Friday, January 13, 2012

Meditating on The Mythic Underground

One of the more interesting aspects of OD&D, as interpreted by various corners of the OSR, is its portrayal of the Dungeon as the Mythic Underworld. For those unfamiliar with this particular theme I suggest Philotomy’s musings on the subject here. I, myself, have played with this interpretation in my own musings about the Holmes Basic Edition here and here.

In the classic mythological trope, the hero finds it necessary to descend into the Underworld in order to obtain something vital in order to achieve their overall quest. This could be information, an item, a skill or even a person. The hero emerges, changed and readied to take on the rest of their quest.

D&D (particularly in its B/X form) emulates this trope very well. The early levels of character development occur primarily in the Dungeon, where they obtain magic items, maps and experience. Once they reach 4th level or so, the characters emerge ready to take on the rest of their quest — explore and tame the Wilderness in order to build a stronghold.

I mention this, especially my own musing on the Holmesian version of the Dungeon (an ever-changing and unconquerable place that is almost a character unto itself), because Christianity takes this classic tale of the hero and turns it on its ear. Christ — the hero figure of the Christian story — does not descend into the Underworld in order to gain some special object or skill. He descends into the Underworld in order to conquer.

Greek Shorthand for Christ Conquers

For He crushed the gates of bronze and shattered the bars of iron — Psalm 107:16 (cf. Isaiah 45:2) 
For as Jonah remained in the belly of the sea-monster for three days and three nights, so will the Son of man be in the heart of the earth for three day and three nights. — Matthew 20:14 
In the body He was put to death, in the spirit he was raised to life, and, in the spirit, he went to preach to the spirits in prison. — 1Peter 3:18-19
In other words, the implied pattern of dungeon-delving in context of the Christian story is not just exploration, but restoration. This flies in the face of the Mythic Underground as understood by Philotomy and my own understanding of the Dungeon in Holmes.

Given that I am very interested in a Holmesian Underworld as well as playing in a Christian context, I have been trying to meditate on how to reconcile these two divergent views of the Hero and the Underworld. Part of my thinking in this direction is inspired by the general move that the OSR has made in recent months toward the Weird.

In a world where the Dungeon is a semi-intelligent and ever-changing NPC (Holmes), it makes sense to understand that part of this change can be imposed. What if, when a level or a sub-level of a dungeon were cleared (and thus restored) or otherwise "rescued" that it physically moved from the underworld to the surface world? In context of a dungeon beneath a city, these dungeon levels could be additional neighborhoods that spring up. In context of a dungeon in the wilderness, the levels could be ruins restored to full functionality. The more of the dungeon that is restored, the more Civilization takes root and the more Wilderness (whether on the surface or in the underworld) retreats.

The Dungeon would then change in response to the foray by the adventurers. Either the next level could "move up" or another level or sub-level could spring up in its place. Thus, the semi-intelligent and ever-changing Dungeon of Holmes can actually play a vital role in the context of the Christian hero story.


  1. I never thought of the underworld in this context before and this gives some food for thought. My take on the underworld is that it is a sort of 'bleed' of other parts of creation into our own realm.

    For example; parts of the underworld may be the realm of Tartarus where, in mythology, the Titans were imprisoned. If you take it in a Christian context, Tartarus could be a place where rebel Angels and other spirits were imprisoned. Though they cannot escape there could be ways into Tartarus and the inhabitants of the 'dungeon' could be the prisoners.

  2. Fascinating as always. I like the idea, but I don't think I would have the dungeon physically move. Rather, once the level is cleared (conquered), it reverts to a mundane, subterranean area. Doors don't close, monsters can't see in the dark, etc. The PC's are then creating and expanding a beach-head into the Underworld.

    1. Or have the dungeon transform into a place of natural beauty. Think of it like the man from whom the legion of demons was excorcised. Horrible, then at peace and in his right mind.

  3. I really like what you describe here. Reminds me of a campaign idea I had a couple years ago. Never played it, but hope to some day...

    "A year in the dungeon" campaign:
    The surface kingdoms are vigilant in guarding against the scheming underworld hordes. While trained soldiers keep watch above ground, adventurers are much admired for entering the sprawling dungeons to "take the fight to the enemy".

    One of the most decorated achievements attained by the greatest adventurers is to spend an entire year in the dungeon. A hellish experience that forever haunts those who survive the ordeal. They are admired for their bravery and service to the surface kingdoms, but many delvers will admit that the real reason they stay in the dungeon is that it gives them the best crack at plundering undiscovered treasure and magic.

    To aid in this endeavor, adventurers are commonly organized into "dungeon squads" and coordinate their efforts along the front lines, striving to fortify and hold conquered areas. Sometimes there is much competition and bad blood between dungeon squads. The rearguard sections of dungeon operate almost as wild and woolly colonies of the surface kingdoms. Most importantly, it is where adventurers rest and reload between missions.

  4. The idea of a dungeon in the Christian context is really interesting. I guess my take would make the dungeon the spiritual battleground, the proving ground of faith, and the dark place the champions of law must descend if they wish to limit Evil or Chaos. The harrowing of the dungeon could involve recovery of lost relics, captured souls, and sacred texts.

    This is much closer to the original approach you mention at the top of the post, but one way I might tie in 'mythic geography' might be that as lesser evils are overthrown in the dungeon, the nature of the threats in the land above change; the pacification of the mythic underworld is what makes the wilderness ready to be tamed by high level characters. Just thinking out loud...