid. There was something curiously attractive about these small communities, startlingly different from the looming and slightly clustering environments of Drakewood and Firebrace. There were no more Dragon Cities until near the edge of the Rustica border because of the specific east-bound route they were taking.
Things never remain simple and contented for long when Tafari and Vidar are around. The simmering mood in the air, coupled with the menacing aura of the Outer Lands that almost seems reluctant to allow them entry, sets off a new brooding scene immediately after they leave Rustica behind:
‘Dragons!’ whispered Tafari. Then a little louder, ‘Wild dragons!’
‘Yes,’ said Vidar simply. ‘They’ve come out to hunt over the sea. This is the best time to cross when the waves are high and the dragons are out hunting for food.’
It was an incredible sight. At least a hundred of them flew through the air, turning the sky a mottled black. It was a whole army; row after row dived into the seething waves, chasing the fish that scattered before their wicked jaws.
‘Wouldn’t Oadir have a fine time with those,’ Vidar said under his breath. ‘Looks like we came in time.’ He seemed entranced by the soaring figures in a way Tafari did not particularly like. Bet you’d have a fine time with them too, he thought darkly. His anger at everything Vidar had done swelled in him like a cloud and he had difficulty forcing himself to keep quiet until they reached the cove. It was set in the end of one of the beaches and the boat could not guide them right in. The three were forced to jump out of the boat and splash through ankle-deep water until they mounted onto the gritty sand marked in all directions with sharp stones.
I think I have answered my own question. Setting and landscape, whether rural or urban, are indeed extra characters in their own right. They are an epitome of the mood of the walking and talking characters, consciously or unconsciously. I think it is vital to respect the background and treat it carefully. Setting becomes unforgettable, and the scenes would be entirely different – and empty - without them.