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For Four Guilds: II. The Bridge Builders

In the world's whitest morning
As hoary with hope,
The Builder of Bridges
Was priest and was pope:
And the mitre of mystery
And the canopy his,
Who darkened the chasms
And doomed the abyss.

To eastward and westward
Spread wings at his word
The arch with the key-stone
That stoops like a bird;
That rides the wild air
And the daylight cast under;
The highway of danger,
The gateway of wonder.

Of his throne were the thunders
That rivet and fix
Wild weddings of strangers,
That meet and not mix;
The town and the cornland;
The bride and the groom;
In the breaking of bridges
Is treason and doom.

But he bade us, who fashion
The road that can fly,
That we build not too heavy
And build not too high:
Seeing alway that under
The dark arch's bend
Shine death and white daylight
Unchanged to the end.

Who walk on his mercy
Walk light, as he saith,
Seeing that our life
Is a bridge above death;
And the world and its gardens
And hills, as ye heard,
Are born above space
On the wings of a bird.

Not high and not heavy
Is building of his:
When ye seal up the flood
And forget the abyss,
When your towers are uplifted,
Your banners unfurled,
In the breaking of bridges
Is the end of the world.

GK Chesterton Collected Poems 86-87

Basic Information

A bridge is (normally) manmade structure designed to allow the crossing of an obstacle gap such as a river or ravine. Naturally occuring bridges can also be found in rock formations, fallen trees and other things that happen to provide a crossing for something.

The earliest bridges probably came about when primitive man wrestled a tree into place across a stream so that he could cross without getting his feet wet, and although the log bridge is still used in some places mankind has been working on improving it ever since. Quite a lot of effort has gone into designing and building bridges over the years, particularly with the advent of road networks, and by the modern era we can cross not only rivers but also seas with bridges. The state and extent of a culture's bridges and viaducts will probably say a lot about its organization - the Greeks built splendid public buildings, but were not known for their infrastructural work whereas the Romans, arguably a much more pragmatic culture, left a legacy of roads, viaducts, aqueducts and bridges, some of which are still in use. Conversely bridges in poor repair tend to be a sign of a nation in anarchy - or at least significant financial difficulties - or, in an after the end scenario, a symptom of the fact that the survivors have lost the knowledge and skills and/or industrial base of their ancestors.

Some bridges may also run along the top of a dam.

By their very nature bridges have great economic and strategic significance - they will normally be the only practical way to move large volumes of people, animals and freight. In peace time they are the bottlenecks that control the flow of trade, in war they are choke points where, like Horatius and his comrades, a handful of men can hold back an army - control and destruction of bridges can make the difference between defeat and success for an entire campaign. Properly designed a bridge can also control river traffic, providing an easy way to post guards and anti-shipping weapons out in mid channel.

Bridges also make good places for confrontation and meeting - and encounter may stem from nothing else but who has right of way on a bridge and knights involved in disputation would often challenge for the use of a bridge. A bridge may also be neutral ground between two parties that use the river between it as a boundary and their constrained and exposed nature can also make them excellent locations for meetings and exchanges between parties that don't trust each other.

In earlier eras, bridges were often inhabited - the original London bridge was once covered in houses in addition to the gatehouse at each end. A big enough bridge could potentially be a town in its own right.
Besides that, bridges are often fitted with tollgates and, in some places, jail cells built into the piers, possibly as a result of being the only government facility for a long way and having to serve a variety of tasks. Where there is no toll to be paid, bridge users may find themselves having to pay a troll instead - those creatures being traditionally found under bridges in some locations and extorting their own fees from passers by.

Some cultures were known to use animal sacrifice or even human sacrifice in the construction of bridges, theoretically binding the spirit of the sacrifice to maintain the bridge. In a darker fantasy setting this may be practical magic … and particularly hard to bridge rivers may need a lot of sacrifices to keep the bridge up1. Even in real life, significant constructions like major bridges will tend to claim a few lives in the building.

Symbolically bridges are also significant - besides the obvious crossing of boundaries and joining together motifs there is also the "mastery of man over nature" thing - often in mythology the building of a bridge "tames" the river. In an animist campaign this may well be true and significant.

Note also that the Latin word for priest is pontifex - literally "bridge builder". Metaphorical bridges, between man and God (or indeed between man and man) are still, in form at least, bridges.

See Also



Game and Story Use

  • In a military campaign, PCs may be sent to organise a coup-de-main assault on a bridge that their army needs to advance or they may end up as a rearguard desperately fighting to prevent an enemy crossing.
    • The legend of Horatius Cocles and his two companions could be quite easily recreated by a party of adventurers. In the right setting, it could even form part of a legend-quest ritual.
  • Espionage PCs may be sent to destroy a bridge.
  • Little used bridges are classic venues for hostage exchanges and similar deals between hostile parties - the main body stays at their end of the bridge with ranged weapons at the ready and one member of each party walks to the centre of the bridge to talk or exchange goods. Alternatively the two exchangees are set walking at the same time from opposite ends.
  • A bridge may be an important part of marriage ceremonies for a culture - the joining symbolism is not to be ignored.
  • River dwelling creatures, or even just boatmen, may oppose the construction of a bridge.
  • In an animist campaign, the PCs may need to defeat a river spirit that is preventing the construction of a bridge … or destroy a bridge to free a spirit to which they are allied.
  • A government may be building an unnecessary bridge as a make work or prestige project, squandering resources that it can ill afford or, as in Rudyard Kipling's poem Akbar's Bridge some other project may be preventing a very necessary bridge. Political PCs may wish to try to swing the matter either way.
  • a PC may find himself challenged to provide the nation with a suitable bridge …
  • The inhabited bridge as city appears from time to time in various media - usually fantasy, although some post apocalyptic fiction also includes them, as with the road blocked at both ends, there are many places less secure against, for example, zombies.
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