Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #82:

The Elements of Good Mythtelling, Part Eight: Archetypical Setting

With thanks to my patient readers

by Shannon Appelcline

July 25, 2002 - Anyone mythed out yet? A simple show of hands? Yeah, I thought so. I appreciate your patience; there's a darned lot of good material that can be extracted from mythical streams of creativity and I haven't wanted to stop before I was done. We are, however, closing in on the end. This is my final Element of Good Mythtellings — for the nonce at least — and next week I have just a few parting shots on Modern Myth in general.

With that said, this week we're heading back to setting, to look at it from a different perspective. Last week, in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #81, The Elements of Good Mythtelling, Part Seven: Local Setting, I described one way that you can build mythical settings — by deciding upon a single setting in a local area and developing myths around it. The practice has been going on for ten thousand years, at the least, from stories told about Yellowstone Park (I used to have a comic book full of them when I was a kid) to the tales told about that spooky house on the corner.

This week I want to approach setting from a different angle by instead investigating the types of archetypical settings that you'll find in most myths and fairy tales — from fairie mounds to dark and dangerous woods. Once again, by mirroring these types of settings in your online games you'll be taking a step toward investing your game with the power of myth.

I'm also going to be talking about details a bit, but that'll be further on.

Specifics to Generalities

In looking at myths we find a variety of settings. After all, the heroes are always on the move — journeying, as we discussed back in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #76, The Elements of Good Mythtelling, Part Two: Singular Plot in Theory. In those journeys heroes encounter a lot of different and weird places.

At first, in examining the specific settings in individual stories, we might find them to be haphazard, as shown in the following lists:

  • Star Wars - Luke's home, the seedy bar, the space craft, space, the enemy space fortress
  • Cinderella - Cinderella's home, the carriage, the ball
  • Orpheus - the wedding, the caves, the thrones of the Death gods
  • Theseus - Theseus' home city, the boat, the labyrinth
  • Hansel & Gretel - the home cottage, the woods, the candy house

However, once one begins to analyze these specifics, several general archetypes of setting in mythology become obvious, among them: the home (Luke's home, Cinderella's home, the wedding, Theseus' home city, the home cottage), the thresholds (the spacecraft, space, the carriage, the caves, the boat), the badlands (the seedy bar, the woods), the other land (the ball), and the enemy fortress (the enemy space fortress, the thrones of the Death gods, the labyrinth, the candy house).

The continuing reader will probably note that these archetypical settings appear to have close correlations to some of the stages of the Hero's Journey. That's very true, but looking at them in terms of setting instead of plot can offer a game designer even more ways to introduce mythology to their game.

The Setting Archetypes

Each of these setting archetypes is worth some further discussion on its own.

The Home: The most basic of settings is the home. It's the place where mythological heroes truly belong — the womb of any mythic story. In many situations the home might be in danger (as is the case with Theseus' home city, Athens, which must send yearly tributes of maidens to King Minos) or possibly just a sad place (as is the case with the homes of Cinderella, Hansel, or Gretel, which were all poor).

As the above examples show the home archetype can take many incarnations: a cottage, a house, a farm, a castle, a village, a city, or even a country. What is important is that sense of belonging.

The home is a powerful enough archetype that there are often rituals conducted to define it. The boundaries of a farm or a city were often set by the distance a man could walk in a certain time. Occasionally those borders might be walked again as part of a ceremony to define a community or protect it (as, for example, Buffy and Willow do in one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where they must protect Buffy's house against vampires which had previously been let in).

Though he mocks the ceremonial (and thoughtless) nature of it, Robert Frost describes a ritual that details the boundaries of the home in his famous poem, Mending Wall:

But at Spring mending time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us one again.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls.
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors."

As with Robert Frost and Sarah Michelle Geller you can not only make the home archetype part of your own stories, but you can also increase its importance by developing rituals to define that home, using the techniques I suggested in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #80, The Elements of Good Mythtelling, Part Six: Ritual Structure.

The Threshold: Perhaps the most important setting archetype in myth is the threshold, for it's at this point that the hero steps over from his own world to The Other Side. Horror writers understand the importance of the archetype, to the extent that the phrase "The Guardian at the Threshold" has become a cliche in their genre — but in all cliches there is truth.

The simplest type of threshold is simply an entrance or exit — a threshold in the most literal sense. This archetypical role could be taken by a door, an archway, a gate, or any similar portal.

Often the threshold is instead a meeting of two different types of terrains. A cave is a very classic example of this, usually leading from the surface world down to some strange netherrealm. I can feel the mythical importance of similar geographical thresholds: where the waves crash down upon the rocks; where a forest abuts upon a desert; or where a mountain stretches far, far up, to the heavens.

In a surprising number of myths and folk tales the role of the threshold is actually taken by a vehicle like Cinderella's magical carriage or the boat that carries Theseus from Athens to Crete.

Finally, thresholds are often uncomfortable places — where a hero enters the blinding light, has to stoop to crawl through a long tunnel, or in other ways is greatly inconvenienced.

From the setting point of view the important characteristic of the threshold is simply that it joins two unlike things; however one needs to also remember the plot requirements described in The Hero's Journey — there generally needs to be something there guarding that portal.

The Bad Lands: Frequently in his journeys a hero meets the scariest of setting archetypes: the places that are just wrong. Terrible things are here, and in general the place itself is terrible too.

Most of these bad lands archetypes are filled with geological badness. We hit many of these last week when talking about local settings: woods, swamps, moors, and deserts, to name a few. Consider the forest that Red Riding Hood travels through or the scary forest that the hobbits head into not long into The Fellowship of the Ring or the radioactive wastelands that can be found in Stephen King's book, The Wastelands.

Some bad land archetypes instead are social. These tend to be: slums, cities, bars, or inhabited ruins. Luke's cantina is one such example which well epitomizes the feelings of fear and wrongness that are embedded within this archetype.

The important thing to remember when using the bad lands archetype is that things are grotesquely mutated: customs are harmful and immoral; creatures are murderous and mutated; and humans are positively inhumane.

The Other Land: Many myths are about the differences between two different cultures or times, as I mentioned briefly last week. However, not everything has to be as dark as the bad lands which inhabit most faerie tales. Instead, they can be replaced with the other land archetype. This is somewhere that is still different, yes, but in many ways might be better than the home. Cinderella's ball clearly fits into this category.

Other standard other land archetypes include faerie castles, wondrous cities, and lands of milk and honey.

Often in faerie tales the other land is actually a disguised bad land, because the land of beauty has a dark and rotten core.

The Enemy Fortress: The last main setting archetype within mythology is in many ways the opposite of the first. The Enemy Fortress is the home of those things which are unknown and different from what is understood by the hero — the dark heart of a bad land.

In general, they tend to be larger than life in the way that a hero's humble abode may not be. The most common enemy fortress archetype is doubtless the castle or the throne room, though any of the standard home archetypes would fit here, simply grown dark and gloomy.

The also tend to be under the control of an enemy, so that a hero is largely powerless here, cut off from his community and that which makes him strong.

The Devils in the Details

When considering mythical settings there's one last aspect you should think about: details. Really, details could be an element of good mythtelling all in themselves. Kimberly gives them a few paragraphs of discussion in The Elements of Good Storytelling #1, The Elements of Good Storytelling. Details are those little bits and pieces you introduce into a setting, to give it character and make it shine. The stuffed penguins that you can find in the bedroom of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter; or the specific flowers, said to represent life, that can be found always near the king's throne.

There are a few things that can be said more specifically about details in mythology.

Details Can Create Emotions: Conside the fact that in any myth the king's throne is set in a high place. Or, think about the Chinese Tea Ceremony, and how tea rooms often include a doorway that is abnormally low. Each of these setting details produces an emotion: the height of a king's throne instills him with authority; the height of a tea room's door produce a feeling of humility in those who enter in.

In any mythic structure similar detail types can be used. They are also quite helpful when creating ceremonies where certain emotions should be felt as the ritual progresses.

Details Can Be Absurd: Many, though not all, myths contain details that are absurd. Take the shoe that an old woman really does live in, according to Mother Goose. Or, consider the strange places that can be found within Alice's Wonderland, where croquet is played with pink flamingos. Seas of glass, cities of emerald, darkness that is solid as it creeps upon the land — all of these details are, clearly, literally false, or at least would be in a rational world. But, when you play with mythology you're often playing with allegory, and that makes it OK to extend your details beyond what should be. (Many of these more absurd details are actually symbols, which could be another topic entirely; for now, simply consider the symbolic nature of what you might introduce into your setting.)

By creating fanciful details, you'll be strongly setting your players in your worldview — the worldview of mythology.

All Good Things

And that, my friends, is the last element of good mythtelling I have scheduled for now. Next week: the finish to my talks about mythology in the modern day. We'll be visiting with the magician Merlin, the monster of Frankenstein, and the vineswinger Tarzan... if I can find my notes that I made 'lo these many weeks ago now.

I'll see you in 7.

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