My fantasy novel Storywalker is possibly the most comprehensive worldbuilding project I’ve completed so far. My SF work-in-progress Sky Train will be bigger again, I think. It certainly feels more ambitious at this early stage. But Storywalker is finished and out there now for people to buy and read, so I’ll use it to explain how in my worldbuilding I like to move from big historical events to modern day specifics and the individual characters through whom I tell a story.
I began imagining the worlds of Storywalker with what, inside the story, was a near mythical event that occurred 2000 years ago, when the Gaulish Order of Druids organised a mass human migration from our world to a parallel one, through a “thin place” on France’s Atlantic coast, in order to escape Rome’s ruthless legions.
And there’s a real historical foundation upon which I built my fictional history.
The Real Event
I’m an amateur archaeologist. My two favourite periods nowadays are Europe’s Bronze Age and Iron Age, but my first young love was Pre-Roman Britain.
Prehistory, as it’s come to be known, as if human history didn’t start until Julius Caesar dropped anchor off the coast of Kent in 55 BCE.
I suspect the “prehistory” designation is mostly down to those historians and antiquarians, drawn mainly from the ranks of Establishment figures in Victorian and Edwardian Britain, who identified strongly with the Roman Empire. Particularly with its belligerent nature, its unstoppable success in war and occupations, and its administrative domination through systematic uniformity.
Hand-in-hand with the Empire self-image of those gentlemen, was their belief that the pre-Roman civilisations of Britain and Europe were illiterate.
That belief was wrong, and evidentially so, especially when we look at artefacts from the late Iron Age Celts or read second-hand accounts by their Roman and Greek contemporaries.
The druids of Celtic Britain and Gaul forbade all written expression of their wisdom, but the rest of society on both sides of what would in future be called the English Channel were proper old chatterboxes and scribblers. Inscriptions on crockery, cooking and storage wares, curse tablets, and coins are being dug up and studied all the time.
And if the everyday people were enthusiastically literate, the druids certainly were. No film-maker’s brooding magicians, these. They were accomplished mathematicians, astronomers and geographers, magnificently accomplished and dedicated to lifelong learning. Centuries before Roman Empire engineers went stamping around Europe building stuff, the Celtic druids wielded scientific knowledge that was equal to if not greater than that of the Ancient Greek philosophers.
They were also important influencers in their society.
Caesar, who remained a compulsive journaler throughout his long years of military campaigning, says the Druid Augers “…settle nearly all disputes, whether public or private.” During the Gallic War, he described them as frequently using their influence to stop battles, calling and managing councils or war, and playing a major role in coordinating Gaulish military strategy.
That’s the reality of it. My fantasy, which takes off from that point and will return to it, is that those druids led thousands of Gaulish refugees from the Roman military occupation through portals into a parallel world.
For Storywalker, I designed a multiverse sytem in which there are four known worlds in two closely-linked pairs: Air and Fire; Water and Earth. Four realities occupying the same space, connected by thin places, or portals, where people and creatures may step from world to world.
Air and Fire are populated respectively by daemons and demons. Contrary to popular opinion, neither race owns a moral superiority. They originated from the same distant ancestors anyway, and both races include good, bad, and indifferent individuals. There is, however, a big difference in the physical conditions of their worlds and in how their societies have developed.
Air is all golden light, fluffy clouds, and Om. Think: the Lady of the Lake in her boat, emerging from a cloud of mist to take the dying King Arthur to Avalon. (Yes, from one world to another through a thin place. And yes, she’s in Storywalker. She’s a goddess in the Celtic Otherworld of Queen Boudica’s Iceni Britons.)
Fire is all active volcanoes, rivers and lakes of lava, and ash-flecked air soured by sulphur. Think: Jupiter’s moon Io.
In a feudal system ruled by powerful demon barons, Fire’s economy runs on iron mining and production, and on slave labour. There’s a thriving service industry dedicated to providing human slaves for the mines. Several barons compete in this industry. Humans don’t last long in the harsh conditions, so the market is always hungry.
Unbeknown to our characters at this early stage, political machinations in Fire will drive this story all through the multiverse. But, shhh! Don’t tell anyone. It’s a Storywalker Secret.™ 🙂
Water is our world, and it’s known as Water by everyone except us, everywhere else except here. Ours is the only world where magic isn’t practiced and where the existence of thin places isn’t well known, although people, creatures, and places of the other three worlds are well known in our mythologies.
Earth is the geographic mirror image of our world, having only 30% of its surface covered with water. Where we have oceans, they have landmasses. Where we have Britain and Ireland, they have two inland seas on a mountain plateau. The continent that corresponds with our Atlantic Ocean is called Atland, and its capital city, in the north east of the continent, is Ys. That’s where our legend of Atlantis originated.
Earth is the first of these strange worlds that our adventurers Molly and Paul will explore, and it’s where the ancient druids transported all those thousands of proto-European Celts 2000 years ago.
So let’s get to that event.
The historical reality of mass Celtic migrations is established. It’s a cultural trait that’s been evident for 2500 years, and it still occurs in our modern world. Recent generations of the Irish and Scottish threads in my own family joined two separate migrations to Australasia and the Americas in the 19th and 20th centuries. We get around. 😉
One well-documented mass migration occurred between the 4th and 2nd centuries BCE, when several Celtic tribes left western Gaul to settle in northern Italy, the Danube Basin, the Balkans, and Turkey. It was a long, complex process described by the classic writers Livy, Polybius, Diodorus, Pliny, Plutarch, and Justinus, and which modern historians are convinced shows evidence of both a definite policy and a set of guiding hands over the 200-year period.
Those policy makers and guiding hands were the Druids.
In 58BCE a more linear and straightforward Celtic migration took place, that was observed and catalogued by the ever efficient Romans.
All the people of five Swiss tribes gathered at Geneva. They were led by the Helvetii tribe, and their plan was to walk across Gaul and settle in the sparsely populated lands of the Santones, whose western border was the Atlantic coast.
Preparations began two years before the gathering. Every acre of arable land was sown with corn. Once the harvest was in, they burned every town, village and private dwelling to the ground. (Caesar’s information was that this act destroyed 12 towns and 400 villages.) The people gathered, and set off to the west.
Caesar was impressed:
“Writing tablets were found in the Helvetian camp,” he wrote, “on which lists had been drawn up in Greek characters. They contained the names of all the migrants, divided into separate categories: those able to bear arms, boys, old men and women.”
He quoted the tablets in the first book of his Commentaries on the Gallic War:
of whom 92,000 are able to bear arms
See those 368,000 people, precisely one quarter of whom bore arms? That’s the historic migration I took for my story. But I didn’t leave them to settle in western Gaul. I had the Druids guide them all through coastal thin places into Atland, where they spread out, and settled, and where their descendants live today.
I did this to establish two things: the genesis of how Celts from the world of Water became one of the two dominant races in the world of Earth; and the historical abilities and authority of the Druids among them.
The Mass Migration in Storywalker
The thin place through which the tribes passed from Water to Earth would, 1000 years later, become the major French seaport of La Rochelle. It’s in the Bay of Biscay, due west of Geneva where the Alpine tribes started their long walk into the setting sun.
In 58BCE, the Santones tribe’s capital city stood at Saintes, 60km to the south. The untamed region around the thin place on the coast didn’t even have a name.
Which was a good thing, because at 100km per week the journey took the huge crowd 6 weeks to complete, and once they reached the land of the Santones the Druids spent a further four weeks filtering their 368,000 migrant charges quietly through the uninhabited area and guiding them across from world to world.
But of course its remote and unobserved location was part of the typically thorough Druid planning.
Once in the new world, the tribes spread widely and settled efficiently. They were good at that sort of thing. The Druids insisted the area around the thin place must remain unsettled, but elsewhere villages sprang up on the coast to the north and south, and then along the two rivers that led them into Atland.
It was a migration, not an invasion. There was no violence, and nowhere were existing resources overwhelmed by a sudden massive influx of people. In fact the Atlandians were generally happy to welcome the Celts with their agricultural expertise and their rich artistic culture.
Eventually, some Celts reached the towering city of Ys, where they were welcomed by the King and their five tribal chiefs were invited to join the Council of Atland. Assimilation was smooth, helped by Druidic diplomacy and negotiations that had been underway for two years before the Celtic tribes gathered at the foot of the Alps to commence their great journey.
The War of Earth
Nowadays, not everyone in Atland is a fan of the Druids, to put it mildly. One of the complaints against them down through the ages has been about their habit of dabbling in things that many people think shouldn’t concern them.
So, among some influential groups are individuals who had little sympathy when the Order was destroyed and its survivors scattered to the winds in a shock attack by the enemy near the end of the War of Earth, just three years before Storywalker starts.
That enemy was the nation of Ba, which is the dominant culture in the East, as Atland is in the West. The war between those two cultures lasted twenty years, and only people in remote parts of the world remained untouched by it.
Among Ba’s military resources were dragons and bands of demon mercenaries from the world of Fire.
In the final weeks of the war, when Atland and its allies had pushed Ba back inside its old pre-expansion borders and peace negotiations were underway, demons attacked and destroyed the Druid School in the forest between the twin seas that correspond to Britain and Ireland in our world.
No one inside the school survived the attack, so the only Druids left alive now are those who were elsewhere at the time.
They’ve lost their political authority, and people with certain agendas and vested interests have ensured that they’ve lost their credibility too.
Surviving Druids have been reduced to the role of travelling wise men. Magicians, although that description has never been accurate. Healers. Mapmakers. Eccentric oddballs. If their detractors have anything to do with it: a joke.
All of this ancient and modern history is salted into Storywalker as Molly meets one of these Druids and he becomes her good friend, her guide, and her fellow adventurer.
And so my story was ready to begin.
That’s how I do it. 🙂