Multi-purpose subterranean spaces… and Dragons

There’s a TV programme in Britain called Dragons’ Den, where ordinary people with new ideas for fledgling businesses have their hopes and dreams crushed by a sneering panel of business experts, until they leave, weeping and broken. Classic light entertainment, then.

Anyway, another person who doesn’t like it very much is the British comedian Jeremy Hardy. And I think he gets to the absolute heart of the matter in one, simple sentence:

“But the worst thing about it is the name. Dragons don’t have dens, they have lairs!”

The strange thing is, he’s right. Picturing a dragon in a den destroys their mystique. To me, a den is one step up from a burrow. A lair might have piles of shining gold, skeletons of ancient warriors and some curiously flame-retardant treasure chests. Dens contain the remains of small animals and a few balls of dung.

(Even more incongruous is the concept of keeping a dragon in a small, cozy office. Still, it would certainly prevent anyone from disturbing you!)

Stories can play out anywhere, from the top of the tallest skyscraper to the bottom of an ocean trench—anywhere where a couple of humans can meet. And yet the architecture around them has a profound psychological effect. In some speculative fiction, it can even determine the entire plot—Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop is, at its heart, a battle against the weird atmosphere of the generation ship, whose once simple functions have become incomprehensible and dangerous. A whole civilisation is determined by its living quarters—they are physically diminutive, but also dwarfed by a ship larger than any human mind had before conceived.

Not that this is limited to fantasy and sci-fi, far from it. Dickens, for instance, often has his characters start to resemble their houses:

He was a short, bald old man, in a high-shouldered black coat and waistcoat, drab breeches, and long drab gaiters… his head was awry, and he had a one-sided, crab-like way with him, as if his foundations had yielded at about the same time as those of the house, and he ought to have been propped up in a similar manner.

Crooked old Jeremiah Flintwinch seems to be at one with the decrepit old house where he lives. When they collapse, they collapse together, and he is buried in the rubble.

Even the least fanciful and most “classic” of authors cannot resist the power of place. It can even affect characters’ love lives. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice—a million miles away from Aldiss—Elizabeth Bennet first begins to fall for Mr Darcy only when she pays a surprise visit to his stately home:

the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House… It was a large, handsome, stone building… neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste… and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!

All of the positive features that she failed to see in the man are writ large in the fabric of his house. From here on, a happy ending is assured. She will marry him, thanks to his enormous…tracts of land.

Fantasy and sci-fi, of course, allow for architecture which we cannot truly create—from gleaming spaceships to fantastic towns made of trees or crystal. But of course, this only increases the psychological relevance. When a character can live anywhere, there’s probably something highly significant to where they live. In Terry Pratchett’s early Discworld books, he remarks that a wizard’s study will always contain a stuffed alligator. Even if no live alligators can be found in the vicinity. If the wizard doesn’t buy one, it will spontaneously appear—the Discworld runs on the law of narrative necessity.

But even the less comedic varieties will follow. Wizards live in towers. Even modern ones, though they may swap it for a skyscraper. Consequently, anyone who lives in a tower, magical or not, is likely to have that image of being closer to the sky, and the stars—full of mysteries. Forget the fact that most medieval towers were primarily watch-posts, staffed by bored guards. Psychology trumps practicality every time.

Even getting the name right can create or destroy atmosphere. There’s a reason why the famous game isn’t called Prisons and Dragons, and it’s not just for the sake of alliteration. A dungeon sounds like the clanging of deathly bell—it is a place where adventures happen.

So, perhaps I should email the BBC, and tell them that their next series really should be called Dragons’ Dungeon. Where teams of the general public, armed with level one product ideas, must venture into 10 foot by 10 foot rooms and slay a slavering horde of investment bankers.

Now that really would put the ratings up…


David Whitley is British, and a recent graduate of the University of Oxford. His first novel is The Midnight Charter, a fantasy adventure for young adults which, to his complete astonishment, has sold on five continents in thirteen languages. The first of a trilogy, it will be published in the US by Roaring Brook in September.

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