Sunday, October 08, 2006

Sand Castles

I'm a liar. In class, I play the Devil's advocate so often that it moves into absurdity. A frequent trope of mine is to introduce a text by asking, "What was this about? I haven't actually read it, myself," in order to force the students to describe a work as if to someone who hasn't read it. Of course, they all know that I've read it (either that or I'm the best guesser of details in the world), but it's a fun sort of fiction to maintain. I'll often pretend that anecdotes I tell are simply random digressions, and then act surprised when, 40 minutes later in the class, some student manages to see how my apparently-unconnected story actually illustrates something important about the text we are reading. It takes a lot of work to make a lecture seem off-the-cuff (well, I suppose it takes very little work at all if it is all actually off-the-cuff, but then it isn't likely to go anywhere, is it?), but it's simply my own take on the Aristotle's dialectical pedagogy. In his case, Aristotle pretended to be an idiot who needed things explained to him. In my case, I pretend to lecture when I'm actually casting lines out for the students to use to make connections. Sneaky, huh?

Rarely, then, am I surprised by anything that comes up in class (though I frequently act surprised). My students' sudden insights are discoveries I have buried for them to find in most cases. Last week, though, I really was surprised by something a student brought up -- sand castles as medievalism.

I confess, I had never before thought about sand castles as a manifestation of medievalism -- though now that I think of it, it's painfully obvious. When you've got a beach full of sand and you decide to make a structure, why make a sand castle? Why not a sand fortress? A sand beachhouse? A sand skyscraper? Castles are not otherwise particularly associated with sand or beaches, I think.

In the class discussion that followed, we came up with two theories about this, neither of which are satisfying the more that I think about it. One theory is that certain kinds of buckets form a shape that is generally like a square structure with for "turrets," one on each side. While this is true, it doesn't seem to me that this necessarily suggests a castle, nor is it necessarily the most common form of beach bucket (I think the rounded kind is more common). The other theory was the theory of the moat. Beaches offer the opportunity to have a real moat with real water, and this suggests a castle (since their aren't many apartment buildings with moats). I favored this idea in class, but when I went online and began to look at images of sand castles, I began to reject this idea, as castles with moats seem to be in the minority.

What is it, then, about sand castles that makes them sand castles? Any suggestions from the Wordhoarders out there?


  1. Aristotle? Don't you mean ...

    Oh, I get it. You're testing us to see if we've actually read the material.

    The rest is a dialectical digression through the Medievalism of sand castles to make us think of the Medieval synthesis of faith and reason in Christian scholasticism and its hermeneutic use of Aristotle (with an oblique glance at the Pope's recent lecture in Regensburg), but more importantly to lead us back to Western Philosophy's foundational figure himself:


    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  2. I have always thought that they were "castles" because they serve a defensive purpose: keeping at bay the...well, the bay. Or the ocean, or gulf, or whatever. We always build them as the tide comes in, and try (vainly, but valiantly) to keep the walls intact against the liquidy aqua hordes.

    Moats are VERY important as part of the defense, because they break the linear flow of the water. We always build moats. Though, I grant you, a mental survey of past S.C.s does reveal that moats are but a mote, in terms of proportion. Most S.C.s have been demoated, or never had one.

    But, sure, the drippy drips on the battlements, and cannon emplacements, add important atmosphere. So it may be that the look of the things makes thems castles.

  3. Speaking of the potential to sound like an idiot ... yes, of course, I meant the Socratic method.

    Please excuse me; I have to go beat myself in the head with a ballpeen hammer in an effort to improve my brain.

  4. Anonymous7:27 PM

    All the theories are good, but a further orientation is this:

    Words that SOUND good together are easier to remember, more likely to be used and generally better.....

    So, because "sand" and "castle" alliterate quite pleasantly, they dominate the naming of small sandy structures discourse!

    Does anyone know if other Indo-European languages have sand-castle-like phrases? This might verify (or not) this particular sub-hypothesis?

    Castillo d'arena?
    Chateau de sable?
    Sand-Schloss(dopple 'S')? - which is quite nice itself

  5. Anonymous4:41 AM

    @Brendan: Actually, a sand castle in German is called a "Sandburg", since Schloss is more like a Palace or a House.

    Regarding your hypothesis, "Sandburg" is actually a word that's easy to pronounce, so maybe for little kids, building a "Sandburg" is indeed easier than, say, a Sandkirche.

  6. I think castles couple grandeur with ease of creation. You can build an impressive castle with simple building blocks - combined to form walls, a keep, towers, and battlements. The process is straightforward and the results are impressive.

  7. Castle Architecture, being heaped stone, is easily reproducible with sand. Sand builds in compression only; no tension. So: stone architecture. No wood architecture, no steel architecture. You ask, why not make a sand skyscraper or sand beachhouse? Well, try. I bet it comes out looking like a castle.

    Other stone architectures? Pyramids, obviously. Manor Houses (modified castles). Why not those in sand on a thousand summer beaches?

    Now we get to the fortress part. As others have noticed, the fun of a sand castle is trying to keep the tide out. Sand walls, and moats, perform this function best. If you build a big enough wall-and-moat complex, it begins looking like a castle whether you've ever seen one before or not. (So I'm not sure I understand your distinction between a sand castle and a sand fortress.)

    Well, what about those turrets? Surely they make the difference? As you note, most plastic play buckets are round. They cast great turrets instantly. You just fill in the walls in between. Easy for kids, and fun, and it looks like something they've seen before, which kids like.

    Finally, where have they seen castles? Oh, everywhere. There is a generic "castle" image (at least here in America) which everyone can identify, even though it resembles no one actual castle. It's part of our culture, although you'll look far and wide throughout American for an actual example. I suspect it comes from Victorian times - perhaps originally from illustrated children's editions of King Arthur, and Sir Walter Scott's books.

    T. H. White, early into The Sword and the Stone, jokes about how everyone in England "knows" what a castle looks like. We Americans have inherited that through our common literary heritage.

  8. Castles are cool. Plain and simple, castles are cool. Castles are knights and fair maidens. Castles are lords serving their lieges and protecting peasants and serfs. Castles are young kings new come to the throne, swearing the ancient oaths binding them to the land and the people. Castles are where you drop rocks on people.

    Castles are moonlit parapets, secret passages, desperate forays in the night seeking the true king, the triune goddess, or the wisewoman with her poultices and unguents deep in the ancient wood. Castles are assignations, conspiracies, occult secrets, bastions against the elder night.

    Why "sandcastles"? Because castles are cool.

  9. I think your student's just found a thesis that's dying to be written. On the bucket question, my feeling is that those that have the turret-shapes were designed with sand castle construction in mind.

    This post also reminded me of a Futurama episode where Fry builds a sand castle and announces proudly, "Voila! The greatest sand castle ever built. This is the kind of castle King Arthur would've lived in... if he were a fiddler crab." [sound sample]

  10. Anonymous9:59 PM

    Once upon a time a little boy walked with his father on a sandy beach looking for items the waves washed up that they could take to market and sell. After an hour or so of looking, the little boy grew tired. He sat in the sand and began to look around for something interesting to do. On a cliff, a good distance away but clearly visible from his location, a castle stood proud against the zephyr wind. The boy laid his chin on his knee as he lazily began to draw the castle in the sand. Then, he casually began to push the sand around. Before he had even realized he was doing it, he had begun to shape a castle from the sand.

    His father called to him then carrying a broken wood crate. Inside was the luck that would get them dinner.

    "Ho, my boy, up and 'elp your father." As the father drew closer he saw the sad immitation of the cliff dwelling and he shook his head. "Dreams in the sand get lost to sea. Let's get this to market before the merchants yearn for the hearth."

    The boy jumped up and left his castle of sand to melt away. As they walked the boy asked, "Father, could you make a castle from sand."

    The father replies, "Eh? A sand castle. Hmmm. Not one that would amount to anything I would imagine."

    But, the boy dreamed anyway.

  11. The fun of a sand castle is trying to keep the tide out. Sand walls, and moats, perform this function best.