Up the Stairs

Inspiring Objects

Stairs fly as straight as hawks;
Or else in spirals, curve out of curve, pausing
At a ledge to poise their wings before relaunching.
— Flight of Stairs, A.S.J. Tessimond

Grand old homes have the most stunning of staircases, magnificent arches rising from one floor to the next, carved and ornamented like works of art. They serve a practical function of course, but I’m more intrigued by the other roles these flights of steps play. Consider, for example, a king seated on a dais above the rest of the room. He towers over the heads of his subjects, and all must ascent the stairs to access him. His elevation demands respect.

Just as readily as they lead up, so stairs plunge down, an ascent into the heavens or a descent into hell or maybe stuck in the middle. As AA Milne observed in his poem Halfway There, when stopped between two floors in the middle of the stairs, you’re neither here nor there, so this place in between may convey a sense of ambiguity or ambivalence. A symbol of uncertainty and change, travel and transition, of being exalted or cast low, there’s much that intrigues about the figurative role of stairways. And there’s something wonderfully inspiring to the imagination about finding stairs in unexpected places. Carved into the edge of a cliff, perchance, or burrowing down deep into the earth. Mayhap they traverse up a grassy hill or stand alone in the middle of a vast plain, seemingly leading nowhere. In these sorts of settings, the ordinary can be come extraordinary, enticing curious souls to adventure.

Not only in poetry do unusual staircases make an appearance, but also in fantastic literature. Think of the terrible stairs of Cirith Ungol, that seem to sum up in their existence the dreadful, unending weariness of the journey taken by Frodo and Sam, with danger behind and before. And what of the countless stories that have the protagonist running up or down unending flights of steps with a villain hot on their heels? So much the more sympathy we feel, for if only they can reach the end without being caught, surely they will have transitioned to a place where escape will become possible.

Of course, stairs are foremost practical part of architecture that communicates something about society, yet even that has room for variance. Perhaps a certain people group keeps their homes to one level only, because they consider stairs uncouth. Or perhaps the poor of a culture must only use ladders, never stairs, which are reserved for the wealthy. Stairs may take a focal point in the design of a home or fade into the background. They may be cunningly designed for defense, as in the castles of old, or meant as artistry to be admired and little used. Who knows? Only your imagination limits their role, and I hope it will be inspired by the images here.

Image credit: nacaseven

Image credit: seansbizz

Image credit: doctorger

Image credit:  Kate McKenna

Image credit: benipop

Have you ever been struck by the magnificence or uniqueness of a staircase? Do stairs play any role in your stories or in books you’ve enjoyed?

On Inspiring Objects: For a writer, even the smallest thing can provide a spark of inspiration and serve a catalyst for creativity. The objects I feature are usually items that give a glimpse into another way of life, thus enlivening the imagination to run on a course of its own. When building a world, even the smallest of details can reveal much regarding a culture and society, so I hope you find some inspiration here to go forth and create. And if you don’t write, I hope you can still enjoy the beauty and uniqueness of these objects shared.

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8 Responses to Up the Stairs

  1. Maria Tatham says:

    Sarah,

    Thank you for this good post with lovely images! It made me think of the thriller, The Spiral Staircase (1945). This movie probably influenced me as I wrote my book, because a spiral staircase (with steps like those in your image) appears in it, and it is not a happy place.

    In a wonderful YA fantasy, Many-Coloured Realm, by the Australian author Anne Hamilton, there are the unique stairs of the Goblin King’s tower; at one point some of those steps are simply suspended in space.

    In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov slowly ascends a sordid staircase to commit the crime of murder; and then after his crime, hears footsteps ascending the same steps. They become a symbol of pursuit and justice that will lead straight to him through the intelligent and compassionate sleuth who ‘finds him out.’

    You’re right, stairs are incredible. There is a famous double-helix open staircase at the Château de Chambord (see Wiki).

    Loved thinking about this!

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Thanks for adding these great examples, Maria! One of the things I appreciate about fantasy (as in the illustration you gave from Anne Hamilton’s novel) is that it frees us up to get even more creative with the “ordinary” things of life, thus adding color to the unique, invented worlds. I haven’t read her book, but it sounds interesting.

      And great insight with Crime and Punishment as well. Examples of the little things being used in a symbolic way abound in literature, if we just take a closer look. 🙂

  2. Jamie T says:

    WOW! Second picture from the top is breath-taking!!!!! Thanks for sharing!

    ~Jamie

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, Jamie! I’d love to visit the garden that has that second stair…I agree it is stunning. 🙂

  3. TheQuietPen says:

    I’ve always found stairs to be very evocative as well–and dangerous. It isn’t just the existential uncertainty of being between two places, but also the humdrum reality of their shape and form. As someone who can be called an “airhead” due to the workings of my mind being much more interesting than the ground beneath my feet, I’ve often fell prey to the deceptiveness of stairs (literally fell). And they are no less treacherous when walking up too fast, for the edges of stairs are greedy to catch one’s feet. Thus, while I love stairs, I have become very cautious in ascending and descending them.
    A person’s attitude toward stairs can also influence a novel–and, well, if you need something unfortunate to happen to someone, a good accidental fall down the stairs can do the job.

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      I like that you’ve addressed what can physically happen on the stairs, and the possibility of plot points that could consequently arise. Certainly stairs pose a risk of sorts for the unwary, and most of us have taken a tumble as some point in our lives–if not as adults, then as children. 🙂

  4. Emily says:

    Ah, another Inspiring Objects post! I love these. 🙂 Stairs are rather fascinating, come to think of it… I especially like spiral staircases, even if it only curves the slightest bit. Then again, the last picture showed the definite build that straight stairways have, which also peaked my interest. I think my favorites were the first, second, and last ones.

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Oh, I’m glad you enjoy these posts! I have an affinity for spiral staircases as well–something about them is visually appealing, perhaps all the more so because they’re not common in ordinary homes.

      And I share your favorites in this set of pictures, by the way. 🙂

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