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Underground Fantasy – Part Three: Tunnels and Secret Passageways

Dungeon Passage by nilTraceSo far in this series we’ve wandered through caves, dungeons, tombs and enclosed mazes to find out what makes underground fantasy settings so atmospheric and alluring. In the third and final article on this theme we will look at tunnels and secret passageways as a means of connecting all these subterranean settings together.

Discussing their writing processes at a sold out ‘in conversation’ event in London last August, fantasy royalty Robin Hobb and George R.R. Martin both emphasised the significance of dark and secret places to their fascination with the genre.

In her childhood home, Hobb explained, she vaguely remembers a wardrobe, the back of which opened on to a secret passageway that led to another part of the house, like the corner rooms on the Cluedo (Clue in the US) board. The memory, although patchwork and unclear in her mind, sparked the imagination of the young Hobb (at the time still Margaret Lindholm) and imbued her with the feeling that secret, fantastical stuff is pretty exciting, especially when writing fiction, where anything you can imagine could be lurking, sleeping or glittering at the other end of a dark tunnel.

Sometimes the worst thing you can imagine is nothing. In Jules Verne’s 1864 sci-fi novel A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (or Interior of the Earth if you prefer), the story’s heroes, after descending into the bottom of an Icelandic volcano, walk for days through a tunnel beneath the Earth’s surface only to find themselves at a dead end as their supplies run perilously low. With a positivity that Axel, the narrator, finds “lamentable”, his mad professor uncle, who engineered the trip, points out that the situation is “so much the better” because now they know that they should have gone the other way.

The Spirit Cave by ShahabAlizadeh

On the other hand, it can be just as perilous to know exactly where your secret tunnel will lead. When Thorin and company reach the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit, they are fairly certain that there is still a dragon smouldering away inside even as they “sit on the doorstep” and wait for an opportunity to access the secret passage that is the last step in their journey home.

James and the Giant Peach (screenshot)Despite the connecting theme of this series, tunnels don’t even have to be underground to add a little magic and mystery to the otherwise dull process of getting from A to B. James crawls through a sticky opening in the side of a giant drupe fruit and discovers a gang of wise-cracking giant insects in James and the Giant Peach. In the film version, the fruity passageway even transforms him into a stop motion character halfway through. The “special” hero of The LEGO Movie, Emmet, falls through a trippy wormhole-esque tube of crayon colours and shiny paper, demonstrating that even other dimensions are not beyond the tunnel setting’s functional reach.

As James’ tunnel might suggest, it would be dismissive to expect that a dark and seldom-trodden place wouldn’t be sheltering at least a spider or two. The Indiana Jones films (included in this genre study because of the adventure series’ ridiculous supernatural elements and the settings it shares with many fantasy tales) recognise this fact and routinely provide as many crawly or slithery inhabitants as can fit on the screen. Any film set in the passageways of a pyramid, such as The Mummy, will usually utilise this idea as well in order to introduce the prescribed scarab beetle attack scene that we all know and love.

No setting, however, takes advantage of the endless appeal of secret passageways as much as Hogwarts.

Hogwarts (screenshot)In case learning to turn into a teacup or shoot snakes at each other by chanting Latin phrases with the right inflection gets dull, students might instead wander the constantly changing castle and uncover its secret rooms, tunnels and escape routes. Considering the multitudes of opportunities for magic school spelunking it’s really astonishing that we only heard of a few of the more troublesome pupils choosing to do this over the seven years we spent with Harry, but maybe that’s J.K. Rowling’s next subject for Pottermore.

From the hidden path beneath the Whomping Willow that leads to the Shrieking Shack, and the series of rooms guarded by Fluffy the three-headed hellhound to the stairwell hidden behind a tapestry and the passageways guarded by the statues of Gregory the Smarmy and the one-eyed witch, the school of witchcraft and wizardry has enough secrets to keep Indiana Jones busy for several lifetimes, and is probably one of the reasons that the world is so enamoured with this particular magical community. It emphasises the idea that, even in a place you live and work and face deadly peril for several consecutive years, there is always something new to discover that even omniscient seeming folks like Dumbledore might find surprising.

Into the crypt by alexson1At their event, George R.R. Martin wholeheartedly agreed with Hobb that secret tunnels and passageways are just plain cool, bringing up examples in his own work such as the winding crypt beneath Winterfell where the Stark children used to play among their dead ancestors. Martin utilises these dark and claustrophobic spaces well, trapping his characters beneath the ground where they will likely soon be buried.

Tunnels and secret passageways are really just gateways between more iconic locations, a path from everyday equilibrium to unknown and extraordinary places, but they have a strong grip on the imagination in their own right. Like caves and the other underground settings we see time and again in fantasy stories, they are visual symbols of the undiscovered and unimagined adventure that draws so many to the genre.

Title image by nilTrace.



  1. Avatar Arzvi says:

    Tunnels and no nod to Auri from Kingkiller? 🙂

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