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The earliest mention of a spinning castle that I know of comes from the twelfth-century romance Le voyage de Charlemage à Jérusalem et à Constantinople. In it, the castle is described as being made of silver and other precious materials, and mechanically spinning around a central axis. The romance explains the mechanical infrastructure which makes movement possible in this instance. The movement was intended to show off Byzantine ingenuity, rather than to keep anyone from coming in or leaving the castle. Subsequent spinning castles in medieval romances did not: they were magical creations, their spinning not accounted for by any earthly explanation. The spinning, however, did make these subsequent castles inaccessible to would-be visitors unable to stop the motion to let them in.

Did these have any effects on more recent descriptions of moving castles? Jonathan Swift, in Gulliver's Travels, describes Laputa, a city floating in the air whose privacy largely derives from its physical obscurity. Similarly, Hiyao Miyazaki's Laputa: Castle in the Sky involves a difficult-to-find floating castle. Diana Wynne Jone's Howl's Moving Castle takes the trope of moving-castle-obscurity even further, creating a cottage which has multiple entrances in multiple worlds, and a different disguise for each. (Perversely, Miyazaki is currently working on a movie of Howl's Moving Castle; the sequel to Howl is called Castle in the Air, not to be confused with Miyazaki's Laputa: Castle in the Sky.) These castles are all more similar to aerial houseboats than to the medieval spinning castles.

The only other moving castle or building I can think off offhand in the same tradition is Baba Yaga's hut, which is built on chicken legs and runs around the forests of Russia. I presume the take is old, but I don't know just how old, let alone if there were any cross-influences between the chicken-legged hut and any other these other moving structures. Also, a friend this weekend mentioned that the Ringworld books includes a floating building, which include at least a token scientific explanation for its hovering.

Are these all parallel instances of moving castle innovation, or do the groups have any cross-influence? Have any other cultures produced stories of mobile castles, especially castles with minds of their own? These days we have the analogy of large ships, trains, and cargo planes to compare these castle-concepts to, but those inventions postdate the origins of most of these tales.


( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 7th, 2004 08:08 am (UTC)
I'm guessing space stations would be a bit too high in the sky to count? Though I suspect relatively few space station references in medieval literature :)

Weren't there castles that would appear in one spot, then disappear to another spot? I'm probably just thinking of some modern fantasy story, though.

What about something like Avalon, though that's more of a land than a castle.

-- Joop, who wears his castle on his back
Apr. 7th, 2004 08:24 am (UTC)
Oooh, you just reminded me abour the film "Krull" :-)
Apr. 7th, 2004 09:10 am (UTC)
I'm interested in the modern fantasy stories too, although more to see how they relate to other stories, what they might derive from.

Space stations at least often are rotating livable places, something they have in common with the medieval romances, but I suspect the literary traditions are entirely independent of each other, since they have very different reasons for their rotation. Still, early scifi which deals with living in space might have some ground in common with stories like that of Laputa.

(Joop, roving the internet with his castle)
Apr. 7th, 2004 08:22 am (UTC)
Are you purely interested in constructed buildings, or does your interest extend to natural features (islands, hills, caves etc) that have are mobile or transitive to some degree?

There are various lakes in Ireland that have man-made islands on them, used as defensive retreats, which may have given rise to some of the moving island/castle myths, but I'd have to look into that...
Apr. 7th, 2004 09:07 am (UTC)
That's a good thought, and would help to explain why at least one scholar believed the whole moving castle genre was derived from Celtic traditions (when Charlemagne's voyage predates all the textual references in Celtic texts, and isn't Celtic.)

What kinds of moving natural features were you thinking of, other than Irish man-made islands?
Apr. 7th, 2004 09:49 am (UTC)
I was thinking less moving than occasional, and of a more mythological nature than those islands...

For example, the gates to the Otherworld, the cave of the Seven Sleepers (again, really a portal), fairy raths. I think there are a couple of traditions about the Isle of Man moving, I'll check (certainly its approach is often shrouded by the cloak of Mananaan Mac Lir). I' think there are a few in indian mythology, but I know little of that...
Apr. 7th, 2004 10:06 am (UTC)
In terms of indeterminance, there are all those grave mounds in Welsh tradition that can never be measured the same way twice, like the cairn for Arthur's son. There's also a slope of Jizo statues in Japan that are said to be uncountable. But neither are quite moveable locations. Nor are the illusions that ghosts and foxes are fond of, where a house effectively disappears when the victim returns, or wakes up.

I'll keep an eye out, though. I feel like there's something obvious that I'm missing.
Apr. 7th, 2004 02:58 pm (UTC)
I like your perspective on this topic, particularly thinking of wandering castles as places of indeterminate location, which ties them in more closely with all that nineteenth century and early twentieth century adventure novels of places which can only be discovered by people who already know how to get there. (To go back further, that's how Thomas More's Utopia is structured too.)

I'd be quite interested in knowing if movable locations were particularly a greater European conception, or if they develop in other parts of the world as well.
Apr. 8th, 2004 01:52 am (UTC)
For a current fantasy series with the concept of places that can only be reached by people who know the exact path, try Sean Russel's _The Swan War_ series.

I'd certainly be fascinated in hearing what you manage to uncover on this -- what prompted this particular line of enquiry?
Apr. 8th, 2004 05:59 am (UTC)
"Le voyage de Charlemage" etc., the earliest known literary version of this story, describes the way the castle turns in analogy to a post mill. That analogy means it's good material for my dissertation chapter on windmills. Most of the rest of what I posted came out of a discussion with a friend this weekend on the topic. It was more a loose series of connections - I need to know more about the medieval romances on the subject, especially as they relate to that first one, but I'm also really fond of DWJ's books, and there could be some connection, so I was interested in what kinds of major evidence on the subject I might be unaware of, or overlooking. Curiousity, basically, but driven by dissertation-relevance and possible backstory to one of my favorite books.
Apr. 7th, 2004 11:27 am (UTC)
*nod* My first thought was something like Caer Sidi, but I think you've got that covered in the comments above.
Apr. 7th, 2004 11:56 am (UTC)
Some preliminary thoughts on castles, flying and floating and whatnot
In the Voyage of St Brendan, the monks see a 'floating crystal castle' - generally interpreted as an iceberg :)

In the Mabinogion, in the story of Culhwch and Olwen, there's the castle of the giant Yspaddaden Penkawr, which keeps getting further away no matter how close one walks to it - not exactly flying, but something similar, perhaps.

More modern examples: In Steven Erikson's (very good) book Gardens of the Moon (of the Malazan Books of the Fallen series) there's a flying kingdom, no less, called Moon's Spawn.

And, rather foolishly, I thought of Bowser's flying castle in the Mario Brothers ;)
Apr. 7th, 2004 03:05 pm (UTC)
Re: Some preliminary thoughts on castles, flying and floating and whatnot
The Voyage of St. Brendan reference reminds me of the Chronicular story of the airship whose anchor was caught on the roof of a church, and an air-person clambered down to free it.

On the Mabinogion: that ties in nicely to tsutanai's thoughts on places of indeterminate location, places that you can't find, they have to find you. Or you have to have the right talisman or whatever. Someday I'd like to read the Mabinogion.

If you're recommending the whole series of Erikson's books, is it the sort of series where it behooves one to start at the beginning?

I played Mario Brothers a few times on a friend's Nintendo, years ago, but have never seen Bowser's castle. A superficial web search made it look as if it was the sort of place that entire games take place within - do the games show much of what it looks like from the outside?
Apr. 7th, 2004 04:57 pm (UTC)
Re: Some preliminary thoughts on castles, flying and floating and whatnot
From what I recall of Super Mario Brothers, having last played it in the early '90s sometime, you see the bottom of the castle at some point, when you're climbing up a rope? beanstalk? something, anyway, to get into it. I could be completely misremembering, though :)

The Erikson series said to be very good as a whole (or, the whole that's come out so far, which I think is four books), but I've only read the first one, which is Gardens of the Moon. The second and third ones are sitting on my to-read shelf, but I'm sort of putting them off until I get the fourth one, so I can read them all in a row and not have to wait a long time between them.

I don't think there's a trick to getting to the giant's castle in the Mabinogion - it sounds more like an optical illusion kind of thing, where they keep thinking they're close, but it takes much longer to get there than they imagined:

"They journeyed until they came to a vast open plain, wherein they saw a great castle, which was the fairest of the castles of the world. And they journeyed that day until the evening, and when they thought they were nigh to the castle, they were no nearer to it than they had been in the morning. And the second and the third day they journeyed, and even then scarcely could they reach so far. And when they came before the castle, they beheld a vast flock of sheep, which was boundless and without an end."

I guess Culhwch has to go through enough challenges later on without having to pass a test just to receive the challenges :)
Apr. 8th, 2004 01:56 am (UTC)
Re: Some preliminary thoughts on castles, flying and floating and whatnot
In the same series, there's also the floating island that holds the Shadow Throne (In "House of Chains" IIRC).

Good news -- the new Stephen Erikson book "Midnight Tides" is out.
Bad news -- it is only in Trade paperback format ATM :-(
Apr. 7th, 2004 03:39 pm (UTC)
Jes' two

And didn't the castle of the green knight appear and disappear?

** scratches Nyquil-befuddled head **
Apr. 7th, 2004 07:34 pm (UTC)
*** still scratching head ***

Medieval (well, 12th-century, for those who consider the 12th century a Renaissance) legends about Vergil were spiritual-like. I seem to remember that he hatched Rome out of an egg or some such thing, and lived in a rotating castle.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )