Andrea/Cara here, musing today on castles. I just saw a recently-opened exhibit on “The British Castle—A Symbol in Stone” at the Yale Center for British Art, one of my favorite museums, as they always put together exhibits with such interesting themes.
“As physical seats of power, castles were emblems of government; as the residences of aristocratic families, they became images of social continuity and domesticity; as great bastions, they became symbols of resistance in times of peril; as ruins, they became potent bearers of legend and folklore—from tales of princesses and chivalrous knights to the settings of gothic horror novels.”
I don’t know if you’re like me, but castles have stirred my imagination since childhood. I love looking at picture books of knight in armor, which always included a hauntingly appealing structure perched high on a hill or craggy cliff. The it was on to reading books like Howard Pyle’s Otto of the Silver Hand, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. It’s no surprise to me that fantasy classics, like Lord of the Rings, have castles as part of their magic.
“Few structures have such a powerful pull on our collective imagination.”
Put together by undergrad students docents, (I love that the museum lets students curate and write the exhibit and its catalogue—which you can access here) the exhibit explores the changing nature of the castle in British culture. As society changed, so, too, did its symbolic meaning. In medieval times, castles—dominating the landscape from their lofty positions high over the masses—represented military strength and stood as the physical representation of the power held by aristocratic families.
As democracy gained more of an upper hand, and the aristocracy begin to lose their grip on ultimate local control, they slowly but surely were abandoned as true seats of power. (The exhibit stresses how the fact that they were inhibited is part of the allure . . . but let’s face it, as modern conveniences developed over the centuries, they became rather uncomfortable places in which to reside.) Still, they served for many as nostalgic symbols of the past. Developing industrial towns took pride in the sight of an ancient castle looking down on the bustling activities. Castles were a reminder of the enduring strength of the country, even as changes began to happen at a faster and faster pace.
By the 19th century, as the Age of Romanticism blossomed in art and literature, the image of the castle as a crumbling ruin—“a picturesque beauty”—inspired wildly romantic paintings and books. (What would Anne Radcliffe’s wonderful gothic romances be without a mysterious castle, with its strange moanings, clanging chains and dark dungeons!) It appealed to the imagination, and came to be a symbol of of individual yearnings—like standing strong in face of adversity, a yearning for honor and valor, and a spirit of rebellion against the all the changes swirling in the air.
So that’s a small summary of some of the ideas expressed in the exhibit. But aside from all intellectual parsing of symbolism and psychic meaning, I simple love the castle as a purely visual sight. When I’ve traveled in great Britain, the sight of a castle, whether well-preserved and or a lone weathered tower of stone, always took my breath away. I’m in the Romantic camp—castles stir my imagination, and spark all sorts of story ideas. (Though I doubt I will write a medieval, the idea is alluring . . .) All images courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.