Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #81:

The Elements of Good Mythtelling, Part Seven: Local Setting

With thanks to Bob Stewart, John Matthews and Legendary Britain

by Shannon Appelcline

July 18, 2002 - Last week I offhandedly dismissed setting in myth, saying that it had no real place because myths are meant to be universal and setting, out of clear necessity, is not.

I was, of course, wrong.

Thinking further I've come to the conclusion that there are two broad types of mythology: local myth and global myth. Global myths are those things that I've spent a few months now discussing. Zeus. Aphrodite. Thor. The Golden Fleece. Cinderella. All of these myths have gained so much acceptance that they have transcended their origins. (Parenthetically, they might not truly be "global", but they have definitely gained widespread acceptance and in doing so they've tended to shed their origins as local myths, and along with those origins, their concrete settings.)

Local myths are where, I think, myths start. They're stories told at your school, around your campfire, and at your local church. They're much more concrete than global myths, talking about real (or supposed) happenings in your neighborhood. They still have locality, and that's what I want to discuss this week. Because, when you design a game, you're obviously going to be creating localities. By building up myths about those specific localities you can give mythical texture to the very landscape of your world.

The Purpose of Local Myth

In looking at local settings which spawn myths, both in the real world and in your game world, it's helpful to start out by addressing the question why. Why do we tell stories about these places in our neighborhood? Generally there tend to be three major reasons that local settings spawn myths.

The Explanation of Localities. There are lots of geographical formations that are just weird. Devil's Tower in Montana. The Grand Canyon. Spouting Horn in Hawai'i. The Giant's Causeway. Local myths are often created in order to offer explanations of these formations.

For example, an Indian myth about Devil's Tower tells of how seven girls were being chased by a great bear. They jumped upon a low stone, and it began to grow, carrying them skyward. The bear clawed at the tower, leaving marks that can still be seen to this day. The girls were eventually carried up into the heavens, becoming the Pleiades.

Even non-unique geographic localities can be mythologized if they're interesting enough. Consider the tales that arise of the "haunted house" on the corner — either in your childhood or in the classic To Kill a Mockingbird.

Connection to Universal Myths. Very frequently local mythic settings have connections to more widespread myths. The book Legendary Britain, which I referenced at the start of this article, shows how common this is. How many places are in there on the East Coast of the U.S. marked "George Washington Slept Here"? How many thousands of locations are there in Britain with a connection to Arthur, Merlin, or Robin Hood?

These connections to universal myths might relate to real people (like George Washington), mythical people (like Merlin), or people in some nebulous in-between state (like Arthur). They may have really been associated with the real people at the heart of a myth (as, perhaps, Tintagel, supposed birthplace of Arthur), they might have come from the earliest stories (like Sherwood Forest, home of the supposed Robin), or they might have been stories created by the residents with no real basis (like the millions of locations of Saint's miracles throughout Europe).

Creation of Landmarks: Finally, local myths may come about simply because we, as human beings, need landmarks to find our ways about the world. It could be that "the rock that looks like a dog" never had any mythical basis until, one day, a young maiden told her lover, "Meet me tonight under the Dog's Head", and from that simple description myths slowly formed.

We humans are naturally creative people. We see Virgin Marys in oak trees and Jesus Christs in gravy boats. Thus it should be obvious that when we note a slightly singular object as a landmark, tales about it will slowly grow.

The Localities of Local Myths

The next question is where. What specific settings tend to spawn myths? Or, as a game designer, what settings should you build myths around?

In general, myths tend to be centered around two broad classes of locations. The first class consists of unusual geography. Some studies suggest that human beings are the most comfortable where they evolved, on the African savanna, and that we thus feel most at home in broad, open places, with occasional trees for shelter. Unusual geography tends to be that which is different from our ancestral home.

Natural Formations: Large and unique natural formations tend to be one of the largest sources of myths about local settings, usually because they're big, very noticeable, and often very unusual. Devil's Tower is a huge tower on a plain. The Grand Canyon is a big crevice. Spouting Horn is a holed shelf through which water sprays, making weird sounds whenever waves crash upon it. The Giant's Causeway is totally bizarre because of its geometric perfection — the sort of thing that nature does not do; it looks like nothing more than hexagons marching off into the sea. Simply consider the many ways in which natural formations can be unnatural or unusual, and you'll have created formations to use as the basis for myth.

Other Element Sources: Natural formations are usually about the element of earth being manipulated in some weird way. But, the Greek recognized three other elements, all of which could provide great settings for myth. The element of water gives us springs and wells, which are both very common settings for myth, possibly because of the fact that they symbolize purity. Any number of stories have also been told about eternal flames. A "whisper chamber", where acoustic echoes carry conversations far away — or some weird confluence of air — could fill out the quartet of elemental settings.

Other Landscapes: In general when moving away from that nice safe landscape of the savanna (or similar plains found throughout the world), we come upon landscapes which can be built into mythical settings. Forests are one of the most common. There's something out there, whether it be a big bad wolf, a hag in a Gingerbread House, or a Blair Witch. Swamps and moors are often equally scary.

The other broad class of mythic locations centers around unusual culture — or, more precisely, culture that is alien to the tellers of the myth. Most often these cultures are distanced from us in time, because that's a situation where settings from a different culture end up in the middle of our own; theoretically they could be distanced geographically too, say if another culture had invaded our own and left behind reminder of themselves.

Historic Buildings: Manmade buildings, if they're big enough, and especially if they're old enough that they're foreign to the current society, are natural homes for myths. It's the older Victorian houses which tend to attract haunted house stories, because we don't build them like that any more. Castles are even bigger attractors for myths of all types, most frequently ghost stories. Some day in the future even old, abandoned office buildings might be homes to mythology.

Prehistoric Monuments: Taking this idea a step further it's obvious that prehistoric monuments are an even bigger source of myths. They're big and impressive and we totally don't understand them. We don't know why standing stones form lines across Europe. We don't know how Stonehenge was raised, so perfectly and carefully. We don't know how the Egyptians managed to build the pyramids. So, we tell myths about them all — to explain. Aliens came down from the stars to build the pyramids; Merlin used his magic to bring Stonehenge over from Ireland; and the standing stones were laid out to channel magic in ley lines.

Though these are some of the most common locales for geographic myths, very literally, the sky's the limit. Many myths are told about stars, including the Pleiades myth I already mentioned. Myths can be told about anything.

The Story of Local Myth

Finally you come to the question of what — which stories are told about your local settings. You could classify this in a number of different ways. For example Legendary Britain lists general themes, stating that all the major mythic sites in Britain fall into three classifications:

  • The Underworld and the Otherworld - Bath, Orkney, Dinas Emrys, Iona.
  • Fairy & Ancestral - Eildon Hills, Wayland's Smithy, Sherwood Forest.
  • Grail & Kingship - Tintagel, Caerleon, Glastonbury.

It's a cute classification that does address the major themes of British mythology; you could create a similar classification method by identifying the major themes of your own locale's mythology.

However, I think you can better classify the stories about your setting by simply describing what happened there.

Most myths are based on events.

Birthplaces: Where a mythological figure was born. For example, Tintagel for Arthur.

Deathplaces: Where a mythological figure died. Surprisingly uncommon, because so many mythic heroes instead fade away.

Burial Grounds: Where a mythological figure is said to be buried. For example, Glastonbury for Arthur. Also somewhat uncommon

Battlefields: The locations of infamous battles, often so great that they've left scars upon the landscape.

Places of Magical Events: As I've already noted, many places throughout Europe are said to be the homes to miracles. Other cultures might have local settings whose myths center around magical events.

Places of Romantic Events: Romances always get good play in mythology. Particular Romantic settings might be where a couple met, where they kissed, where they had sex, or where their love was tragically destroyed (or they were).

Places of Tragic Events: Death, destruction, and hopelessness, like battles, will be commemorated and may leave their marks upon the landscapes.

Other myths are squarely and solely based upon location.

People: Often, there are said to be giants in the earth. Specific geographical formations are said to be a person or creature of some sort that is sleeping.

Places: Alternatively places might be mythological simply because they are important locations within larger myths. Camelot is such a place (though you could also say it was the place of magical/romantic/tragic events). Troy was also such a place (though you could also say it was a battlefield).

Putting It All Together

That, all said and done, is how to create a mythical setting in a nutshell. To reiterate:

  1. Decide Why. What is the purpose of your myth?
  2. Decide Where. In what type of location is your myth set?
  3. Decide What. What is the story of your myth?

If you'd like to see a more general discussion of settings, go read The Elements of Good StoryTelling #3, Creating Dynamic Settings. My wife, Kimberly Appelcline, who wrote that original article, also contributed to the ideas found here. Christopher Allen contributed some additional comments and ideas after seeing the first draft of this article.

And for once I'm not going to try and incorrectly guess at next week's topic.

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