Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mythic Geography and the D&D Setting


Sailing to paradise, Middle Earth style

Yesterday, I mentioned how the idea of a dungeon as Mythic Underworld crept into my brain and conspired to lure me away from my regular projects.  Something else got stuck in my head - the idea of Mythic Geography.

Like me, I would imagine most of the readers are all products of the scientific world view*, that the earth revolves around the sun, the moon orbits the earth, the passing of seasons is related to earth's tilt, that kind of stuff, and this view of "world as spherical planet" informs just about every D&D setting I can recall.  Whatever outer planes or divine realms exist, they exist outside the material world and its scientific laws.  But the world wasn't always viewed this way.  While the myths themselves typically take place in a time before recorded history, they postulate little or no distance between the sacred realms and the physical world.

Mount Olympus is a real place, and in the mythic world view the gods live on top of the mountain.  Dark caves can lead one right to Hades, like poor Orpheus.  The rainbow bridge lends egress to Asgard, Jotuns live beyond Russia, and somewhere above the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates, one ought to find the Garden of Eden.  I'm no expert on mythology, but I would hazard the guess that most mythologies have their equivalent sacred sites where god and man meet - Native American myths provide explanations for places like Devil's Tower, Wyoming, for instance.

Most D&D settings, and quite a bit of fantasy literature, use the scientific view of the world (the setting is basically a big planet) and they consign the mythical elements to other planes and dimensions.  But just a bit of reflection reveals that there's fantasy literature that supports a view of mythic geography more in line with the mythic worldview of our own prehistory.

The most obvious to me is JRR Tolkien's Middle Earth.  In Middle Earth, you can actually sail across the oceans from the Grey Havens to reach the Undying Lands - an equivalent of heaven- as long as you have the right kind of ship.  That kind of physical journey beyond the mortal world is right in line with a mythic view of geography.

Faerie is typically presented as a magical realm somewhere beyond the mortal world, accessible through portals of fey crossings; in the worldview of Poul Andersons's Three Hearts and Three Lions, the realm of Chaos and the faerie lords is a physical place just beyond the civilized lands of Law.  Fairy is a shadowy, twilight realm, immune to the orbit of the sun or the intrusions of broad daylight; it defies scientific reality.  One can physically walk from the mortal world right into shadowed Fairy.

Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series puts the Summer Lands, a faux-Celtic version of heaven, also across the ocean (though I found Prydain's Book 5 derivative of Tolkien in many ways).  Avalon is another mystical land where the journey to the timeless mystical realm is physical, not spiritual - Arthur takes a boat.  HP Lovecraft's Dreamlands is full of mythic significance, mountains that provide access to Earth's gods, or ships that can sail into the sky and eventually reach the moon.  Pratchett's Discworld is carried through the universe on the back of a giant turtle.

Gaming Ideas
How would a D&D setting look if it embodied the mythic worldview?  Imagine how it would be if climbing the tallest mountain gave one access to the palaces of the gods, or any deep cave might eventually lead to Hell?  The myths and stories of such a world would be full of their own versions of Daedalus and Icarus, of those slain like Actaeon for seeing things beyond mortal ken, or analogs of Orpheus that went unwisely to the underworld seeking a lost love.

Sailing across the ocean might be a way to get to heaven - but it would be guarded by fierce monsters, islands of enchantment, a flaming cherub or seraphim, or other hazards laid down by the gods themselves.  Imagine walking far enough north to cross over into the shadowed lands of the dead, somewhere beyond the north wind?

I don’t know that such a myth-centric setting has been made, but I'd love to hear in the comments if someone is familiar with one - thanks!


*I do realize a large number of my fellow Americans believe science is a myth.  Somehow I don't think they're reading Dungeons & Dragons blogs, though.

Grey Havens picture is from this gallery, with many artist's renditions:  Grey Havens gallery