For so much of history, castles have been both bastions of humanity and sources of great inspiration for our imaginations and stories. For thousands of years, great dynasties have needed homes and fortresses to both protect themselves and celebrate their exorbitant wealth.
You may have one idea of what a castle should look like, but keep in mind that castles occupy a greater chunk of human history than more modern structures, like the skyscraper. Castles first arose in the millennium before the Common Era and are still constructed to this very day, albeit for remarkably different purposes.
Throughout all of their long, long history though, castles have inspired many a storyteller and architect, presenting ideas—both real and fantastical.
It is these fantastical castles that we’ll be covering in this article. We’ll dive into the history of castles, both medieval and otherwise, and see how they’ve gone on to impact the fantasy genre as a whole.
Castles: Medieval or Fairytale?
While castles are fairly old, in terms of history, in our modern times, one may be forgiven in thinking that castles only come from fairytales. There are many different fairytale castles to speak of, such as the castles in Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and all other similar fairytales.
While some of these castles are strictly fictitious, others exist also in real life and belong to the long history of castles. For instance, the grand Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, built by King Ludwig II in the 1800s, inspired such fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty while also remaining an important icon in Romantic literature at the time.
Castles like Neuschwanstein Castles, which blur the line between medieval castles and fairytale castles, are also responsible for inspiring some of the first fantasy castles. In a way, all three are different and have different lineages. However, in another way, all three have the same long, tailored history.
A Brief Overview of Castles
Now that we’ve cleared up the discrepancies between fairytale and real life, there is another elephant in the room to address: what is a castle?
A castle, in layman’s terms, simply refers to a fortified private residence.
Obviously, there is also the matter of a shared history between castles, which leads to us collectively all thinking of similar structures when castles are mentioned. But this definition of a castle allows us to rule out early cities as castles in their own right.
When you think of great cities of yesteryear, like the mighty Constantinople of Rome, that is simply a great walled city. It is a public place, and therefore not, by definition a castle in its own right. Nor would forts technically be considered castles, like those you would find built during the Age of Discovery, when countries were attempting to defend their supposedly-discovered land.
Castles were, overall, typically always a response by ruling families to unwanted invaders. These invaders can either be a part of one’s own culture, which can be seen in Japan with inter-state warring, or from outside the bounds of one’s own borders, which can be seen in Europe with the Vikings.
Rise of the Medieval Castle
Though the Middle Ages, or Medieval Period as it is commonly known, is perhaps too bloated to fully study in one article (as it does span approximately 1,000 years), it is during this period that we see castles take root. They become more common both in practical use during this time and firmly solidify in the imaginations of people around the world.
Castles first arose out of a need to protect one’s family, and then quickly morphed into a display of power. This happened all throughout Europe during the Medieval Period, and the same phenomenon can be seen in Japan during theirs as well.
In Europe, the fall of the Western Roman Empire left a power vacuum and instability throughout the continent. Petty lords took it upon themselves to govern their own people and sought to fortify their own domains with high walls and defensible positions. These were the first motte and bailey castles, which consisted of a couple of high walls and a hill one could defend one’s land upon.
Japan, also known for its majestic castles, saw a similar circumstance for the increase in their castles too. The collapse of the shogunate saw samurai lords vying to claim the power vacuum that emerged, and many castles were constructed upon mountains to try and help one defend one’s land.
In the Medieval Period, the one through-line is that castles emerged as a way of defending one’s territory and establishing feudal dominance over a region. They were most-commonly built upon hills and mountains to be easily defendable. And they most-often served as a home for one ruling family, eventually becoming viewed as a symbol of that family’s status by itself.
Which, of course, meant that the bigger the castle, the richer the family.
The First Fantasy Castles
Don’t worry! We’re going to get to Minas Tirith and all of Tolkein’s other famous castles. But first…
We can examine some fantastic castles that existed before fantasy as a whole was genrefied with the advent of Middle-earth. The most famous of these pre-fantasy castles would most-definitely have to be the fabled castle of Arthurian lore, Camelot.
Camelot, as the seat of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, often becomes metonymic with Arthur’s power as a whole. In that, Camelot is seen as an extension of his power. When Arthur’s line fails and he passes on, Camelot becomes lost because Arthur’s power is no more.
If we’re talking before Tolkein, we should give a special note to the castle of Cair Paravel. This seat of Narnian power was meant for the Pevensies when they journeyed to Narnia in Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
The Parts of a Castle
Now that we have some real and fantastical examples to go off of, let’s examine the parts that make up a castle. Keep in mind that every castle is unique, as each family that inhabits their castle is unique. Some of these castles may have all of the follow parts and sections, while others might have only a couple.
At the end of the day, how each castle looked depended on the lord funding the castle’s construction and the architects who saw it all done.
- Keep: This is the strongest point of any castle, and often a great tower at its center. The keep is where the ruling family would retreat to during a siege.
- Great Halls: Sometimes located within the keep and sometimes its own building, the great hall was where the ruling family received their guests, celebrated, and made judgments from.
- Moat: These were ditches dug out around a castle’s walls, making them harder to siege. Moats could either be filled with water or completely dry. In some cases, drawbridges were used to cross over them, though stone bridges were often seen as well.
- Portcullis: This is part of a castle’s gate that would hang over the gateway. It is typically made of iron grating that forms a grid pattern. During a siege, this would be lowered to restrict passage.
- Gate: This is the main entrance to a castle, and divides the castle’s walls. Castles would typically have one or two gates, depending on how defensible they would be.
- Gatehouse: This is a structure built either upon the inside or over a gate, where defenders could easily control the flow of traffic into and out of a castle.
- Arrowslits: These were small holes in a castle’s walls from which defenders could fire their arrows at attackers, while providing them with only a very small target to retaliate against.
- Posterns: These are small secondary doors that were generally concealed and heavily fortified. They could be used to sneak out of a castle, or sneak in.
- Walls: These were the hallmark of any great castle, as having a walled structure was key to defending off invaders.
- Ramparts: This is another name for the defensive walls of a castle, and are typically topped with parapets.
- Parapets: These are small walls that topped ramparts, providing a defensive shield for defending soldiers from arrows and projectiles.
- Battlements: Also known as crenellations, these are a type of parapet with open spaces that defenders could fire projectiles from.
- Towers: Towers provided defenders with superior vision and protection against incoming fire.
- Lookout Tower: Also known as a watchtower, these were less-massive towers than the keep (though still tall on their own). Sentinels and guards could be stationed in them to keep watch on the surrounding area.
- Turrets: These are small towers that project upward from a castle’s walls or ramparts. Soldiers could take cover from within them against incoming fire.
3 Different Types of Castles
Throughout the Medieval Period, castles changed dramatically from their first incarnation. They went from being wooden structures that were created to defend a family to great displays of extravagance and wealth.
As such, it stands to reason that there are different types of castles. Some of these are early incarnations of the castle, while others become different iterations on a working design.
Motte and Bailey Castles
These were the earliest type of castle to come out of the Medieval Period, and were the simplest as well. Essentially, every motte and bailey castle consisted of two distinct parts: the motte and the bailey.
A motte simply referred to an earthen mound with a flat top. This could be a natural hill, or this could be man made. Atop the motte, the ruling family would build their keep surrounded by walls. This would provide it with a highly defensible position.
Then, at the bottom of the motte, there would be the bailey. This is a fortified enclosure that the soldiers could hold against attackers. Often, the bailey could entirely encircle the motte, providing the ruling family with an extremely defensible castle overall. In the early days of the Middle Ages, motte and bailey castles were what made up a majority of Medieval castles.
While motte and bailey castles were very common, a problem with them from the onset is that most were made from wood and thus easily set aflame. Wood is also a simple material and harder to shape into the complex shapes that stone can easily take.
So, it stood to reason that by the turn of the first millennium, there would emerge another type of castle.
Some motte and bailey castles that still stand to this day include:
- Restormel Castle in England (though it was later converted to a stone keep castle)
- Clough Castle in Northern Ireland
- Burcht van Leiden in the Netherlands
Stone Keep Castles
The stone keep castles are what most people think of when they think of Medieval castles. They are stone fortifications built from bricks, with giant ramparts constructed around a central, defensible tower (called a keep).
On top of being sturdier than the wooden motte and bailey, stone keep castles had the advantage of seeming imposing to all those that would challenge a lord’s right to rule. Think about it! To overthrow that lord, you would basically have to topple the literal mountain of rock that they sat themselves upon.
There were so many different incarnations of stone keep castles, that to attempt to describe them all would be an impossibility. Generally, they served the purpose of protecting the ruling family and those closest to them.
All of the parts of a castle that were described earlier in the article can be found in stone keep castles. And unlike the motte and bailey castles, stone keep castles were able to be iterated on and went on to heavily influence the designs of the castles that followed.
Famous examples of real stone keep castles are:
- Caerlaverock Castle in Scotland
- Dover Castle in England
- Colchester Castle in England
- Goodrich Castle in England
In terms of advancements throughout the Medieval Period, stone keep castles were definitely the largest leap. But they weren’t the only one.
Concentric castles were not so much an evolution of the stone keep in terms of design (for both can look very similar), but were an advancement in terms of defensibility. This is because the hallmark of a concentric castle is that it has an extra outer wall which is generally shorter, adding another layer of defense and allowing defenders of inner walls to hold their positions better.
It may be best to think of concentric castles as castles within castles. Some concentric castles even sported many different layers of walls. The idea simply was that more walls meant more defense. And having each outer wall lower than the one closer to the keep meant archers could easily pick off any enemies who started to take the outer defenses.
Some famous concentric castles include:
- The Castle of Margat in Syria
- Kidwelly Castle in Wales
- Beaumaris Castle in Wales
- Belvoir Castle in Israel
- Corycus in Turkey
Examples of Famous Fantasy Castles
Now that we’ve covered the extensive history and evolution of real castles, let’s look at the fictional castles that they inspired. Fantasy has such a wealth of castles, that going over even all of the most important ones would create too-long of a list.
As such, the following are some of the most famous castles that have gone on to inspire new fantasy works that are still being created to this day.
Easily one of the most famous castles of all time, both including fictional and real castles. Hogwarts is a great example of a stone keep castle, since it lacks the extra fortifications and walls that would make it a concentric castle.
Specifically, Hogwarts is a great example of a gothic castle, which refers to the style of architecture used in its construction. Essentially, gothic castles came into popularity around the 1200s/1300s, and saw a shift from using castles primarily as a means of defense to seeing them as a means of comfort.
And this is obvious in Hogwarts too, as who wouldn’t want to spend their time there (assuming you look past the fact that something seems to be trying to kill students every year). Hogwarts has common rooms fitted with fires and cozy chairs and warm beds. It has a great hall where the students gather to sup with each other.
Everything about Hogwarts screams fine living, and even though it was probably never built to withstand a siege, it managed during the Siege of Hogwarts just fine. That is the power of a stone keep castle.
Formerly known as Minas Anor, the capital of Gonder is nothing short of iconic. It is a classic (perhaps the classic) example of a concentric castle. The castle-city itself is built in tiers so that the defenders can retreat to higher levels as they slowly lose their ground.
Minas Anor (which means the Tower of the Sun) was built by Elendil’s son Anarion and served as his domain to stand in reflection of Isildur’s Minas Ithil. When Minas Ithil fell, the name of Minas Anor was changed as well, and it became known as Minas Tirith (which means the Tower of Guard).
Only a host such as that of Mordor could even hope to be able to siege a castle like Minas Tirith. Being a concentric castle and having as many walls as it does really lends an advantage to the castle’s defenders. This is why even being outnumbered and outmatched as they are, the men of Gonder are able to hold out in the Battle of Pelennor Fields for as long as they did (and because they had a little help from a wizard).
Minas Tirith can’t be brought up without talking about its sister castle, Minas Morgul. This castle was formerly known as Minas Ithil (which means the Tower of the Moon). Minas Ithil served as the domain of Isildur before he took up his father’s dominion in Arnor.
When Sauron returns to claim Mordor, he takes the castle and it is renamed to the more sinister Minas Morgul.
Minas Morgul shares the defensibility that Minas Tirith wields, being a concentric castle itself from what little we see of it. In the movie adaptations, you can clearly see walls behind the initial outer walls, which gives away that the original Numenoreans who built it did so with a superior knowledge of castle construction.
Winterfell is a tricky one because its type of castle really depends on the depiction. For the most part, it is never described having both an inner and outer wall, so it would be a stone keep castle, which makes sense.
Winterfell was originally built by Bran the Builder during the Age of Heroes in Westeros. It was meant to stand guard over the Wall and help protect the realms of men against the forces that came with the Long Night.
Worth noting is that it is southeast of Deepwood Motte, which is a motte and bailey castle that Asha Greyjoy captures when the Greyjoys throw their hat into the War of Five Kings.
The Red Keep
Just like with Winterfell, what type of castle the Red Keep is really depends on the depiction. In the TV show, the Red Keep is based off a fort in Croatia, which can be most likened to a stone keep castle.
However, in practice, since the Red Keep is so married to King’s Landing, anyone sieging it would feel a defense more equivalent to a concentric castle. They would have to brave the outer walls of the city and then approach the inner walls of the Red Keep.
Beyond that, the Red Keep itself is home to the infamous Maegor’s Holdfast, where characters like Sansa wait out the siege of King’s Landing in the books. Being so old, the Red Keep is probably caught somewhere between being a traditional stone keep castle and a defensibly-superior concentric castle.
Here’s where things get a little strange (which makes sense when you’re talking about a Sanderson castle).
For all intents and purposes, since Kredik Shaw doesn’t have any notable walls to defend itself inside Luthadel, it would be a stone keep castle. However, it would be more accurate to call Kredik Shaw a royal palace, since it serves more as a symbol of power for the Lord Ruler than a defensible location.
Kredik Shaw is a great example of how castles can look different from the normal, especially because of all the spires it has on it. Intimidation on its own can be a means of defense, and Kredik Shaw definitely takes the cake on being intimidating.
Howl’s Moving Castle
Well, we can definitely say that Howl’s castle is not a concentric castle. Since it has no outer walls, or inner walls, or walls at all, it would simply be a stone keep castle.
As for how defensible it is, considering that it can move to wherever Howl needs it to be, how much more defense do you need? Howl can rely on his magic and wits to ensure that his home never falls into too much danger.
Howl’s moving castle is another great example of how incredibly unique writers can take their stone keep castles by adding a little flavor.
Creating Your Own Fantasy Castle
Creating a castle that can compare to the ones listed above might sound challenging, if not impossible. But all their creators had to start somewhere, and they started in the same place you’re at now—research about castles.
Take what you’ve read and seen, both about fictional and real castles. Use what you’ve already read about to combine different ideas and form new castles that best even the greatest that we’ve already seen in fantasy.
Here are some tips to get you started on thinking about how to create your very own fantasy castles:
- Think about the enemies that your castle would need to repel. Winterfell was designed to withstand hordes of undead. Minas Morgul was meant to keep watch on the forces of darkness. What additions to your castle can help give its defenders an edge?
- Don’t forget to give your castle its own architectural style. Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul look similar because they were fashioned by two brothers. Kredik Shaw was meant to instill fear and culture into the people of the Final Empire. What do people notice when they look at your castle?
- How big do you need your castle to be? Winterfell is a castle with a castle town just outside its walls. In times of war, its defenders need to be able to accomodate all their people inside their walls though.
- What type of castle are you creating? Like we’ve covered, there were three primary types throughout the Medieval Period, and they all evolved out of each other. How did castles evolve in your story?
- Think about how many castles you’re going to be creating too. There were thousands of castles built in real life during the Medieval Period. The construction of one castle might have influenced the looks and defenses of another. How do castles interact in your world?
If you need something to help you get started, here’s a great Medieval fantasy city generator that you can use to help yourself visualize how castles look. Or you can simply use these castles and cities that it generates in your own stories too.
Another great way to generate ideas about fantasy castles is to look at more fantastic castle artworks. You can find great art of fantasy castles at:
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Whether used to assert political dominance or to defend against a dragon attack, fantasy castles have captured the minds of readers for more than a century now (depending on where you think fantasy begins). Castles are rooted in the Medieval Period but always evolve out of each other and from what has come before.
Use the castles you’ve read and all the castles you can find online to create your own Minas Tirith or Winterfell. And if you’re looking for more ideas about fantasy castles, fantasy writing, or just writing in general, consider subscribing to my newsletter.
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