Magic, literature and landscapes

An old photograph of Dunluce Castle, Country Antrim, Northern Ireland: the ruins are a possible model for Cair Paravel in C S Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia

What is it about literary landscapes that makes some of us want to be there? And when the places are fictional how can we still put ourselves in those spaces?

We’re familiar with the popularity of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and The Making of Harry Potter , environments created especially for fans to immerse themselves in J K Rowling’s books, but many want to actually be in the landscapes that inspired writers. Firms like UK Countryside Tours cater for those of us who seek to “read a landscape through the eyes of authors [so that] the words and stories of their greatest characters stay with us as we encounter those landscapes ourselves.” On their tour you can “visit elegant towns, timeless villages and rugged uplands, travelling in the footsteps of Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters through England’s most outstanding landscapes, and experience how the spirit of these inspiring places drove their creativity.”

Individual places also push the real or imagined links that exist, as in Nottinghamshire: “Why not take a walk around part of the historic Annesley Park estate, ancestral home of the Chaworth-Musters family. These really are literary landscapes and a major inspiration for both Lord Byron and DH Lawrence, two of the county’s most famous sons.” Countless blogs exist out there aimed at exploring the links between certain landscapes and literature, such as the appropriately named Literary Landscapes (which proclaims itself to be “a journey through the landscapes, literature & history of the British Isles”) and The Culture Map world travel blog.

These questions came out of Louise Johnson’s musings on her Big Boots and Adventures literary blog, in a post about ‘located’ inspiration. She noted a little “flurry of articles about the ‘real life’ landscapes that have ‘inspired’ literature” in The Guardian recently, which led her to pose two questions.

How do you spatially locate inspiration?
She notes the case of Whitby. A Bram Stoker Memorial Seat is positioned where the author looked out on a view which features in his most famous piece of fiction, Dracula. Robert Swindell’s YA novel Room 13 features a group of children who stay in a B&B on Whitby’s West Cliff, while Robin Jarvis sets his children’s novel The Whitby Witches in this same seaside town. Louise agrees that Whitby has “proven influential in certain aspects of their creation. Yet

I shy away from this idea of saying that X inspired Y. It’s a simplistic approach that in fact turns out to be a literary chicken and egg situation. Where does story begin? Where does the author end? If I write a story about a house by the sea and then, later, see a house by the sea that accords with my story, does that house inspire the story or am I asserting my story over that house?

Following on naturally from her first question comes the second: Do I fit the real landscape within the fictional, or is it the other way around?

Louise says she has “long been fascinated by how savvy tourist authorities (and it almost always is) attempt to lay a claim upon the franchise and argue for their location to be the ‘inspiration for’.” Various locations in the Harry Potter books, for example, are identified with ‘original’ real life equivalents, but as so many of these places — in the books and, especially, in the films — are composite creations drawing on existing places, possible memories and imagination, her conclusion is that “to claim that X inspired Y is problematic. In a way, to claim that link is more revealing about our role and attitude as readers.”

I had also read those articles in The Guardian reviews section that caught Louise’s eye, and a couple of points leapt to mind when I read her commentary on them, thoughts I mostly quote verbatim here. Those two points were magic and possession.

Many may know all about Sir James Frazer’s ‘laws’ of sympathetic magic in The Golden Bough (1890–1915). I’ll discount the branch that he defines as homoeopathic magic just for now and concentrate on the other branch, contagious magic. This of course is where contact with an object or aspect of a living creature is somehow supposed to transfer some of its inherent properties to the contactee, giving them power over the object or creature.

I suspect that with the supposed identification of a house, property or viewpoint the visitor to that place will, by means of Frazer’s Law of Contact, somehow imbibe or absorb the magic still inherent in that landscape — regardless if the association is fictitious or even false. It’s what draws people to places like Tintagel or a bench in an Oxford botanical garden: they want to picture King Arthur and his court wandering around the headland or imagine Philip Pullman’s Lyra communing with Will at the end of The Amber Spyglass.

The second point is related to the first and concerns either temporary possession or permanent ownership of the site in question, because of its inherent magic. It’s as if you’d bottled that supposed magic and were selling it at a lemonade stall at the side of a road. Louise referred to savvy tourist authorities; stately home guides also do this, parcelling out their knowledge titbits to visitors and relishing the power they have to detain the reluctant captives. We see it with the Land’s End visitor experience (pay to go onto the hallowed ground and enjoy the tacky exhibits) and with Westminster Abbey (hobnob with ancient royalty — for a fee). Ownership brings power and money, but even temporary possession of a particular spatial dimension as a day tripper allows you a whiff of the magic.

As readers we partake in the ‘magic’ of place, but for me knowledge that somewhere may have been inspirational is magical enough; I’m not enough of a Doubting Thomas to want to physically experience the magic through my five senses. Maybe I’m just too old to be fussed! Or perhaps I’m a devotee of homoeopathic magic, happy to have that vicarious experience at a distance, thanks to Frazer’s Law of Similarity — a description, an illustration, a map, or just my imagination will allow me the numinous feel of the place in question.

Louise wonders “if, when we assert the presence of a real world inspiration […] we’re attempting to find the human elements of literature. We’re trying to connect, trying to find the footholds in a landscape that’s located beyond us. A right to roam, perhaps, in a space that we can never wholly understand.” In answer to my comments on her post she wrote that she thinks “sometimes we almost forget the power – the currency – of cultural capital.” In a way this power — its use, its abuse — is the other side of the coin where literary landscapes are concerned, the dark side of the moon as it were. But still, that need to connect with others through the magic of imagination is what I draw from this discussion.

Perhaps, as Louise suggests, it’s only human.


Do you have an urge to make literary pilgrimages? Do you make a habit of standing in the steps of an author or their fictional creations? Do such actions make the books come more alive or do they take some of the shine off the magic?

33 thoughts on “Magic, literature and landscapes

  1. I have no urge to make literary pilgrimages myself, Chris….the thought of fetching up at a particular place with a load of other people takes away any magic the place might have had! Plus, most frequently, a place in literature is often a composite of places… I’ll leave any visiting to my imagination!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think I’d ever sign up for a literary tour either, Sue, and for the same reasons! I’d rather wonder around a place on my own, or if it’s a public space, somewhere where crowds were focused on their own concerns rather than rubbernecking.

      The only exceptions I’d make to this rule would be (1) a guidebook, for consulting, (2) a camera or mobile phone, for recording and subsequent perusal, and (3) my other half, who appreciates the briefest-of-brief expositions of the highlights after I’ve done the initial intensive legwork.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Not entirely sure if this counts, but Westminster was worth visiting, not necessarily for the nobility but for Poets’ Corner. And when we were in London, we made sure to get the King’s Cross and got a shot of the HMS Belfast (Gaiman, Floating Market, London Below) after the Tower (itself tied back both to numerous literary figures & Michael Scott) on our way to the, new, relocated, Globe.

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    1. I’m sure it counts, Brent! I did visit Westminster Abbey as a teenager, in the years when it was all free to explore, seeing memorials and graves and all the rest and taking in a sense of space. (Ditto for the Tower, while, more recently, we experienced Romeo and Juliet in the new Globe.) I think it’s the spatial awareness much more than the details that I relish when I visit significant places — the awesome majesty of Florence’s Duomo, the 1950s view from the Peak in Hong Kong, the forum of ancient Rome and the view of the Olympics from Vancouver Island.

      Was it like this for you? After all, you can’t really visit the secret places of Gaiman’s Neverwhere but you sure as hell can catch glimpses of side passages and branching tunnels where the Marquis could have disappeared, and in King’s Cross you can search abstractedly between platforms 9 and 10 while absorbing the atmosphere of sights, sounds and smells of a busy station.

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      1. I think with Westminster & The Tower, there was the sense & feel of history. They are places I’d been reading about, as a history student, for over a decade in various classes, so actually seeing them was great in that sense.

        The Belfast & King’s Cross were visits of convenience, off the cuff. We happened to be passing, so I took a picture of the ship from Tower Bridge. We were heading to our hotel on the Underground when I noticed the line we were on went to King’s Cross a couple stations past our goal, so we went for it.

        I think it’s a mix of space, history, and seeing something I’ve only been able to read about, in those cases. Walking on the Great Wall & through the Forbidden City (even at the age of 9 or 10) had a similar feel, as I recall.

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        1. That’s part of the overall magic, I think, that “mix of space, history [if applicable] and seeing something [you]’ve only been able to read about” that you identified, whenever we’re actually visiting somewhere with literary associations.

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  3. I enjoy visiting places which have inspired authors, with one of the objectives being to see whether the writer created the setting sufficiently clearly in written words for it to be an accurate reflection of the reality. Often, I find that my imagination has given me an even more vivid or elaborate picture than what I see before me. An overactive imagination, or picking up the embellishments put in by the writer, I wonder?

    A certain place setting does provide a powerful boost to writing. I have found that each of my novels has been set in my mind in specific known locations, then suitably modified.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. As a bona fide author (one with real books to his name, no less!) you’ll know whereof you speak, and that modification (enhancement, maybe?) is certainly a process I’ve observed in other authors’ work and in my halting attempts at fiction.

      As a reader, like you Col I believe that reading is not just a re-creative process — envisioning exactly what the author has described — but genuinely creative; by which I mean that we filter and interpret what the author has described, however detailed, to fit in with our own experiences and patterns of thought. We can see it with films which can be wonderful things in their own right but are rarely accurate embodiments of the books they’re drawn from. Of necessity the production has to adapt, embellish, fill in the blanks that the author has skated over. It’s akin to what we do all the time with the fiction we read, don’t you think?

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      1. Indeed, which is why one comes away from a good book with a more complete appreciation of scenes and characters than any film can give. In the film, you accept what is before you. in a book the reader’s creative process you mention takes place.

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  4. I’ve visited some of the Harry Potter film locations and they were beautiful, but you’re right, I didn’t quite get the feel of magic I was hoping for. Though oddly, it’s more affecting when I see places I’ve spent time in suddenly appearing in books or on TV programmes.

    There are real life places I mentally ‘cast’ as locations when reading, such as Puzzle Wood in the Forest of Dean as the Forest of Fangorn in The Lord of the Rings or the area around Fort William for Neil Gaiman’s short story The Monarch of the Glen.

    I’d still love to visit the area around Cadair Idris and Mevagissey to soak up the atmosphere from Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series though!

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    1. Some places definitely live up to expectations: despite the tourists Florence is still as beautiful (though in a different way) as it is in the film of Room with a View and steam trains are just as romantic as in those old black-and-white films of the 30s and 40s. (Though I’m old enough to remember the last few of them still in service in the early 60s!)

      As for real life locations you’ve known serving for the fictional places you’ve read, I hope the child in each of us still retains that capacity to imagine every wood, ruined castle and wilderness path as the setting for any fairytale or epic fantasy we’ve enjoyed — I know I do!

      I reviewed the very first TDIR title a year or so ago (easy to search for if you want to 🙂 plus old photos of Mevagissy) and hope to reread the second soon after a gap of — ooh — decades. Lots of landscapes in my memory banks to draw on!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe as we get older and get more experienced the urge to make special journeys to fictionalised places diminishes? Perhaps we rely on memories of similar places we’ve visited to furnish the setting; and of course access to photos, videos and Google Earth and Streetview allows us to see many of these places virtually, online.


  5. I’m sure one of the main reasons we went to Iceland was that we had read and studied Egill’s Saga and Njahl’s Saga, even though many years ago. It was a kind of literary pilgrimage, which served to show what a deep impression those tales had made.

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    1. And did it put a different complexion on the sagas, with you both being in the landscapes that gave rise to them?

      Our dyslexic 15yo, who was ‘studying’ Frankenstein for his exams, was more motivated one summer to take it in knowing that a key scene took place on the Mer de Glace glacier in the Alps, in full view of our campsite in Chamonix! Certainly makes aspects of certain novels more vivid if one can appreciate the place in person.


      1. Perhaps not a ‘different’ complexion, but it felt familiar and almost as if we had been there before. Then there are charming little museums like the one devoted to Egill’s Saga at Borgarnes in the west of Iceland, with the characters carved from wood, which act out key apects of the story. For example, Egill’s rageful nature (inherited from his father Grimr)which caused him to kill a friend in the course of a game when he was about ten years old.

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  6. MrsB_inthehills

    The short answer is no, I suppose. Places like Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London are must-sees but for me that’s because of their longevity more than for events which happened there. I’m as likely to cuddle up to a stone wall in a country lane as I am to visit a place that’s been picked up and celebrated because it inspired somebody else 😁

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    1. I feel much the same sometimes, Helen, particularly with historic sites popular with tourists (for example, Shakespeare’s birthplace has really sod all to do with any of his plays or poems).

      The relevance of places in much fantasy, and especially in science fiction set on distant planets, is even more tenuous than with historic sites: there’s rarely anywhere which can lay claim to be the ‘original’ of an imaginary Middle Earth, Narnia, Earthsea or generic exoplanet except in a very generalised way — deserts, forests, frozen wastes, megalopolis.

      With historical fiction, especially where an author has specifically placed the action in a place they know well or have researched — an Alison Weir or a Hilary Mantel, say — then there may be some point in visiting Hampton Court or Stonehenge or Iceland; but I shouldn’t think readers would be obliged to!


  7. What a great post, Chris.
    This is fascinating and I can see why you connect fictional links to real places and historical ones – both have the magic to transport the imagination, that physical connection to something only previously in our heads.

    I’ve felt that way being in the Tower. For all its commercialisation (and yes, having to share the space with hundreds of others) standing on Tower Green near to where Anne Boleyn was executed, close to where the two Princes vanished, never to be seen alive again, close to where the Kray twins were held prisoner? That’s a weird and extraordinary feeling.

    I confess to having had little fantasies about the Bristol or York Tourist boards (both cities in which I’ve based large sections of different novels) advertising my books as a way to boost visitor numbers. ‘And here is the garden wall that inspired Lynn Love …’ I know it’s hugely egotistical and shows me in a poor light, but still we carry these thinsg with us in the hope that one day … Lovely post Chris

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    1. Being somewhere where historic events happened, or even where fictional scenes took place, can have the effect of intensifying the subjective experience of reading the text that describes it all (or howsoever that event or scene was conveyed to us, whatever the medium). That’s why it can be a disappointment when the reality fails to live up to the imagination’s expectations — the blue plaque on the modern building where an author used to live, or the housing development that has obscured or erased the dramatic climax to a novel. Sometimes we can forget the crowds and recreate the picture we had in our mind’s eye.

      Dare to dream, Lynn! If you can’t imagine something arising out of another thing you might do, you might never do that thing in the first place! (And where is Moravia?!)

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      1. It’s a wonderful thing, to visit a historical place and think this happened here, that happened here. To know something momentous occurred where you’re standing. Gives me chills.
        Moravia no longer exists. It’s now part of the Czech Republic, close to Slovenia, near the Carpathian Mountains if you fancy a visit 🙂

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        1. Must be a worse kind of chill for those who (re)visit places where traumatic things have happened to them or, worst, someone near and dear. I felt a deep melancholy accompanying a school history trip round First World War battle sites, trenches and cemeteries — a different kind of emotion from merely reading about conflicts fought long ago.

          The Moravia question was sort of rhetorical, Lynn, though I genuinely couldn’t remember where exactly in central Europe it had been! Somewhere in Bristol — Redland, I fancy, perhaps off Chandos Road — there used to be a Moravian church, though what distinguished it from any other I had no idea. Perhaps it was Orthodox.

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          1. I don’t know that one. I know the Polish church is still there on Cheltenham Road, big Georgian thing I think. I discovered a little Russian Orthodox church on University Road in Clifton the other day. Interesting the diversity sneaked along the side roads

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            1. I know the Polish church. The Orthodox one I only saw the inside of a few years ago when there was a Bristol Open Doors day — I think they had an exhibition of icons for any visitors.

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            2. Ooh, fascinating. Icons are interesting, if not the most creative artform due to their restrictive visual language and style. Love the Open Doors though. Had a wonderful time a few years ago, walking through the stores of the City Museum. Redcliffe Caves was eerie too.

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  8. I have to admit to being something of a literary tourist. I always thought I would like to go to Prince Edward Island, but then I saw something on TV about it. It was like it was turned into a Disney nightmare of Anne of Green Gables.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sorry to say I haven’t yet got round to AOGG, Erin 😦
      I know I should. So I hadn’t made the Prince Edward Island connection. But yes, it must make one shudder to read passages online like “And for those who can’t just can’t get enough of their favourite red-headed girl, or the woman who created her, there are Anne-related attractions all over the Island…”

      Must be very tempting to just travel there in the imagination. When I research public domain images to accompany reviews of classics I try to find authentic photos of places and people from around the time the fiction was set — hopefully avoiding any hint of disneyfication!


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