Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Mythic Underworlds, Mythic Otherworlds, and Psychic Geography

The dungeon as "mythic underworld" is a concept as old as any in what we now tend to refer to as the OSR (see, for example, Philotomy's thoughts on the subject from 2007, still available here). "Mythic otherworld" is newer - I like to think I coined that one myself in 2014 - but based on the same underlying motif: a place that "obeys its own laws and is weird, otherworldly, and apart from the natural order of things". The underworld/otherworld is a place where adventure happens - the place into which PCs go. It is set apart from the ordinary world of human civilization, towns and settlements, and the rules of physics which exist there. It is faerie, it is muspel, it is Mythago Wood, it is Moria, it is Angband, it is warp space, it is whatever other metaphor you choose to use.

Psychic geography is real. I was struck by this last week when I visited my home town, which like most urban or semi-urban English landscapes is a place of vast contrasts between rich and poor. (Britain, as a comparatively small and very densely populated country has the "haves" and "have nots" nestling alongside one other like almost nowhere else on earth.) Having an afternoon free on my hands I decided to take a drive to Noctorum, a place where a friend of mine used to live; I hadn't been there in 20 years so I wanted to see if I could find it.

Noctorum is not easy to get to. There are few signs pointing to it, and it's not really on the way to anywhere. This latter quality (what you might cynically call the "out of sight, out of mind" approach to poverty reduction) is perhaps one of the reasons why it was chosen as the location for the building of a council estate back in the 1960s - one of a string of such developments built in the local area as a way to, supposedly, provide bettter accommodation for the urban poor than the town-centre slums in which they had previously been living. This large estate was tacked on to the existing semi-rural village location of Noctorum proper, and is now commonly referred to locally and by the residents as "The Nocky".

What you get when you drive from Noctorum proper to the Nocky is a lesson in inequality in microcosm. Noctorum is stunningly wealthy. It is full of vast, detached homes which you can only get to by ignoring signs which say "PRIVATE ROAD" in big red letters, built in a landscape something like arcadia - a deliciously lush woodland on a secluded hillside in which it isn't unusual to see people trotting on horseback. Then suddenly you pass a crossroads at the bottom of the hill beyond which are tiny terraced houses and the only colours are beige and grey, and the sky itself seems to darken.

The Nocky itself resembles a stockade, though one formed from roads, not walls. It is surrounded by a big looping road, inside of which is the estate and outside of which on three sides, more or less, are open fields (the other side being Noctorum proper). This, you have the feeling, was done by design. You can't get out of the estate easily even in a car - you have to do a big circuit - but doing it on foot is hard. You have to slog it up hill to Noctorum, beyond which there is no real public transport, or you have to trek across fields, or just go the considerable distance along one road to the nearest train station. Whenever local people mention this they always say this was the result of a deliberate choice by the local authority "in case there was violence" - if riots ever took place they would have nowhere to spread. It also serves to keep criminal activity in general insulated from the outside world. And it also serves to keep the community itself cooped up with nowhere to go and nobody to turn to when things go wrong.

Make no mistake about it: the Nocky is in a different world to Noctorum. It would be completely crass, simplistic and stupid to describe it as a "mythic underworld" or something of that nature, but when you pass from one place into the other you can feel yourself crossing a barrier of some kind - an invisible and yet also somehow visible wall which keeps the two places apart. There is something of The City & The City about it - two communities living side by side but unable or unwilling to see each other - but something much more brutally real: you can see the Nocky easily enough from parts of Noctorum. But you don't want to go there.

It's not all that difficult to understand, then, how it would feel to live in a reality in which there was a forest "over there", or a cave system "down there", which people can nakedly see and yet into which they do not, and perhaps dare not, go. That feeling is one with which most of us are familiar from the societies in which we find ourselves - the difference of course being that in a fantasy setting it is based on the supernatural, whereas in our own it is merely due to the starkness of the distinctions which exist between life opportunities.


  1. Where I grew up, in Lübeck, there's the poor quarter of the city, which I guess is not that bad and transitions into more wealthier areas without visible borders, and the piss poor quarter. That part of the city is separated from the rest by a river on one side and by train tracks on another. Now there's a new highway that completes the total enclosure of the area. Now you can get in and out only by bridges and tunnels. I think everyone who has anything to do with urban geography would only have to take a look at the map and immediately know where the poorest people are living.

    It probably wasn't intended that way, but once the train tracks had been build, it was inevitable that this would become the poorest area of the city.

    1. Yes - although also in Birkenhead (the town in which Noctorum is notionally situated) there is an area known as Rock Park which is an oasis of very wealthy homes in an extremely rough area, and in that case you find the opposite case - it's almost impossible to get into Rock Park because it is hived off from the squalour around it by roads and railway lines.

    2. Another German here,
      in my hometown of Bremen it is always fun to watch how the people act like half the city does not exist.

      The City developed along the Weser river and is narrow but quiet long. And richer and poorer neigbourhoods tend to be mixed.
      If you mention any of the districts beyond the end of the tram-line to people from the inner city and you look into empty faces.

  2. This sounds a lot like "psychogeography," which has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years in some areas. Don't let that put you off! There's some really interesting stuff there!

    You might take a look at Merlin Coverley's brief introduction. I've got some issues with it but it remains the most comprehensive one I've seen. I also recommend Tina Richardson's edited volume, "Walking Inside Out" which articles with a diverse range of topics.

    (FWIW, there's even a brief bit on it in KARTAS: http://www.kenandrobintalkaboutstuff.com/index.php/tag/psychogeography/ )

    1. Interesting. I'll have a look - thanks!

  3. Aieeee! First-time comment-poster discovers there's no edit feature on this. Apologies for errors.