At the margins

Obscured view looking northeast to the Black Mountains in Wales, beyond which lies England

Wandering among Words 8: March

No, this is not a post about the month marking the start of spring in the northern hemisphere. Nor is it about walking determinedly from A to B. So what am I referring to?

I’m talking about a liminal space. ‘March’ in this sense is related to the Latin margo, “edge”, giving us the words “margin”, “marginal”, and so on: it can be a buffer, a No Man’s Land or Demilitarised Zone between two states; rulers of such spaces were typically termed margrave, marchese, marqués, marquis or marquess in medieval Europe.

Marches fascinate me. It helps that I live in the Welsh Marches, the lands that straddle the centuries-old fluctuating border between Wales and its bigger neighbour, England. Just like Scotland with its Borders and Ireland with The Pale the Welsh Marches have a long history of disputed control, first between the Britons and the incomers of Anglo-Saxon Mercia (“the land of the border people”) and later with powerful Norman lords asserting themselves against both the king of England and independent Welsh princes.

Here was built the mighty earthwork of Offa’s Dyke to demarcate Mercian territory from Wales; here briefly flourished the heroes who fought against English rule, historic figures like Owain Llawgoch and Owain Glyndŵr, here nestle sites traditionally associated with the legendary King Arthur.

Once you are aware of the concept of marchlands it’s not difficult to note them figuring everywhere in literature: Mirkwood in The Hobbit is not so-called because it was murky (though it was this as well) but because Tolkien borrowed the name from a vast forest which, historically, separated Goths from Huns for the barrier Bilbo and the dwarves faced on their journey to the Lonely Mountain.

Then there is Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy series set in Dalemark, a placename inspired perhaps by the example of Denmark (“borderland of the Danes”). In the Dalemark books ‘mark’ is merely used as a territorial designation, with the ‘land of valleys’ surrounded by marks named from fens or a town or some other such geographical feature.

Marchlands appear also in Hope Mirrlees’ fantasy Lud-in-the-Mist: in it we read of the Elfin Marches (somewhat reminiscent of the Wales-England border, though perhaps the South Downs of Sussex are the model). These divide the country of Dorimare from the Debatable Hills to the west; the latter feature is known to be the land of the Silent People ruled by a certain Duke Aubrey. No living human has been known to return after crossing these marches … yet. Similar in concept is Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series — ordinariness to one side, magic to the other — but the marches here are a Prohibited Zone either side of The Wall; the author was possibly inspired by Hadrian’s Wall and its hinterlands nominally separating Roman Britain from the Picts.

Dystopias and urban fantasy also feed off the concept of places which are neither one thing nor another. Nina Bawden’s Off the Road, for example, is actually set in the Welsh Marches of the future, with the young protagonist the intercessor between the Inside and the Outside after crossing The Wall. China Miéville’s The City and the City on the other hand, being what’s categorised as Weird Fiction or Urban Fantasy, places the action somewhere on the edge of Eastern Europe: two parallel cities co-exist almost superimposed one upon the other, the prohibited zone between the two known as Breach.

The marches also occur in alternative/alternate history. Owen Sheers’ Resistance imagines a Britain invaded by Nazi Germany in 1944, with most of the action focused on a small area located between what is now Herefordshire and Powys in the Welsh Marches. Liminality is in all the major themes here, including the impossibility either of placing evolving situations on a map and, indeed, the existence of an ancient map that purports to describe a world that only existed in the mind of the medieval map maker. Mark Haddon’s The Red House isn’t alternative history, however, but again it is one of those novels that use a Welsh Marches setting to emphasise a liminal situation. Seeing that the region on the borders of hell, limbo, is related to the Latin word limbus (‘edge’ or ‘border’), the holiday cottage of the title proves an unexpectedly hellish getaway for the members of an extended family.

The more one thinks about it the more one finds that so much fiction has the concept of Borderlands as a major theme running through it, especially as a Neither/Nor conundrum. Many traditions, and Celtic myth in particular, have those in-between notions (such as the so-called Threefold Death in which a victim simultaneously suffers three ways of dying — falling, hanging and drowning, for example) and, of course, fairyland shares that essence of ambiguity where personages and places are concerned.

We’re familiar with the narrative spurred into action by a so-called inciting incident, when anticipation is catapulted forward, transforming inaction into action. Joseph Campbell famously defined it as arriving at a threshold following the call to adventure: dare we enter the portal, cross the bridge, climb the wall, traverse the mountain, enter the forbidden forest, gaze at the forbidden or look deep into our soul?

The Marches are everywhere, always ready and waiting for us to confront them, to enter into who knows what, to meet whoever is living or even lurking there.


I’ve named a handful of titles that immediately sprang to mind (the links are to my own posts or reviews) but I know that there are many others I could have cited; equally, I know that you may have examples that have arrived unbidden on your mental doorstep, and I would be very interested to hear about them!

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8 thoughts on “At the margins

  1. In Swedish mark has taken on a more general meaning as land or ground. I can also add the two Norwegian regions Telemark, Hedmark and Finnmark to your list. Finnmark and Hedmark are border regions but for Telemark the connection is less clear. However, all of them are rural regions with sparse population.

    1. I’d heard of Finnmark, and Telemark of course (from the famous war film about heavy water and skiing!) but not Hedmark. I think march in English has also largely taken on the meaning of ‘land’ as a territory or region. Ancient Mercia is pretty much contiguous with what is now known as the Midlands—I’m just now reminded that George Eliot’s fictional Middlemarch is supposedly based on Coventry, which is more or less in … the middle of the Midlands, hence mid-Mercia or mid-March! (Unlike Sweden much of the Midlands is anything but rural.)

  2. Loved this. I so often forget the rich contextual history that flourishes beneath the words we so often take for granted. Hmm, I may need to utilize this barrier land idea for a different fantasy novel racing through my head… 😉

    1. Thanks, Jean, glad to be of service. 😊 Yes, borderlands are a godsend among the many fantasy tropes around, both as a physical space and a psychological state (like that point just before you drop off into sleep or where you start to emerge from a vivid dream or even anaesthetic).

  3. Thanks for that Chris. I’d long known of the Welsh marches as a borderland, but never knew about the etymology. And I had long pondered the derivation of Marquis, but never with enough industry to actually look it up. In the LotR space, there is of course The Mark itself, another land of borders and battles, shaping the culture of the people who lived there.
    Regards, Tony

    1. Yes, I’d forgotten The Mark in LOTR, or the Riddermark (“riders’ territory”), thanks for the reminder, Tony! So many examples, once one becomes aware of them.

      Ah, you have a blog as well as being on Instagram (if you’re the same Tony Lupton). I shall have a look as ‘Arturo Ed Artusi’ sounds intriguing!

      1. It might be interesting if there was something there, but it never quite off the ground. I have this flicker of an idea that keeps coming back, but I just can’t it fleshed out enough. Need time to cogitate, I guess.

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