Road trip stories are basically mythic journeys but a group of friends or family are travelling together instead of alone. As well as meeting a succession of opponents along the way they argue among themselves. The Minotaur opponent who comes in from outside either binds them together or (in a tragedy) drives them apart.
See You In The Cosmos by Jack Cheng: 11-year-old Alex Petroski loves space and rockets, his mom, his brother, and his dog Carl Sagan—named for his hero, the real-life astronomer. All he wants is to launch his golden iPod into space the way Carl Sagan (the man, not the dog) launched his Golden Record on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. From Colorado to New Mexico, Las Vegas to L.A., Alex records a journey on his iPod to show other lifeforms what life on earth, his earth, is like.
MAZE-SHAPED ROAD TRIPS VS KNOT-SHAPED ROAD TRIPS
The labyrinth is the graphic symbol upon which all mythic journeys, and therefore all road journeys, are based.
Related symbolically to the labyrinth is the knot. Both labyrinths and knots symbolise journeys. The difference is that labyrinths comprise two mirror-image journeys — the journey into the darkest parts of the soul (death) and the journey back out (rebirth). But in knotwork design there is no beginning and no end. (The branch of mathematics known as knot theory also studies knots with no beginnings and endings. The simplest mathematical knot is a ring.)
A story like Andrea Arnold’s American Honey resembles a knot more than a labyrinth because the ending suggests our main character will be on the road forever.
STORIES WHICH END ON THE BEGINNING OF A ROAD TRIP
These tend to be coming-of-age stories, in which the main character has matured, but just enough to allow them to set off into the world alone. The majority of the maturation process is yet to happen.
Fish Tank is another Andrea Arnold movie and ends with the main character leaving in a car with a new boyfriend.
Six Feet Under ends with Claire Fisher driving to New York to try and make her way in the arts. In this story, as in Fish Tank, we worry for her, because her concrete New York plans have fallen through, leaving her in a vulnerable position, but drawn into the spiritual journey to the point where adventure no longer feels like a choice but a compulsion.
When considering the symbolism of the child, pair with the elderly person, who represents the past. In popular imagination, we consider life as a circle, in which the very elderly return to a kind of childhood. Live long enough and we become transformed. We acquire a new simplicity. This idea comes from Cirlot, who thought that if you dreamed of a child, some great spiritual change would be about to take place under favourable circumstance.
Nietzsche deals with this idea in relation to the ‘three transformations’ in Thus Spake Zarathustra. Nietzsche wrote about the process of spiritual transformation. He believed there were three distinct phases of self-actualisation, represented by:
The camel — the hump on its back represents your burdens, conquests and scars
The lion — in this stage you want to be free and be lord of your own desert
The child — you can’t be fully mature until you recapture the serious play which defined your youth.
Child As Angel
Children often appear as angels in Christian iconography. (This is why cherubs have wings.) But as noted in the tweet below, cherubs have a certain creepiness to them. This is because of their history as scary creatures.
The Ideal Child Of The Imagination
When parents are expecting a child, the child as a personality exists only in the imagination. This lasts for a few years into parenting. I remember the words of a mother whose own child had died saying that one of the most difficult parts of this grief was, to her, seeing preschoolers. The reason she gave? This is the time in a child’s life when anything at all is still possible. We have so many hopes and dreams for our young children. We never imagine that they won’t make it to adulthood.
This theme tends to be covered in work for adult readers. The short stories “The Child” by Ali Smith and by “Ernestine and Kit” by Kevin Barry are macabre tales about how adults become disappointed in children.
However, look outside the English speaking world and you occasionally find a story for kids with this exact theme: An exploration of the difference between what a parent hopes for and what they actually get. An example is Ivory Coast picture book Le Bébé de Madame Guénon [Mrs Monkey’s Baby] published 2009.
A monkey mother worries about her friends’ reactions to the beautiful baby she has just given birth to. Will their compliments be sincere? And will their judgment be fair? Visits and compliments do not appease her anxiety: she must do everything to make her baby even more beautiful! …The story plays on the animal’s parade and the repetition of visit scenes, but its gist is indeed the terrifying anguish of mothers who dream of an ideal child.
As Diane Purkiss points out in her book Troublesome Things, ideas about the child changed in the Romantic era (approx, 1800-1850), when childhood became a safe refuge from the harsh realities of life. Childhood became the opposite of work. It was thought that the very happiest way to spend a childhood was safe, carefree in the country.
But the Romantic invention of the child as the holy innocent coincided with growing child poverty, urbanisation and child prostitution.
While Wordsworth and Dickens were extolling the purity of the child, actual children were working from dusk til dawn. Victorians were faced with reconciling this harsh reality against their imaginary, idealised version of childhood.
1840s England was especially worried about idle children, especially street children. This was a class and race issue. It was thought that without something to occupy children, they would get up to mischief.
Child As Cherub
Children originate in the Hebrew Bible as kerubim and often appear as cherubs in Baroque grotesque.
Putto is an Italian concept similar to the cherub but is not religious in origin. (The plural is putti.) The main difference is whether or not the cherubic creature has wings. Whereas all cherubs have wings, not all putti have them. In Baroque art the putto came to represent the omnipresence of God.
Some fauns are also depicted as cherubs but with hooves.
These characters are almost always boys. Significantly, the Italian word putto comes from the Latin word putus, meaning “boy” or “child” — boy as every child. (Boys are regular humans but girls are extra.)
Interestingly, the word cherub comes from kerub. Kerubim were completely different from today’s cherubs — imposing winged creatures who existed to guard the thrones of Gods and kings as well as the Mesopotamian Tree of Life. These Kerubim are described in the Book of Ezekiel (Old Testament). They are scary chimeras, each with a different head: lion, bull, eagle and human. These kerubim later became symbols for the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (New Testament).
This is interesting because scary mythical creatures are quite often evolved by storytellers into something much more tame and pleasant. In this case, scary winged creatures become chubby-cheeked children. In the case of scary femme-coded mythical creatures, storytellers turn them into sexual objects. Sirens are an excellent case study of this. Witches, too, are often rendered as sexy rather than scary old hags in modern storytelling.
The witch/kerubim genealogy together demonstrate how women have been disempowered, alongside children, across the history of myth: Sexually alluring young women have had their scariness stripped away. Likewise, cherubim have had their adult-sized ferocity stripped away. Iconography without ferocity is more comfortable.
Freud’s View Of Children
Influential psychoanalysts have influenced our collective view of the child.
Erich Fromm succinctly summarises Freud’s thoughts on children in general. See what you make of this:
An assumption Freud makes about the nature of dreams is that these irrational desires which are expressed as fulfilled in the dream are rooted in our childhood, that they once were alive when we were children, that they have continued an underground existence, and have come to life in our dreams. This view is based on Freud’s general assumption of the irrationality fo the child.
To him the child has many asocial impulses. Since it lacks the physical strength and the knowledge to act on its impulses, it is harmless and no one needs to protect himself against its evil designs. But if one focuses on the quality of its strivings rather than on their results in practice, the young child is an asocial and amoral being. This holds true in the first place for its sexual impulses. According to Freud, all those sexual strivings which, when they appear in the adult, are called perversions are part of the normal sexual development of the child. In the infant the sexual energy (libido) centers around the mouth, later it is connected with defecation, and eventually it centers around the genitals. The young child has intense sadistic and masochistic strivings. It is an exhibitionist and also a little “peeping Tom.” It is not capable of loving anyone but is narcissistic, loving only itself to the exclusion of anyone else. It is intensely jealous and filled with destructive impulses against its rivals. The sexual life of the little boy and the little girl is dominated by incestuous strivings. They have a strong sexual attachment to the parent of the opposite sex and feel jealous of the parent of the same sex and hate him or her. Only the fear of retribution from the hated rival makes the child suppress these incestuous wishes. By identifying himself with the commands and prohibitions of the father, the little boy overcomes his hate against him and replaces it with the wish to be like him. The development of conscience is the result of the “Oedipus complex”.
Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language
If Freud seemed to hate kids, bear this in mind: During the Victorian age, it was widely thought that children were wholly ‘innocent’. Children had no sexuality and were considered incapable of doing or thinking ‘bad’ things.
This was Freud trying to swing that pendulum the other way.
Jung’s Divine Child Archetype
If you’re reading a story with a child in it, and the child doesn’t seem to be a rounded person, functioning more like a bearer of ideology and ethics, this is Jung’s Divine Child archetype.
Jung noticed that all around the world we find stories about amazing children who survive against the odds:
Baby Jesus in Christianity
Child Moses in Judaism
Heracles in Greek tradition
Horus in Egypt
But the Divine Child archetype has a reach in culture outside the stories of myth and religion. Mei from Studio Ghibli’s Totoro is an excellent example of the Divine Child archetype.
How is the Divine Child different from a regular child? We might invoke Northrop Frye here, who placed characters on a continuum from heroic to stupider than the audience. The Divine Child is basically a regular kid with the ability to come through against all odds. We love stories like that.
The Divine Child can’t easily be plotted on Northrop Frye’s continuum because they are both vulnerable and invincible at once. Stories starring the Divine Child are reassuring because there is a contract with the audience from the start — although this character is sufficiently vulnerable to make a good story, their secret superpowers will allow them to win out in the end. This story will end happily.
Jung considered the child as coniunctio between the unconscious and consciousness. If you dream of a child that’s meant to indicate some great spiritual change is about to take place under favourable circumstances.
The idea that we are surrounded by the extraordinary yet remain blind to it is a pretty common theme in picture books, in which the archetype of The (Jungian) Child is useful as a character who hasn’t lost their wonder yet, after being subjected to the monotony of life with adult responsibilities. “Children who notice things adults don’t” could be a subcategory of children’s literature in its own right. Think of all those fantasy portals, never discovered by adults, and all those fantasy creatures. Are they fantasy or real? Are they only real if we see them? What does it even mean to be ‘real’?
Shaun Tan makes use of this trope in “The Lost Thing” (adults don’t notice what children do) but inverts it for “Rules of Summer” (in which children are too busy arguing and watching TV to really enjoy the magic of a summer childhood).
There is some realworld truth to the idea that children see things adults cannot. Professor Alison Gopnik specialises in child psychology. In this podcast from All In The Mind, Gopnik explains exactly how children are better at noticing than adults. Babies and young children are built to explore the world and learn about it, whereas adults have better control of our focus. Therefore, as humans grow older, we become less good at learning about the world and better at executive functioning. Our powers of observation diminish accordingly.
Child As Heroic Figure
The heroic child liberates the world from monsters. A lot of picture books feature this kind of child. Mostly they are ridding their own minds from imaginary monsters rather than saving The World, but within the world of the story these monsters do exist.
A child is a small person. He lingers small just for a while, then he becomes an adult. He grows up without even noticing it.
Beatrice Alemagna, What is a child?
Child as Coward
Go back to the Ancient Greeks, however, and they thought that cowardice separated adult from child: Adults were brave, children were cowardly. Socrates pointed out that our fears originate in childhood, and that we fear death because the child in us is frightened of hobgoblins.
In other words, if an adult is frightened, it must the ‘child within’, not the actual adult. In many cultures and subcultures, fear is not an acceptable emotion for an adult to express. The closest we can come is to attribute fear to an inner child.
Ancient thinkers really did think that fear was a demon, and in order to escape fear, one had to escape actual demons.
Child As Eternal Life
Alchemy is an ancient art practised in Ancient Egypt, China, India and more ‘recently’ in medieval Europe. Alchemy concerned with two main things: working with real substances and working on one’s own spiritual / personal development / enlightenment. It was highly secretive and full of symbolism. At the heart of this art is the belief that there exists a mysterious legendary substance called the philosopher’s stone. This object is said to transform base metals such as lead into gold.
In Alchemy, the child wearing a crown or regal garments is a symbol of the philosopher’s stone. Important: the gold itself isn’t just gold — the gold symbolises enlightenment and eternal life.
It makes sense that children become associated with eternal life because if it were possible to never grow old, we’d probably remain as children. Although disease and circumstance does take the life of children, we associate death with old age.
The stand-out example of Child as Eternal Life is of course Peter Pan and Wendy. J.M. Barrie did something interesting by flipping dominant ideas about the tragedy of failing to become an adult. Since antiquity, failure to become an adult had been seen as a tragedy. We see this in Greek and Roman mythology. To remain childlike is a tragedy because to remain a child is to remain forever dependent upon others. But then J.M. took that idea and flipped it — now, to become an adult was the tragedy because adulthood meant you lost your true self. It’s interesting to observe that this fantasy of perpetual childhood has been left behind (for now) to languish in the 20th century. This article explains that since copyright expired on Peter Pan and Wendy in 2008, we’ve seen a surge of retellings in which to remain a child is rendered, almost unanimously, as dark and creepy. Peter Pan is now the villain.
Woman As Child
Patriarchy works by rendering women as children in the public imagination. Until very recently, women were considered children in the eyes of the law. It’s not difficult to find evidence of this view right across storytelling.
To make a more universal statement, however, the hero’s journey provides a classic example of the difference between men and women across mythic stories. Men leave the house, encounter a variety of friends and foes then eventually prove themselves in battle. He’ll have weapons of some kind at his disposal.
The female corollary is childbirth. The heroine of these stories never leaves home. She has no weapons at her disposal, entirely vulnerable to her own physiology. The pregnant and birthing woman’s vulnerability renders her childlike. In both stories, the man and the woman come close to death. Both offer up their bodies for the sake of some greater good. But because the hero gets weapons, gets to make decisions, he is afforded symbolic autonomy.
Take a close look at how weapons are used in stories, who gets them, who uses them. Next, consider the genealogy of modern gun culture.
Header image: William Blake’s David Delivered out of Many Waters, c.1805. It is an illustration to Psalm 18, in which David (at the bottom of the image with his arms stretched wide) calls out to God for salvation from his enemies. Christ appears above, riding upon seven cherubim (angels), not one as in the text.
I’ve been thinking about ways in which a storyteller creates a sense of unease for the audience, but spatially. We might call this spatial horror. I’m talking about disorientation, dizziness, light-headedness, fear of falling, and various senses outlined in the graphic below.
A visual representation of disorientation can be seen in an M.C. Escher painting. These are fascinating, but uncomfortable to look at:
Below is the BookRiot clip which got me thinking about spatial horror as a concept. Perhaps certain genres employ these techniques more than others, for instance horror, action and thriller plots. Likewise, science fiction often sends a character flying through time, perhaps through a portal.
But disorientation is a trick not limited to the horror genre, and applies to many types of stories, and across all types of children’s books. I have even noticed spatial horror utilised in picture books by Beatrix Potter. (I maintain that Potter’s stories are a genre blend including large dashes of unmitigated horror.)
On screen, camera work can do a great job of invoking certain unpleasant feelings, especially vertigo. I find the video below unpleasant to watch. That’s because I experience a common form of synaesthesia in which a jolt rushes through me. All the while, I know I’m only watching a stranger risk their own life.
This ‘jolt’ is more difficult to reproduce on the page (not that I would seek it out as a reader). But writers do employ various tricks to create various spatial discomfort for readers, usually to emulate the discomfort experienced by their sympathetic main characters.
Disorientation is generally a very unpleasant feeling. Why do that to an audience? Do it mindfully, with a reason in mind:
In secret societies, an old rule of initiation is: Disorientation leads to susceptibility. That’s why initiates are often blindfolded and led around in the dark, so they will be more psychologically open to suggestion from the rituals staged by the group. In storytelling, getting the audience a little off-base and upsetting their normal perceptions can put them into a receptive mood. They begin to suspend their disbelief and enter more readily into a Special World of fantasy.
Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey
A stand-out short story example of general disorientation is “Trespasses” by Alice Munro. I’ve analysed it myself here. If you don’t mind some heavy reading, Nancy Easterlin has written a paper (freely available online) which goes into the exact ways in which Munro creates a sense of discomfort. Much of the discomfort derives from not knowing who the main character is, or who we’re meant to be following.
[A]s readers, our entire orientation toward a fictive environment is generally not simply analogous but isomorphic to our orientation in the material world. With so much current research in psychology suggesting that we are always thinking in terms of the relative orientation and physiological responses of our bodies, it seems unlikely that the body can be short-circuited in any meaningful way.
Alice Munro is a world class magician with words and in “Trespasses” she walks the high wire. Below I have collected some slightly less complicated writerly tricks.
Throw your character around
The original title of Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Samuel Whiskers” was “The Roly-Poly Pudding”. This older title better suggests the spatial horror of a story in which our sympathetic main character is thrown around in various different ways. The victim of this story finds himself in tight spaces and eventually rolled up in dough.
The Looney Tunes cartoons are basically all about throwing their characters around. Children’s stories which emulate this kind of cartoonish slapstick might be playing around with this type of spatial horror, but often when we watch these scenarios play out, they’re not actually having an effect on us. We view them in one dimensional perspective, as long shots. It’s only when the (metaphorical) camera shifts that we might start to feel discombobulated. Spatial horror depends on high and low angles, and multiple perspectives.
Three point perspective is far better at achieving a disorienting effect in the viewer, as shown in this three point perspective city, which almost seems to turn in on itself, creating its own miniature world.
Play around with differential sizes
I’ve already written about this extensively in my post on Making Use Of The Miniature In Storytelling. Many of these tricks are utilised frequently by children’s storytellers — most often a character shrinks, or is small to begin with.
Morphing in size is not limited to children’s fantasy. For a wonderful example of a lyrical short story in which the very setting seems to shrink as two characters explore their environs in a state of limerant love, see “Something Childish but Very Natural” by Katherine Mansfield. These two main characters are so caught up in themselves that their own lust for each other (in short, egocentricity) makes them feel so much more important than the rest of the world, which will surely bend to their will (until they realise it won’t).
In general, Mansfield loved playing around with spatial effects. This is connected to her recurring theme of retaining one’s individuality. Characters seem terrified of losing themselves, of being subsumed by the roles expected of them. Added to that, for Mansfield the self is porous, caught between a virtual past and a virtual future.
Create a whirlpool effect
Ilinx is a Greek word meaning ‘whirlpool’. This word is sometimes used to describe computer games that induce a sense of disorientation or vertigo. The term (as used in this context) was proposed by Roger Caillois as one of four game categories. In case you’re wondering, the other game categories are agon (competition), alea (chance) and mimicry (simulation).
Computer games, like movies, are great at creating a range of spatial horrors for users. How do writers create that feeling of being swept into a whirlpool?
One of the most chilling sequences from a book/movie is in The Beach, when the main character swims through cave tunnels and almost runs out of breath before he manages to find a place to resurface. Tunnels in general deny us an escape route, and are therefore excellent for inducing fear, especially claustrophobia. The scene written by Alex Garland also features an excellent and dire ticking clock: The main character can only hold his breath underwater for a limited period of time.
Get your character lost
The Beach underground tunnel example scares me on multiple levels, and another layer of fear derives from being lost, perhaps forever.
The mythic journey is especially useful in this regard because the main character leaves home and explores unknown territory. Bear in mind though, your characters can still get lost in their own suburbs, their own schools, inside unfamiliar buildings.
Technically speaking, frequent switching your point of view can help create a disorientated feeling in your audience. Even genuine cases of ‘head hopping‘ may have their uses, when done mindfully by the writer.
AN EXAMPLE OF SUBVERSION
The Hilda stories by Luke Pearson (also a TV series) are cosy by intent, so even getting lost becomes an adventure, in a world where fantasy creatures are harmless, even the massive ones. The Hilda setting is also interesting because depending on the scene, Hilda the human girl is sometimes massive, sometimes tiny.
Put your characters in tight places
As if old houses aren’t creepy in their own right, the creepier thing about them is that you can get lost in them — not just in the rooms themselves, but in the spaces between.
The Rats In The Walls, as well as Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves In The Walls encapsulate this particular fear. A Lovecraftian fear of passages, corridors and spaces in between may be more common than I realise. Jeff Kinney even makes a gag out of it in Wrecking Ball (2019). Greg can’t stand the thought of creatures poking about in the walls, so his future dream house will be made entirely of glass. The illustration shows Greg sitting downstairs, looking straight through the floors into an upstairs toilet.
In Potter’s “The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse“, Timmie Willie He’s becomes horribly disorientated inside his wicker cage. Characters are especially prone to this type of spatial horror if they are tiny. Children, fairies and mice are so small they can get bundled up inside things and thrown around from movement, against their will, outside their control.
The music video below makes use of all sorts of spatial effects, and one of them is the mise-en-abyme effect — that feeling you get when standing between two mirrors facing each other. Your images stretch on forever and ever.
Why does it feel so strange to look into two mirrors facing each other? I believe it’s because we rarely get an insight into the feeling of true infinity. We are each bound to our single planet, to our single body, and our experience of all things is singular.
The Poorly Drawn Lines comic strip below combines two spatial tricks: the mise-en-abyme effect and the miniature effect. (Something gets smaller and smaller even as it goes on forever.)
I have experienced the magnitude of infinity most acutely when reading popular astronomy. As you might predict from the title, Marcus Chown’s The Never-ending Days of Being Dead is a mind-blowing book in that regard. Sean Carroll also has a book about multiple worlds theory.
Writers have several ways of inducing this feeling in an audience. One way is to link ‘childhood’ to ‘the elderly’, giving the impression that life is seen from above, and that it is cyclical. Annie Proulx regularly does this as well, by opening stories which go back three generations (which happens to correspond to the length of time the human brain can cope with when it comes to caring about relatives). For a literary short story example of The Overview Effect see see “Prelude” by Katherine Mansfield. The symbolism around the aloe (the story’s original name) also emphasises this.
In her short story “Deep Holes“, Alice Munro creates an Overview Effect by Alice Munro turning Sally into a tiny figure within a vast landscape. We are seeing her from above, almost as if from the stratosphere. We are no longer involved in her life. This is how we leave her.
That’s why you’ll quite often find The Overview Effect as a story ending. Moving now to the realm of picture books, this is how Jon Klassen wraps up “We Found A Hat“. But this time the viewer stays on the ground, looking up at the characters rather than looking down. These tortoises have both acted morally after making a very tough moral decision (to share a single hat between them), and with this view from the ground, they now seem almost angelic. However, the small size of them against the backdrop of a huge sky nonetheless works to create an Overview Effect.
Apart from the very end, Overview Effects are often utilised at the Anagnorisis phase of a story (the part which comes after the Battle, in which the character learns something about themselves). This makes complete sense because when you learn something about yourself you are temporarily seeing yourself as if from afar, as if you are new to yourself.
For an excellent example of Overview Effect used at the Anagnorisis phase of a story see When You Reach Me, a middle grade novel by Rebecca Stead.
Margaret Wise Brown also uses The Overview Effect at the Climax of Goodnight Moon.
Strand your character in the middle of nowhere
The film Gravity opened by creating an Overview Effect. But as the action unfolded I felt more and more isolated. I don’t imagine I’d enjoy being off my own planet, not knowing which direction it was in. I think I might even flip out.
Space functions metaphorically in the same way as an ocean. So any story set underwater is good at messing around with our sense of direction. If we’re panicking underwater, we may not even know which way is up, which way is down.
Island stories, desert stories and journey at sea stories all induce spatial horror by encouraging the audience to see ourselves (via the characters) as tiny in the vastness of space and time.
where failed mothers hide in shame (e.g. Lamia, wicked cannibalistic fairy-ancestor of Greek myth)
In the highlands of Papua New Guinea, where people literally believe their villages and families comprise multitudes of witches, even babies aren’t safe. This is apparently because witch mothers take their babies to the cave at Owia Stone:
[Witch mothers] go to the stone, and file their teeth and when they see that they are sharp, then they know that the child is ready. They can eat people now … kill people … destroy people. From the time they are babies they are prepared …. Now many of the little children — they are witches. But you can’t tell ….
Bad things happen in caves! Equally, though, to enter a cave can symbolise entering the womb, or somehow returning to one’s beginnings. Safety, not danger.
Passing through a cave can symbolise overcoming some kind of dangerous obstacle, leading to rebirth and anagnorisis.
In Native American tradition, a series of caves one above the over symbolises the different worlds.
In Celtic tradition the cave is the portal to another world. In the music video below, the tunnel is also used as a portal to a person’s emotional landscape.
In China the cave is the feminine, the yin, and the gate to the Underworld.
According to Jewish thought, Obadiah is supposed to have received the gift of prophecy for having hidden the “hundred prophets” from the persecution of Jezebel. He hid the prophets in two caves, so that if those in one cave should be discovered those in the other might yet escape.
The Allegory of the Cave is a Platonic story in which Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality.
The cave has unambiguous sexual connotations, associated with an historically taboo part of cis women’s bodies. (Sea caves even more so.)
The sirens in the painting below are presented to us as sexual objects. Here’s the thing about femme mythical creatures: They spend part of their history as formidable, then eventually are ‘tamed’ and rendered useful by artists and storytellers who sap their powers by presenting them as consumables.
That said, I don’t think the dangerous side of sirens has been forgotten entirely. It lurks within our collective psyche. These sirens may be presented as helpless, highly sexualised objects, but there’s something dangerous and troubling happening in the background. Where there are sirens there is trouble. Using sexuality, they are supposed to lure sailors to their deaths.
The painting below shows the Greek god Vulcan hiding in a cave. Vulcan was the only ugly god, which was a real problem because even his mother couldn’t love him. Juno kicked him off Mount Olympus. (In her defence, he did have a bright red face and cried constantly.) He fell for an entire day and night and eventually landed in water. This broke Vulcan’s legs. Fortunately for him, sea nymphs found him. They raised him. According to the painting below, he might’ve lived in a sea cave. When he grew up, Vulcan tricked his mum into sitting in a jewelled chair. This chair wouldn’t let her go, and Juno was mad as hell. Jupiter persuaded Vulcan to let her go. If he let his mum get out of the damn chair, he’d get beautiful Venus as a gift. So here’s Venus, visiting Vulcan in his cave. They didn’t live happily ever after in this cave, by the way. Vulcan returned to Mount Olympus. He had a beautiful wife now, so she compensated for his ugliness.
Australian Aboriginal culture also features a fearsome woman in a cave. She is similar to the Greek Lamia but has sharp teeth and cannibalises her lovers (in common with some spiders). She is a figure from a series of Aboriginal cautionary tales. These tales were designed to prevent young men from too much sexual adventure. (Others were the Mungga-Mungaa and the Abuba.)
Tunnels inherit much of the symbolism attributed to caves but, on top of that, tunnels signify focus. Sometimes the dominant culture feels someone has too much focus. We call that tunnel vision. In that case the word ‘monotropism‘ is often applied to people with autistic phenotypes.
A monotropic mind is one that focuses its attention on a small number of interests at any time, tending to miss things outside of this attention tunnel.
Tunnels, more than caves, are also thought to lead somewhere. tl;dr: Nowhere good. In stories they are often a kind of portal.
Hayao Miyazaki features many caves in his anime. I’ve written about tunnels in Totoro and Ponyo. Tunnels feature large in Japanese superstition. Until quite recently women were not meant to enter tunnels. Naturally, this restricted women to their local areas, since Japan is a mountainous country. The superstition is based on the misogynist notion that women are jealous by nature:
According to the superstition, the god of a mountain is a jealous woman who will cause accidents if a woman enters the construction site of a tunnel.
Canadian author Alice Munro makes use of tunnel as a kind of portal in her short story “Powers“. This is an excellent example of speculative fiction with grounding in the real world. (The supernatural powers are probably no such thing… but could be.) The tunnel is therefore a good choice of fantasy portal because tunnels exist in real life and a tunnel could be just a tunnel.
Sea caves are especially scary because the tide sends water rushing in. You don’t want to hang around for too long inside a sea cave. If you get disorientated due to utter darkness you might end up drowned. This puts a natural ticking clock storytelling device on narratives featuring caves by the sea.
Sewer as City Sea Cave
In the realm of the city, the sewer is the manmade symbolic equivalent of the sea cave.
The snail under the leaf setting is an appealing horror setting, epitomised by comfortable suburbs. The definition of an snail under the leaf setting is ‘something rotten lurks beneath the surface’. Sewers epitomise that feeling of dread. Rats are the animal most closely associated with sewers. (Though turtles may have stepped into that mental picture for kids of the 80s and 90s.)
Header painting: William Shayer Senior – Scene Near Zeldkirch in the Tyrol