|Aenaeas in Elysium|
One of the many things that I truly love about writing historical fantasy is that the genre allows you stretch your imaginative wings, to envision and describe places that are not the usual destination. You can go beyond the castle wall or the villa peristyle to places that are often relegated to remote locales reached only by the soul.
Heaven and Hell, the idea of a land where the dead go on to an afterlife of eternal bliss or torment is something that is common to most world religions. There are, of course, many names for these places and they all differ a little. For the ancients, when it came to
Paradise, that place where those who lived with virtue in
life go to, it may have been called Aaru, the Egyptian Field of Reeds or for
the ancient Welsh Britons, Annwyn, the land of eternal youth and plenty. The
Greeks and Romans believed in the Elysian Fields and the Norse in Valhalla. They are places of peace, prosperity, happiness
|Anubis weighs a human heart|
Likewise, most traditions have a place to oppose
Paradise – Hell. There is often an
in-between realm as well, such as Purgatory or the Norse Hel. On their way to the afterlife, Egyptians’ hearts were weighed
in the scales against a feather with Anubis looking on. For ancient Greeks and
Romans, Hades was the land of the dead where souls could linger forever and
Tartarus was the tortuous hell, the opposite of Elysium. To get to these
places, the dead would have to cross the river Styx,
ferried by Acheron who demanded his gold piece.
I am but mentioning a few traditions. There are so many and every culture has its own idea as to what is good and what is unbearable in the afterlife. They are not often described in detail because, well, most of the time those who go don’t come back to sketch it out.
|Acheron, the Ferryman|
This is where writing historical fantasy can really be a thrill to read and write. The beauty of it is that you can indeed explore Hades, or
Valhalla or wherever
you wish to go. The Land of the Dead can be whatever you envision it to be. As
a literary device, it can allow you to visit the innermost hopes and fears of
your characters, to have them interact with the dead, famous people, departed
loved ones or enemies whom it would otherwise be impossible for them to meet
Some authors have used the afterlife or underworld to great effect in their storytelling and one that stands out in particular to me is Alice Borchardt, author of the Legend of the Wolf series. In The Silver Wolf, the first book of the series, Ms. Borchardt’s heroine, Regeane, journey’s through the
to the Land of
the Dead. The descriptions of what the characters sees and experiences are
fantastic examples of how an author can unfurl the sails of creativity and
imagination in these other realms. Few descriptions have had me so rapt by the
images they portrayed. temple
She started down the aisle of the temple past the tall pylons that seemed like deadly trees spouting leaves of flames, on into the distant waste… A cry of sorrow so profound, so bitter, that it seemed beyond hope or even love. A desolate, lonely sound, the weeping of one condemned to wander forever without either consolation or rest.
|Odysseus meets Teiresias|
Here one is introduced to the great sadness and horror upon entering the Land of the Dead. You read of souls who scramble about mutilated yet still fawning over their previous state of beauty or strength, of wraiths whose exposed bones will bleed for all eternity. The waste of the Land of the Dead is that in between place, neither Tartarus nor
Paradise but a place for passing through or staying in
infinite limbo. After passing through the burning wasteland, Regean meets with
her dead father who carries her across the river of fire, a sort of Styx boundary before she is able to reach paradise and
seek the soul she needs, Daedalus. The scene between her and her father who was
murdered when she was a child is very poignant. When she reaches Daedalus’
Garden, the place is full of beauty.
She found herself on a flagged path walking toward a distant fountain. The path was bounded by flowers. They bloomed everywhere, riotously indifferent to the season… Rank upon rank of velvety purple lavender, thick clary sage, clover white, yellow, and purplish red, hugged the path as a border… Other taller ones [lilies] behind them lifted crisp petals twisted back, orange and scarlet as though they waited breathlessly for the sun. Behind them, twinning among the tall cypresses were the roses. Single, double, red, pink and white, and on their petals scattered as stars are across the night sky, lenses of dew catching the light of the rising sun and turning it into a thousand tiny rainbows.
The Silver Wolf
Ms. Borchardt certainly has a beautiful view of paradise, a welcome reward after dragging the reader through the sad wastes on the other side of the river. One last beautiful moment occurs when Regeane meets Daedalus who is able to heal the person she has come to seek healing for. Meeting someone of past importance or fame has been used by others. Homer has Odysseus journey to Hades to see Teiresias and Virgil writes about Aenaeas heading into the underworld to see his father Anchises. To hear the dead talk can be a beautiful or terrible thing, a sad remembrance of better times long past, of an age before the horrors of humanity. Daedalus remembers:
…many years ago, in my youth, I was born on
that fair island set in a lapis sea. Ah, it was the earth’s morning then, and
we were the first to taste her bountiful fruits. We tamed the wild grapes grown
on the mountainsides. Soft tiny, purple globes, fair and round as a woman’s
lips. Our fields were golden with wheat, bowing before the sea’s breeze. Long
dead as I am, I can still taste the soft, white loaf that wheat made. Still
scent the bouquet of the wine we drank with it.