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


  1. RuneQuest's Glorantha is a flat lozenge-shaped world floating down an astral river, as I recall.

  2. Exalted's Creation is one. And Glorantha, like Kelvin said.

  3. On a smaller scale, I think this scientific mindset creeps into the settings our games and robs them of a lot of the magic they should have. When I ran B2 last year, I found it awfully mundane - why not just gather an army and wipe the place clean? I had to institute a magical chaotic fog enveloping the Caves that only being a chaotic creature or having an amulet of Chaos could guide you to and fro safely. Players got lost the first time and had to use a captured goblin as a guide, then later took medallions off the bandits in the camp. I find little touches like these bring so much of that dreamlike, fantastic or mythic worldview back. Kentaro's Miura's Berserk and Moorcock7s work are big inspirations for this.

  4. In Mystara, there is an attempt to rationalize Faerie, which is a similar idea. There is an elven kingdom, which includes an area of forest that is dominated by the faery people.

    In many polytheist/animist religions around the world, there are examples of mythic geography: the idea that the landscape is enchanted in itself. That is to say, for instance, that various particular geographical features are directly and intrinsically associated with mythic events or locales. There's St. Patrick's Purgatory in Ireland, for instance, which is supposed to be literally on the outskirts of Hell, and in which one can spend the night and gain a vision of that realm. Similarly, events in myths occur in precise places (the Ford of the Two Bulls might be a spot on a river where two divine bulls fought a battle that had particular spiritual meaning, to make up an example), creating a visceral sense of living in the landscape of mythology. Glorantha includes numerous examples, such as the Block and the River of Cradles, to give a gaming context.

  5. For my current setting I cribbed the idea from Glorantha that the edges of the world tend towards more of the pure elements and so are more magical, harsh and weird. But a little-appreciated setting you may want to take a look at is Gene Wolfe's The Wizard Knight.

  6. Wow, Glorantha, Glorantha, Glorantha. I never really bothered with fantasy that wasn't D&D, so it looks like I'll have to go check this one out - is there a core book or something specific to check out? It has quite the history.

    @Ted: Your kind of game sounds like one I'd enjoy!

  7. You know, Planescape more or less fits the requirements, with the proviso that it seems to be made up of only sacred geography (a city of doors leading to all the strange planes and demi-planes). However, I don't think this would work very well for a campaign of mythological flavor because, like the weird, the sacred is only sacred in contrast with the profane. If it is all sacred, then none of it is.

    It is, however, unapologetically a non-scientific world view (in the sense you were describing).

  8. Beedo: Of stuff in print, this is probably your best bet as an introduction to Glorantha. Out of print, this is good, and this is better.

  9. Another great post. I only have one quibble at this point: Paradise, rather than Heaven, seems to me a better word for the Undying Lands.

  10. The other side of the coin is the typical sword&sorcery or sword&planet setting - which is governed by a "scientific" (actually, pseudo-scientific) world-view and, archetypally, takes place on Earth in the past/future (Howard, Moorcock), Mars (Borroughs) or another planet orbiting a distant sun (Carcosa).

  11. I once started a campaign set on a flat world, with a volcano at the centre that was the birthplace of the gods. Sadly it died a quick death, but I liked the concept.

  12. As they are based on Greek an Norse mythology, respectively; Mazes & Minotaurs and Vikings & Valkyries actually have Mythic Geography.

    Land of NOD's Hell is literally underground (it is based on a read of Dante and Milton, made suitable for fantasy adventuring).

    Old Ones and other cthulhoid entities live on the planet Carcosa - they can be summoned or met in their lair.

  13. No one here has mentioned Ravenloft the whole world while seemingly normal is actually a sort of hell. A place where the fog can suddenly roll in and drag you halfway across the world and into strange lands beyond.

  14. I don't have to imagine a game world like this. I've Dming it in my home-brew game world for 20 years :) My current OSRIC campaign is set in the same world. But over the years it's hosted every edition of D&D, second and third ed RuneQuest and a few other systems as well (including a very heavily modified version of WFRP).

    Climb too high and you're in the Summerlands, where the gods dwell. Delve too deep, and you're in hell.

    As for the weather? Climateology has nothing to do with it. The local gods determine what the weather is like. Hence you can have a jungle literally just across the border from a desert. It all comes down to what gods (or rather, which Pantheon) is worshipped where.

  15. Damaskar, I always thought of the Ravenloft setting as explicitly extra-planar - each realm was a mini Demi-plane of Dread. That seems to plug right into the traditional planar model of AD&D.

    I didn't declare an explicit definition of a mythic realm, but you've made me think further on it, and maybe it would be like this - "The roles of the planes in other settings are all fulfilled by physical locations in the real world in a mythic realm".

    Thus, paradise or heaven is a place on earth, hell is part of the earth (just underground), the gods live here, and so on.

    I don't know that there's absolutely no other planes - just thinking out loud - I seem to recall even Tolkien had 'the Void' somewhere beyond the world from whence came Ungoliant and the demons (or maybe that's just outer space?)

    Brian's got the idea!

  16. It seems like it's more common to have situations where the characters think they live in such a world, but 'really' the gods are aliens or robots or some such (a la HP Lovecraft and Robert E Howard I suppose).

    I have a bet each way in my Teleleli setting (mostly fiction rather than gaming). For example the main character of one of my stories climbs a mountain to find the gods, only to be told that they're off fighting the gods of another world, and are probably dead. Whether they're 'really' gods (and what the definition of a god is) isn't answered.

  17. Anarchist brings up an interesting concern about a "mythic setting" - if it's a 'serious' setting, especially from the pulp era, the gods are likely fraudulent. I think it would be hard in the table top venue to achieve the gravitas or seriousness of Middle Earth or Narnia.

    Not saying it couldn't be done, but I'd fear it would be easy to slide into camp. I still expect to turn my attention towards a mythic setting at some point.

  18. Forgotten Realms seems to be a basically mythic setting, as far as I can tell. Wilderlands is scientific. Mystara is scientific but in a universe with very different physics and apparently a vast number of human-inhabited worlds. Greyhawk seems to be scientific, judging by Murlynd.

  19. Another Gloranthan to say that's what immediately came to mind. Also, Creation of Exalted as mentioned.

    The interesting thing about Glorantha right now is contradictory myths and histories (and their related geography) are all true.