the dungeons are in the mountains

There might no Underdark. Every dungeon in the world could be above sea level: in the mountains. Every mountain could be riddled with stacks and stacks of dungeons, goblin caverns, and general mythic underworldliness.

I get the feeling that that’s the case in Tolkien’s world. The dungeons are all in mountains: Bilbo’s goblins, the mines of Mordor, the Lonely Mountain, Mount Doom. There is no chance that there’s a dungeon under the Shire or Rohan.

If you jam-packed a mountain with mythic underworld, what would its population be? As high as you needed — or higher. Manhattan is 33 square miles, and, generously, 1/3 of a mile tall from the base to the tip of the Empire State Building. Mount Everest is about 580 cubic miles. That means you could easily fit Manhattan 50 times in Mount Everest. Everest alone could fit 75 million cosmopolitan goblin residents, and up to half a billion goblins during the weekday (commuting by goblin subway from less desirable mountains).

OK, that upper limit is pretty ridiculous. But we can safely assume that, if the mountains are reasonably well-riddled with dungeons, there are many more monsters in the world than there are people.

Fantasy is, in my opinion, a conservative, maybe even Tory literary form, and a direct descendant of the British imperialist adventure format familiar to many early fantasy writers. (Sir Richard Burton was a relative of Lord Dunsany. Tolkien was born in South Africa, and mentioned H Rider Haggard as one of his favorite authors.) The premise of imperialist history/fiction is this: a handful of civilized people set out into the wilderness, and, through superior organization, defeat overwhelming numbers of native peoples. It’s usually accomplished by neutralizing barbarian leaders who could bring about the ultimate disaster: uniting the numerically-superior hordes under one banner. That’s what Aragorn and Gandalf are up to, and it’s also how the British saw their role in India, Africa and the Middle East.

The role of civilization in D&D is no different. Adventurers go out and kill goblin kings and evil necromancers before they can gather their power. (This theme is complicated by the Howardian branch of American fantasy which pits, not civilized folk, but barbarians against the wild. D&D is big enough for both strains.)

The mountains are a nice place for this imperialist war against chaos. The mountains are nicely laid out on the world map, not like subterranean Underdark which requires a separate sheet of paper underneath. They’re impassable; they’re strung together in great malignant walls; and they loom on the horizon like thunderclouds threatening to spill forth a storm of war onto the world.

With so much room for evil in the mountains, it makes me wonder what’s under the good honest dirt of the Shire and other civilized places. More dirt? Hell? Sunless seas sailed by the dead gods?

6 Responses to “the dungeons are in the mountains”

  1. 1d30 says:

    What’s under the Shire is probably 600′ of Hobbit middens: pie crusts, chicken bones, coat-buttons, cabbage leaves, pipe stems, and fragments of circular doors. All compacted and frozen like petrified wood. Like Hobbits themselves, if you dig deeper you mostly see more of the same.

    Your description of imperialist fiction also sounds a lot like the Romans in Britain. I’m sure there are examples anywhere there is civilization.

    The idea of mountains holding the evil barbarians makes a whole lot of sense from that imperialist perspective. While rivers can be barriers, they eventually become tamed and navigable, civilized, useful. The imperialist is eventually glad of rivers. Mountains will always be a barrier, a pain in the butt. Ignoring their role in weather and watersheds, mountains are the enemy of the conquerer and the settler. The farmer may be happy that the glacier in the mountains supplies water for his fields, but he doesn’t want to live there.

    The conquerer, after setting up government, will always need to be wary of bandits and revolutionaries hiding in the mountains. They’re the place outside of civilization. Civilized folk who venture there may become uncivilized or even enemies of civilization because of the isolation (although they may have gone there because they were already antithetical to civilization). Mountains break up formations of men and they demand local terrain knowledge. Mountains are the terrain of skirmishers and ambushers, commandos, individuals. The imperialist with his huge blocks of foreign infantry looks to the mountains and sees a fortress that he must crush but can’t.

    Even if he slays every bandit, the mountains resist true conquest. You can chop down a forest, drain a swamp, burn and salt a plain. But these are thin layers above the geology; it is the geology of mountains that makes them. That’s something we can’t change so easily. Slay the barbarians this year and more will worm their way in next year.

    Control is necessary. The main way a mountain is useful to civilization, as the source for rivers, requires that a neighboring civilization struggle to control it. Two countries split by a mountain range must militarily control the range; you do not want your neighbor to control the mountains and build his watch-towers looming over your lowlands. You don’t want him diverting your rivers. At minimum you must make the dividing line the center of the range; ideally you loom your watch-towers over HIM and divert HIS rivers.

    You’re right. In a lot of ways, mountains and their inhabitants are the enemies of the conquerer.

  2. fadedearth says:

    A lot of Tolkien’s megadungeons would be on the ocean floor. The whole civilisation of the second age: Gondolin, Nargothrond, Menegroth… all submerged during the War of Wrath.

  3. stan rydzewski says:

    Really, if you want to have an underground complex and don’t have some sort of magical/high tech solution to the local water table, the mountains are probably the only sensible place you could put a ‘dungeon’. Now of course ‘mythic’ means ‘none of that really matters’ but if you want a rationale, there it is.

  4. Butch says:

    I love this. Although to be fair, there are sprawling “dungeons” under Manhattan.

  5. SolCannibal says:

    Robert E. Howard’s Bran Mak Morn is the perfect counterpoint of this tradition of fantasy as the Pict chief combating the imperialism, arrogance and abuse of the roman civilization invading his land, through alliance with other “barbarians”, strange magics & divinations or pacts with dark forces he later fosakes, among other things…

    Contrariness is great and so are settings with room for the clash of visions and contrast.

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