There’s a chill in the air. The nights are drawing in. And shops across the land are filling up with pumpkins and sweeties. That must mean it’s almost Halloween! So I’m taking a look at some of the symbols and trappings of spooky stories. Why are some elements so popular? What’s their deeper meaning? Read on to find out!
This time we’re looking at…
O what can ail thee, knight at arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
The image conjured up in Keats’ classic Gothic poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci is typical of the Wasteland; a symbol that while not the most well known in spooky and fantastic stories, is surprisingly pervasive. From the Arthurian myths around The Fisher King, to epic Romantic poem Childe Rolande to the Dark Tower Came, to Tolkien’s Mordor and even C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, which is in the grip of a freeze in which it’s “always winter, but never Christmas!” the symbol of the barren wasteland endures through the ages and literary trends.
But is a Wasteland always a Wasteland? While it’s often a device used to convey a deeper meaning, I don’t think it’s always used to communicate the same meaning. I think there are actually three main functions the Wasteland plays in literature…
Corruption of foes
In your typical epic fantasy, it’s almost a cliche that the villain’s lair will be in an ugly, ruined place. From Sauron’s home of Mount Doom, surrounded by the dead plains of Mordor, to Torak’s tower in Enchanter’s End Game, the final book of David Eddings’ Belgariad, where it even mentions features like rusting iron and unwholesome fungus. The meaning we’re to infer from this is that the villain is so evil, so alien, so wrong that they repel nature itself. The natural order has been turned on its head. The villain’s lair becomes the external representation of his inner soul.
Yet the Wasteland of the Corrupted Foe is also a strangely static place. Nothing grows… and everything that was alive has already died. Whether that’s because of the natural polluting aspect of the villain or a deliberate choice on their part (like the White Witch of Narnia freezing everything in order to maintain her grip on power). So while the Wasteland on the one hand is something that we might feel a sense of disgust and fear for, it also betrays a weakness of the epic foe. Like their surroundings, they are also trapped in a stagnating state, where the only option is defeat or to continue along the same static path. Unlike the hero, they don’t have choices.
Corruption of self
Sometimes the enemy doesn’t live in a castle with a horde of orcs and goblins at his command. Sometimes the real enemy lies within. Which is why some representations of the Wasteland are the physical manifestation of an inner conflict or corruption. The classic example of this is The Fisher King in Arthurian legend. The King is wounded in a way that affects his potency and as his fertility dwindles, so the land dies around him. In Childe Roland the desolation of the landscape around the failing knight simply mirrors his own exhaustion and despair. Moving into the realms of film, this story is played out more visually in The Dark Crystal, where the reunification of the crystal is symbolic of the return of a state of balance between good and evil, and so the land itself is restored.
Facing up to challenges
What you often see when a protagonist reaches a Wasteland is a period where, removed from distractions, they finally face up to whatever issue or challenge they’ve taken on. Because it’s a place so far removed from their usual reality, it gives them license to really get to grips with things they might otherwise try to ignore or sideline. In Sand, the wilderness where the family camp each year on the anniversary of their father’s disappearance becomes the place where they can talk about their father and the bigger forces in their life, away from the daily grind to survive. In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, we learn that the rite of passage into adulthood for Witches is to cross a wasteland without their daemon and to learn to survive at a distance from them – something that is central to their success as a people.
So The Wasteland… not always as bleak as it’s painted, but something you still want to be on your guard for! What does The Wasteland signify for you?