In The Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo first sets eyes on Cerin Amroth, a hill in the forest of Lothlorien, J.R.R. Tolkien writes, “It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name.”
That summer when I walked alongside Wilson Gardens, a Eucalyptus forest near my home in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, I wondered if this was what had inspired Tolkien. When the sun filtered down through the leaves, all I saw, like Frodo, was ‘gold and white and blue and green’.
In fantasy stories, a large part of the world-building lies in the creation of physical spaces. For Tolkien, of course, it hadn’t been my Wilson Gardens that had worked as a blueprint for Cerin Amroth but Puzzlewood, fourteen acres of crooked trees and pathways in Forest of Dean in the English county of Gloucestershire. This is the same forest Hermione apparates to with Harry and Ron towards the beginning of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a real place that becomes a canvas for the coming of age of their friendship. Physical spaces often embody themes that run through a story. They could be beautiful like Lothlorien or they could be harsh like The Marshes in The Lord of the Rings, but they are always phantasmagorical.
In 1957, writer Frank Herbert travelled to Oregon to study the reforestation of over 25,000 acres of dunes sandwiched between Florence and Coos Bay, an undulating sea of ravenous white sand pitted with shore pine trees; it apparently ate everything it touched, be it forests or railway tracks, until it emptied itself into the Pacific. I imagine Herbert standing on the peak of a dune, the only human for miles, wondering what it would be like if the ground trembled beneath and something, a big worm perhaps, drilled its way out from the bowels of the earth. It is said these dunes inspired Arrakis, the desert planet at the heart of Herbert’s Dune novel series.
For me, I was transported to Arrakis when I travelled from Luxor to Hurgada in Egypt and watched the sun go down between the peaks of Sha’ib El Banat in the Sahara desert. We had an armed escort and so cut inland into the stone quarries of Jebel Abu Dukhaan, the 1161-metre-high “Mountain of Smoke” along the Red Sea coast. The Mons Porphyrites, as the Romans called it, was the Empire’s main source of fine red porphyry, but to me it looked like melange, the drug that fights Paul Atreides for protagonist rights in Dune. Even the air smelt of cinnamon in Jebel Abu Dukhaan. Home to the Bedouin tribes, I had no doubt this was indeed Arrakis on Earth. The first thing I did as I entered my hotel in Hurgada was to find the library and, as providence would have it, reach for a copy of Dune. But then is a library without Dune a library at all.
For a bookworm, travel can be like a pilgrimage to a land that you have dreamt of since you were a child. It can take on a whole new meaning. The realisation that a place once a refuge for your loneliness does indeed exist in reality can emulsify your insides.
Like the thrill I felt when I saw the lion’s head carved into the ornate door opposite the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford, it is said to have inspired C.S. Lewis’ characters in The Chronicles of Narnia. In the same city, I would spend hours following in the footsteps of Alice as she discovered Wonderland, looking for the little door at the Cathedral Garden at Christ Church College. I’d point out the brass andirons to every visitor, relative or friend. They inspired her long neck when she tried the left-hand portion of the mushroom in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And it doesn’t even have to be a classic. While others fight the hordes on Charles Bridge in Prague, fans of Charlie Parker, the detective from the John Connolly novels, follow the moody man to Sedlec Ossuary, a small Roman Catholic chapel built with human bones which becomes a major plot device in his novel The Black Angel.
Hours, years even, are spent creating infrastructure that feeds the hungry story and often informs it, taking on a life of its own. Jon Snow of Game of Thrones will forever be seen standing on The Wall, so solid, so impenetrable the two. But The Wall was a chimera of two places. George R.R. Martin says he imagined the biting swirling snow of Chicago falling on Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britain, a defensive fortification built by the Romans, which is impressive but nothing like the colossal being of stone and ice in Martin’s Westeros, because everything is bigger and larger in the mind.
Sometimes whole cities can inform a fantasy and that’s what happened with my latest novel The Hidden Children: The Lost Grimoire. The city of Kolkata is built for storytellers—centuries of addas echo through winding alleyways of Black Town and whisper sweet nothings into ears, every shadow is besotting. While the Bile Rath, home to the Witans, the magical community in the novel, was inspired by the great Banyan of Howrah located in Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden, ten odd kilometres from Kolkata, it was at South Park Street Cemetery that Abha’s story came tumbling out of me like scurrying beetles. I don’t know if it was the blend of the Gothic and Indo Sarcenic architecture, or the vines and the green moss that blanketed the silver patinaed stone but I felt like I’d entered a place of magic where the walls between reality and something else was much thinner, and that’s how I got to ‘thin places,’ the potent space where everything is possible. I spent hours reading epitaphs and I imagined a love story, a woman saying goodbye to a child and everything she knew in the pursuit of love, while a crow sat on her shoulder—a story was born.
Reshma K. Barshikar is an author, features writer and former investment banker who lives in Mumbai. Her latest book is The Hidden Children: The Lost Grimoire, published by Two Ravens.