There’s part of me that wants to hold this one until the end; for this time, we’ll be exploring the wasteland, which is always at the end. This is where you’re going to find the Dark Lord and/or existential dread, and the third installment of this column seems a little too soon. And, oh, but do a number of sexual metaphors creep into my mind to cuddle up with the death ones; I think it’s appropriate, but I’ll spare Gentle Reader from having to go there with me.
Well, no, that’s a lie. I’ll just try not to be crude about it (though I’ve set you up to be, in your head, if I did this right). Wastelands are sex and death, or the gap between death and life, what happens after winter when the snow melts away and shows you what’s dead and what’s left behind to replenish the earth – an extended moment between winter and spring. It’s harrowing, which, I suppose is why evil tends to like it so.
Wastelands are a little harder to pin down, sometimes, than the other fantasyscapes we’ve visited; like an overzealous moral guardian of my childhood once said, you know it when you see it. They can be deserts or mountains, forests – but rarely; swamps or some awful combination of swamp and desert and volcanic burn-zone are popular.
More than other fantasyscapes, you know wastelands by what they mean rather than what they are. The old Celtic wastelands, the ones we mostly know from the Fisher King myth make the connection between land and ruler, sex and death explicit. The Fisher King suffers a wound that makes him impotent, and the land loses its fertility. The sacrificial God dies and does not return. At least, not for a while.
When you have a land wounded as its ruler is wounded, the wasteland exists to be redeemed by a hero. In The Dark Crystal, the desert around the Skeksis’ castle was “green and good, until the crystal cracked” and the UrSkeks split into the phlegmatic urRu and the wicked Skeksis – a pretty extreme wound to the land and its rulers which could only be healed by a hero restoring the wholeness of the crystal in a very sex-and-death sort of way (as Henson puppets go).
It’s become more common that the presence of the ruler wounds the land. I.e., Morgoth created Mordor. Or, at least, made it what it was to be by setting off a series of volcanic eruptions and then Sauron filled it up with orcs. Then, too, Peter S. Beagle’s King Haggard made his kingdom a wasteland, either through his own evil nature or as some pact with the Red Bull. In this case, the ruler is the wound and the only way the land has a chance of healing is for the wound to be cut away and cauterized.
I suppose now is a good time to be explicit about another aspect of the wasteland – it’s supposed to be wrong. In fantasy it’s supposed to threaten and harrow and cause despair, to show the hero what happens if the quest fails. What happens if spring doesn’t come and the snow just leaves the bones of winter; the wasteland is a mistake that must be rectified.
My strongest sense of this comes, perhaps sadly, from a sequence in the video game Kingdom Hearts where our protagonists (two of whose names I dare not invoke for legal reasons) find themselves on a desolate sea shore in a world of darkness and realize that this is the fate of every world, if they do not stop the evil.
Of course, sometimes it can’t be fixed. Some places remained ruined forever, or, are at least beyond the power of the hero to fix. Some wastelands sit as warnings; in China Mieville’s fictional world Bas-Lag, the Scar attests to the depredations of the long-gone Ghosthead Empire and the Cacotopic Stain the remains of more modern use of a terrible energy called the Torque. The sun of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth is big and dim and will flicker out at any moment.
My first instinct is to call this as a fantastic reflection of the realities of the modern age, wherein humanity has the means of making the world a wasteland, either quickly with nuclear fire or less quickly with environmental degradation, and neither of these things, so far as I can tell, can be saved by the power of a plucky, protagonist band. Then again, I suppose that if I sat in Minas Tirith, I’d figure Sauron had the War of the Ring in the bag, too. So don’t listen to me on that account.
Wastelands are not always ordeals for the hero to endure and pass through, they can also mark the end. They are almost always a destination, for what is beyond them? You get to (H.P. Lovecraft’s) Kadath in the cold wastes, and what’s further out? Wander through the layers of (Clive Barker’s) Imajica, and you reach the Erasure, where everything stops. What exists outside life and death is probably also waste.
There can be a lot of overlap between the wasteland and the cursed land, or the haunted place. Once a curse grows to cover enough ground, its territory can be a wasteland. The eponymous town in the Silent Hill series, if you’ll let me grab a horror example, works well to this effect. The place either ruined by the actions of some awful cult, or simply born bad (also foggy and fiery by turns). At some point, we’ll come back to cursed places and explore them in greater detail.
Then, some wastelands are wastelands to be. You’ll see them in a lot of newer dystopian books that hinge on resource collapse and environmental degradation, but you can also see them in Alan Dean Foster’s Mid World, which has moved on, and continues to move on, do ya; likewise Donaldson’s The Wounded Land under the influence of the Sunbane, which wrecks just about everything in turns of badness.
We’ve done a lot of walking, though, through bad territory, and I told you at the beginning that, more than other fantasyscapes, wastelands mean. Wastelands do. Without meaning or doing, a would-be wasteland is just a swamp or desert or volcano, or a battlefield full of ghosts.
Wastelands don’t just test a hero, they warn the hero, and, in many ways, they are the reason for the hero, the need as landscape. This is why a lot of good examples of wasted land didn’t get in here. (Oh, the cases are arguable, and the insights I got from people I asked about the topic were excellent – the notion that Robin Hobbs’ Farseer novels ought to count, somehow, just because Fitz’s life is so bleak and awful is one that sticks with me.) Internal wastelands are wastelands enough for the poet I’ve been flirting with in allusion since the beginning of this post.
There is one wasteland that I want to leave you with, though, because I think it’s an interesting notion that I had not considered, and another place in which, though I haven’t seen it done in fantasy, I kind of want to. If you had a notion from the last post that I might have a bit of an agenda in my writings on fantasyscapes, let me be explicit. I want to see you write this stuff. I want you to steal whatever you can that I bring up, if you find it worth stealing, and write it. If I don’t get there first.
So here’s my pitch, and my last wasteland, stolen from SF in the form of Aliens: LV-426. The planet itself is desolate, half terraformed and harsh. A forbidding place, and marginal as a wasteland until I thought a little more about it. Terraforming, if you look at it a certain way, is the act of healing a wasteland, a secular and technological method, to be sure, but close enough. The interesting aspect of this comes in when you imagine that, once the spiky, acid blooded xenomorphs get added to the mix, there are two competing versions of a new life for the planet. Warring springs, if you will, and that’s kind of interesting.
Spring will come, if it hasn’t already. Where I am writing, the buds are out on the trees, the pollen is trying to kill me and all the animals are chasing and shouting in their courtship displays. The crocuses are almost passed and the daffodils are a little late, but present. The land is green and good. For the time being.