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Underground Fantasy – Part One: Caves

Dragons Lair by IronshodThe name Dungeons and Dragons sums up the appeal of the fantasy genre perfectly. Giant magical creatures and dark, mysterious settings create images of mythic adventure and enchantment that provoke cult-like attachments that are enough to sustain entire communities. We talk about dragons a lot as a dominant feature of fantasy but in this series we’re going to focus on the dungeons; subterranean lairs, secret tunnels, hidden passageways and other dark and dangerous places that add significant atmosphere to our favourite fictional worlds.

Let’s begin with caves.

An abundant image within the genre, caves often appear as settings to be utilised as shelter or accommodation. They can be converted into homes, as the Abominable Snowman does in Monsters Inc., or simply used as a rest stop or temporary hiding place on the road to somewhere else. In The Black Prism by Brent Weeks, Kip hides in a cave to escape from the soldiers hunting him, and Ash Ketchum spends the night trapped in a snowy grotto when sheltering from a snow storm in the Pokémon television episode “Snow Way Out”.

Bilbo and The Great Goblin. Art from The Hobbit by Rankin & BassIn The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, Thorin and Company hide out in a convenient cave when they get caught in a violent thunderstorm in the Misty Mountains. During the night they are set upon by goblins, who appear from a crack in the back of the cave. Realising too late that they have inadvertently taken shelter in the goblins’ “front porch”, they are captured and taken deep inside the mountain. This example is evidence that, while they can be naturally formed pockets of safety in wild and dangerous lands, caves in fantasy are often more than they appear on the surface. Shelter in the wilderness is a desirable find and so, if caves and fissures aren’t occupied by something monstrous at first glance then it’s just as likely that they are a doorway to some other subterranean world.

Journey in the Dark by jcbarquetIn Middle Earth this world is the connecting caverns that make up goblin-town, as well as dwarven settlements such as the Mines of Moria, but there are countless others. In the computer game Neverwinter Nights, cave mouths on the surface usually indicate a dungeon or lair waiting beneath. Chris Wooding explores the idea of an entire civilisation living in a complex underground cave network in his novel The Fade, where all but the hardiest societies are forced to live underground due to the destructiveness of the sun’s rays on the surface of the planet.

Occasionally a cave is not a cave at all. One needs to be especially careful when camping in Discworld because any handy cave could actually be the mouth of a troll who has gone for “the big think”, an intense process that leaves the troll in a coma-like state where they are often mistaken for hills and mountains.

Harry Potter Horcrux Cave by Stuart CraigWhatever is inside, as landmarks go caves are pretty useful, particularly for hiding things like treasure or your Batmobile. Going back to The Hobbit, Bilbo’s financial future is secured early in the story when the party find the stash of gold, food and elven swords in the mountain trolls’ cave. Voldemort hides one of his Horcruxes in a hard to reach cave by the sea in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, and in Disney’s Aladdin, the genie’s lamp is buried deep within the Cave of Wonders, only to be reached by one “whose worth lies far within.”

Caves obviously reach their most dangerous when they are the end goal of a journey or quest. As mentioned above, they are desirable places for many creatures to call home and so it makes sense that they are usually occupied by species further up the food chain. Whether it’s Grendel’s mother in Beowulf or the Skullasaurus from Winnie the Pooh’s Most Grand Adventure, cave-dwelling menaces are a common trope that project a foreboding aura onto the setting itself.

Allegory of the Cave by Jan SaenredamAs well as being a functional setting for heroes, villains and monsters alike, caves add their own symbolic value to fantasy stories. The Greek philosopher Plato developed his Allegory of the Cave to examine “the effect of education” on human nature. In this parable a group of people have been chained to a cave wall since birth and perceive reality as the shadows that are projected for them on the opposite wall. One prisoner is released, discovering the truth of the shadows, their relation to reality and the world outside of the cave before returning to share their enlightenment with the other prisoners.

The seven caves of ChicomoztocThe allegory’s cave acts as a symbol of human limitation. The prisoners are trapped inside their own belief that truth is gained from empirical evidence. Plato’s use of the setting carries very negative connotations where the cave is a claustrophobic space, the sole purpose of which is for containment and illusion. However, one might argue that containment can be protective in its limitations.

Porphyry of Tyre, a Neo-Platonic philosopher from the first century AD, described caves as “a symbol of the universe” with the implication that it represents the heart or womb in human creation. Several creation stories from around the world demonstrate this iconography, including the Zuni and the Nahuati of Mexico who believe the creation of mankind took place inside caves. The enclosed space gives the feeling of security, provided that there are no goblins sneaking in the back door.

Cave by Daniel HoangPerhaps better known in fantastical myths and religious stories is the cave as a symbol of death. In Christianity, Jesus was entombed in a cave after his crucifixion and several Greek myths refer to caves as various entrances to the underworld.

As a narrative device, caves can represent absolutely anything but there is something particularly appealing about them beyond mere utility that causes writers to build them into their worlds time and time again. They signify hidden mysteries to be explored, the excavation of which is a gamble that could lead to any of the outcomes we have discussed: danger and dragons or womb-like warmth and safety. We have to enter to find out.

Title image by Nele-Diel.

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  1. […] first part of this series on underground fantasy looked at caverns as settings and pathways to worlds below. Next we will […]

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