The Literary Lure of Ancient Ruins

One of the structures in the archaeological reserve at Cahal Pech, Belize.

“On the top they found, as Strider had said, a wide ring of ancient stone-work, now crumbling or covered with agelong grass.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.

Looking out from one of the cliff-dwellings in Mesa Verde, Colorado.

Ancient ruins, both real and fictional, have always sparked my imagination as an author. They combine the mysteries of centuries past with the excitement of modern discovery. Their half-standing structures carry a multitude of stories within them, both new and old.

In fantasy fiction, ancient sites can serve as setting and background (as in the Tolkien quote above), or they can be an integral part of the story (as they are in the Indiana Jones movies).

Doorways at the Chaco Culture National
Historic Park, New Mexico.

The addition of ancient ruins can add history and depth to a fictional world. They raise a host of questions, just as they do in real life, that even the characters in the novel may not be able to answer. Who lived in those structures? What were their lives like? What ended their civilization? In fantasy novels, you can also add the query: did humans live there or someone else?

The sun going down at Luxor, Egypt.

When a fantasy author includes an ancient site in a novel, how much of the background behind the fictional ruins does the author need to know? Clearly Tolkien knew the complete background of every site he included in his stories, but is that required for every fantasy novel?

Reconstructions of storage jars at Akrotiri on the island of Santorini.

The answer depends on the purpose for which the author has added the ancient site to the story. If it is used as background or setting, the author should know enough to make the location plausible in the fantasy world. If the ruins will serve as an integral part of the plot, on the other hand, the writer probably needs to develop the history underlying the site.

The Terracota Warriors, Xi’an, China

Given my love of archaeological sites, it is not surprising that part of the plot in 60th Hour includes discoveries made in a hidden chamber below a set of ruins. It is far more surprising to me that our soon-to-be-released novel Prophecy’s Malignant Son does not include any ancient ruins. Clearly, John and I will have to work on that in the sequels.

-Susan 6/18/2021

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