Sunday, 3 May 2015

Osgiliath Is Brasilia

There is something not quite right about this argument against the design of an unattributed map of the Tolkien city, Osgiliath (the art, if you look it up, is by Dan Cruger but I'm not sure how much of the design is his). That something comes from the hidden assumptions when we - meaning people in the English-speaking world - talk about "fantasy" anything.

* Merrie Olde England is the quintessential medieval kingdom. (Cue Robin Hood, jousts, chicken legs, friars, & c.)
* London is its capital.
* Therefore a realistic medieval city will follow the same planning logic (or lack thereof) as London.
* Etcetera.

First of all, this isn't even true of the medieval world, where most urban dwellers by numbers lived in Chinese cities built on a grid system. All right, it isn't even true of medieval Europe, where the Mediterranean world had Roman city planning to build around -- although as this lecture points out, the original grid often got clogged and complicated for reasons very different from cows needing to find water. None of these reasons enter into Tolkien's world.

Another totally unrealistic fantasy city.
And if you look carefully at Tolkien's Europe-by-analogy, Gondor is the successor state to Numenor's Rome-cum-Atlantis. Osgiliath, too, was a purpose-built capital founded by scions of an advanced civilization. In other words, there is every reason for it to look more like Rome, Washington DC, or Brasilia than London.

The city, in fiction, endured for a thousand years without any of the economic burgeoning or social decay in Tolkien's world that the real European Middle Ages experienced. Again, you can bust Tolkien's world for its assumption that vital goods are dutifully brought by silent farmers to the real scene of the action, where kings and knights rule steadily and wisely unless interrupted by Sauron's evil meddling. But Osgiliath's design in that Middle Earth Roleplaying product, its rational avenues and small size, fits perfectly with those assumptions in Tolkien's very low population density world.

The military critique is another thing, and you can surely see how Osgiliath fell --five hundred orcs in canoes floating downstream would be enough to cause serious havoc. Consider, however, that the place was founded as a refuge on a seemingly peaceful continent, and there might be room for the kind of planning hubris that plagues purpose-built capital cities ("But you must live on both banks of the river so I can build the BIGGEST BRIDGE THERE IS!")


  • Yes, there is room for a materialist analysis of fantasy literature and gaming.
  • That analysis, however, has to proceed from the terms of the fantasy world itself. 
  • So, internal contradictions raise the most problems. 
  • External contradictions are problems only if people think they are not -- like the popular view that Tolkien's world embodies "the medieval" (instead of what it does, which is to completely skirt around the medieval with an 18th-century bucolic society's view of the sanitized sub-Roman Dark Age in which it finds itself)
  • Analysis from original sources will always beat received ideas. I mean, the next fantasy city I design is at high risk to be, like Florence, a rational avenue-planned city now dominated by the blocked-off compounds of warring clans, arrow towers and all.


  1. The Romans were famous for their grid set streets (for military purposes) in areas they conquered. Some places it didn’t happen such as in Athens. For that matter it didn’t happen in Constantinople, Paris and interestingly enough, in Rome much either. The Roans were great planners, but many cities defeated their engineering skills through the cost of rebuilding and inertia of cultures. The internet has some excellent maps of these cited places and they can be modified over for gaming purposes. Many years ago, I used a rigged up map map of old Smyrna, (now modern Izmir, Turkey) as place for gamers to start. Hey, file off the serial numbers and it works.

    Tolkien’s belief in “The Good Old England of Yore” is important because it is indeed an idealized view earlier life, but went from nostalgia to devolve into good old fantasy itself. There’s plenty of scholarly articles about this around, so there is not point to belabor. Everybody likes to think of their own personal good old days, even when other generations have time periods and locations diametrically juxtaposed to each other.

    It seems that many people’s idea as to medieval-type cities seems to lie in a number of assumptions and generalizations. Interestingly enough those attitudes seem to change a bit each few decades depending on movies or books that are popular. Clearly folks these days are more adherent to Tolkienesque views through the lens of Hollywood. Indeed fantasy seems to be colored more by learned D&D attitudes and accepted wisdoms of popular games in addition to those books and films. I have to wonder really what people decades from now will view the High Fantasy Middle Ages (vs the historical). For that matter how will people view our present time.

    You have made another good post, asking us to question things a bit and reflect on reality and fantasy.

  2. "how will people view our present time"-like this: Thanks for the comments!

  3. Yes, much like movie PBF 209. I agree that commercial enterprises would mangle up history much as the History Channel distorts and confuses history with entertainment. The drift of narrative over time often mangles the story while making it contemporary to the listeners/readers.

    My favorite two stories of that type is Gene Wolf’s, Urth of the New Sun tetralogy and most particularly the retelling of the story of Aegeus: oared ships are reimagined as steam ships (battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac) from Book of the New Sun. Because the action takes place in the very far future the bronze age and the age of steam would not be too far away from each other in the view of somebody thousands of years in the future.

    The other story is the famous, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, which works at several levels with this idea and retellings. Both books are great reads and I recommend them and you don’t need to be a historian or philologist get a kick out the works.