“Ritual landscape” is a term coined by archaeologists originally to refer to the concentration of ceremonial sites of Neolithic and Bronze Age people in one geographic area. Stonehenge, with expansive earthworks extending out from the central henge for at least 6 km, is probably the best known English example. In recent years the term has been extended to refer to later periods, and I have argued in papers for landscape archaeology courses that it can be used as a basis to examine how even the landscape of a stately home can be structured to create a sense of awe and ceremony, with the house taking the place of the central temple. But here, I’d like to think about the purposes of a ritual landscape, and how they might align with the concept of the hero’s journey in fiction.
I sometimes wonder whether ritual landscapes are indeed just a prehistoric phenomenon. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I realise that the need to travel, discover and re-imagine is part of the human condition. In the Middle Ages people from all walks of life regularly went on pilgrimages and of course they were familiar with what the various places they were travelling through signified. Pilgrimages, just like their pre-Roman antecedents, were never about exploration, de novo. Instead the exploration was personal and introspective.
The hero’s journey is also about pilgrimage:
the common template of a broad category of tales and lore that involves a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.
The most effective hero’s journey books, whether they are high fantasy or not, use landscape as an important part of the journey. The ritual landscape becomes infused and integrated into the journey, the pilgrimage, and in is part what helps to transform the ‘hero’. It’s a force in the story, not just a background to the adventure.
The first example that came to mind when as I contemplated this idea is from The Lord of the Rings, as the fellowship travel down the Anduin and pass through the Pillars of the Kings. It is a dangerous place, guarded by the two ancient carved likenesses of two kings:
Awe and fear fell upon Frodo, and he cowered down….even Boromir bowed his head as the boats whirled by, under the enduring shadow of the guardians of Númenor…. “Fear not!” said a strange voice behind him. Frodo turned and saw Strider, and yet not Strider; for the weatherworn Ranger was no longer there. In the stern sat Aragorn son of Arathorn, proud and erect, guiding the boat with skillful strokes; his hood was cast back, and his dark hair was blowing in the wind, a light was in his eyes: a King returning from exile to his own land.
This is a striking and almost obvious example of the power of landscape, but the concept can also be used more subtly (there are many examples in LOTR: Tolkien understood the power of landscape long before the term ‘ritual landscape’ became an archaeological term – nor was he the first.)
In Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, in the last volume, Silver on the Tree, she uses ritual landscape as a turning point in the story:
Jane said … “What an enormous lot of flat land there is on the other side of the river. Miles of it, miles and miles, before the mountains start again.” … Will stood up and came quietly forward to stand beside [Bran], looking down at the estuary. He tried to keep the excitement from his voice. “Drowned,” he said. “Lost.” The mountain was very quiet. The skylark had finished its song. Very far away once more they heard gulls faintly crying, out over the sea. Bran stood very still, without turning. “Dear God,” he said. The others scrambled to their feet. Simon said, “The Lost Land?”
These are only two many many examples. I use the concept in my own books, both consciously and unconsciously. If you are writing a ‘hero’s journey’ structure, I’d encourage you to seriously consider the idea of how landscape can inform the travel and transformation of your characters. It adds another dimension to the story, one that embeds it further into its time and place, strengthening the connection to your world – whether it is real or imagined – and creating a setting that will resonate in the minds of your readers.
Featured image: Sí an Bhrú (Newgrange), Ireland. Tjp Finn, CC 4.0 license.