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Underground Fantasy – Part Two: Dungeons, Tombs and Mazes

Glimpse Into Utterdark by M0AIThe first part of this series on underground fantasy looked at caverns as settings and pathways to worlds below. Next we will explore dungeons, tombs and underground mazes to ascertain the root of their popularity.

A dungeon is traditionally a room or cell where prisoners are held. Often associated with medieval castles, the setting is still used this way in the fantasy genre. Its appearances can range from a comfortable room with a lock on the outside, to the grim, cold stone darkness of cells and pits deep in a castle’s bowels.

In George R.R. Martin’s book, A Game of Thrones, the dungeons at the mountaintop castle, the Eyrie, come in the form of sky cells. A bare stone shelf cut out of the mountain, they are open on one side, exposing prisoners to the sky and a perilous drop that starts to call to them after an extended period of imprisonment.

Mad-Eye Moody's Chest by Katia & VinceA more disguised dungeon appears in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Professor Moody’s trunk, which is bewitched to contain TARDIS-like compartments, is used against him as a makeshift oubliette. He is held captive by Barty Crouch Jr. in the depths of the seventh compartment, which is only accessible through the ceiling hatch that is the lid of the trunk.

However, when we think of dungeons in relation to fantasy they are often much more extensive than these examples of small barred rooms. Stretching far underground, beneath castles, mountains or stretches of water, the name dungeon has evolved to include the larger settings of underground mazes and connected tombs.

These wider settings appear in mythologies such as the ancient Greek tale of Theseus and the Minotaur. The hero’s quest takes him into the heart of a labyrinth (which is actually a maze. A labyrinth, by definition, only has one path whereas a maze has the choice of many routes that can lead to dead ends and sometimes minotaurs) where he must destroy the beast and escape.

Theseus and the Minotaur by SterlingHundleyThis myth was the basis of the logic maze, Theseus and the Minotaur, designed by Robert Abbott. The game emphasises the symbol of the maze as something to confound and trap. The complexity of the setting turns it into a kind of overarching character that is as dangerous an obstacle as the sum of all the nasty things it contains. This is true of the setting of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (which is also a maze rather than a labyrinth), which sprung from the mind of Jareth, the glam rock Goblin King.

Indeed, Daedalus, the designer of the minotaur’s labyrinth in the myth of Theseus, made it so cunningly that he struggled to escape when it was completed. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the mazes are formed from the personality of their creators and take on a life of their own.

Pyramids are an example of tombs connected by tunnels and passageways that have been well utilised in fantasy films and books. Both The Mummy, the 1999 film starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, and Return of the Mummy, R.L. Stine’s 23rd Goosebumps book from 1994, utilise this setting to entice their characters with the promise of adventure, treasure and knowledge and then lock them inside with the dangerous creatures and intricate trapping devices that await them there.

Treasure is a strong motivator for why characters continuously find themselves in these unpleasant environments but it’s not the only one. Some species from fantasy worlds are most at home in these subterranean environments and are looking to stay.

Scouring the vault by MarcSimonetti

The dwarves that Balin led into the underground kingdom of Moria were looking to reclaim their ancestral home as much as they wanted to recover the wealth of Khazad-dûm. Unfortunately for them, many of the other creatures that live beneath the Misty Mountains felt the same way.

Dungeons that encompass this wider definition of setting tend to be popular scene locations for roleplaying table top or computer games such as Dungeons and Dragons, Dungeon World and Tomb Raider. This is likely because they offer a confined space that can’t easily be escaped and where characters are forced to stay together. They are usually dark and dangerous and hold a surprise or challenge at every turn.

Creating a Dungeon by noahbradleyDungeon crawling, as this subgenre is sometimes known, is a generation of RPG that came about through the technology that was available at the height of their popularity, being replaced as the capability for more open sandbox games was introduced. However, games such as Balder’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, and even gamebook series such as Fighting Fantasy’s The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, arguably stand out as classics that play into our innate desire to explore and discover and a widespread proclivity for the tropes of a dungeon setting.

Games such as Dungeon Keeper and Dungeons are built around the dark appeal of this setting, allowing the player to be the story’s villain and destroy all the one dimensional heroes that come traipsing through their realm to steal their treasure.

Even in the real world dungeons hold something of a fascination. The London Dungeons and the Hamburg Dungeon are popular tourist destinations that incorporate the morbid pleasure derived from experiencing horror in the darkness. Pyramids, as already discussed, are appealing because of the winding tunnels and secret passageways through tombs that hold relics of an ancient world.

In the final part of this series we will look at these tunnels and passageways as settings and integral gateways in fantasy fiction.

Title image by M0AI.

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Underground Fantasy - Part Two: Dungeons, Tombs and Mazes, 9.4 out of 10 based on 7 ratings
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2 Comments

  1. After having spent THOUSANDS of hours dungeon-crawling in D&D, I can attest to the fact that dungeons are in fact creepier than hell. When done right.

    There really is nothing like visiting a real dungeon, as you point out. To really see and feel what they were like… is surreal. And horrifying.

    Great piece!

  2. When I went on vacation with my parents as a kid, we almost always did at least one cave or underground tour wherever we went to. There are lots of huge underground constructions all over Europe. The Sotteranea in Naples is particularly cool.

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