Greenfingers: The Garden in Fantasy Fiction

Updated: 4 days ago

Greenfingers: The Garden in Fantasy Fiction


For millennia, gardens have been the ideal location for sin and subterfuge, especially when competing forces clash for prestige and power without descending into open hostility. Where concealment is ranked above all else, the leafy avenues and closeted walls of a formal garden can be relied upon to provide a discreet backdrop for nocturnal activities in fantasy fiction.


In David Gemmell's heroic fantasy novel The King Beyond The Gate, the tower garden at Gathere is presented as an example of the power and prestige of its creator. The resources required to construct it provide an impression of steadfastness and calculation on the part of a lord determined to prove his power to those living lower down in the city, and it is clear from the description provided that his diligence repaid the effort.


"Some sixty years before, an ageing senator had built the garden, his servants carrying more than three tons of topsoil to the tower. Now there were trees, bushes and flowers of every kind. In one corner laurel and elderflower grew alongside holly and elm, while elsewhere flowering cherry trees bloomed pink and white against the grey stone walls."


Here, the garden symbolises an earthly paradise at the centre of the cosmos in the tradition of Far Eastern myths and legends, exerting a stylish control over a fierce environment at the mercy of wind and water. Out of this uncompromising welter of metaphorical briars come order and elegance, and with them the superiority of man over the natural world and over those lower down the social scale. But things are never quite what they seem with this versatile author.


David Gemmell's playful sense of humour is omnipresent, and in a cheeky subversion of the received wisdom that the tower garden is reserved for the powerful family who built it, Scaler accesses it via his dexterous ability to shin up vertical surfaces possessing only the flimsiest of gripping points.


He's actually Arvan, grandson of Orrin, Earl of Bronze, and is himself destined to become Earl of Dros Delnoch, Warden of the North, so the joke comes full circle. A man who has been dispossessed of his birthright and forced to spend a childhood outrunning assassins is nevertheless able to stroll in a garden kept for the elite after entering it through the most unexpected means. No one presents these wry subtleties better than David Gemmell.


In the medieval cultures upon which fantasy fiction is often based, the garden enjoys many and varied symbolisms. Not least of all is the imagery of the Garden of Eden, with its Biblical associations of fertility, sex and forbidden fruit. Links between gardens and fecundity arising out of the natural world long predate the Christian era, and they feature in many earlier legends, myths and tales.


The wedding feast of Zeus and Hera took place in the mythical garden of the Hesperides, and in Ancient Egyptian gardens Mandragora berries were symbols of love. Since the cultural link between love, sex and the garden is so long established, it is unsurprising that a number of fantasy romance novels draw upon the garden as a location for love, illicit or otherwise.


In Dragon Prince by Melanie Rawn, Sioned and her betrothed Rohan quickly fall in love, upending the literary convention that an arranged marriage is destined to be a miserable experience for both parties. Consequently, almost all of the obstacles to a swift consummation of their love are external problems to be overcome rather than arising out of the internal emotional journey that is the essence of falling in love.


Courtesy of their almost immediate physical attraction to each other, that part is already done. However, threats to Rohan's kingdom are many indeed, and defeating his archrival High Prince Roelstra takes precedence over an early wedding.


Among Roelstra's many scheming daughters, the eldest are old enough to want Rohan for themselves, and they're not above fighting each other for the privilege. Rohan and Sioned stay apart publicly, feign disinterest and even descend into pretended mutual hostility to buy time for the challenges to his authority as Dragon Prince to be dealt with.


Naturally, in the face of such an urgent need for secrecy, a garden is the best place for the lovers to meet. Unlike the tower garden at Gathere, here it is a woman who has created and nurtured the beautiful gardens at Stronghold in which Sioned and Rohan's love can blossom: his mother Milar.


"Rohan waited, hidden among the trees near the grotto his mother had designed to be a refuge during the worst of the summer heat. Fruit trees had been brought at outrageous expense from Ossetia, Meadowlord and Syr, transplanted with such loving care to Desert soil that not a single one had been lost in the shock."


Traditionally, less cultivated land such as forests, grasslands and wastelands represented untamed and uncontrolled emotions, a chance for people to adopt freer and more relaxed modes of behaviour. The idea of getting closer to nature presents unique dangers in fantasy fiction, however.


In the ruthless power play of the A Game of Thrones series from George RR Martin, the formal gardens of urban spaces are contrasted with the different emotions sparked by time spent in more natural locations. The benefits of the world being left to its simple devices are portrayed in a positive light by the ancestral lands of House Tyrell.


Highgarden consists of fertile grasslands and fields, which yield the grain and horticultural harvests that keep their allies the Lannisters financially secure in Kings Landing. Their productive land is under enough human control to be a source of power and influence for its owners.


But simplicity also has its dangers in a world known for its duplicity. Out in the godswood, Sansa plots her escape from Kings Landing with Ser Dontos: a trusting arrangement that threatens these unwilling participants in the ruthless game of power taking place all around them.


The godswood is contrasted with the artifice of a formal garden, representing instead the honest faith Sansa imbibed during her upbringing at Winterfell, where the Starks still swear by the old gods. Down in the capital, surrounded by the Lannisters, such sincerity does not serve her well. There may be an emotional veracity to the untamed environment, but in an epic fantasy like A Game of Thrones such a place can be lethal as well.


Gardens and other cultivated spaces continue to provide fascinating locations for a variety of plots and schemes in fantasy fiction, and they also spark reflection on the relationship between humanity and our natural world at the same time!


See you on Monday. Thanks for reading my article.


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If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my review of The Circus of Dr Lao by Charles G Finney here. Or you might like to take a look at my review of The Dragon Token by Melanie Rawn here.


If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer here.

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