Five great uses of landscapes in literature
Sometimes in stories landscapes aren't just for scenery.
Take The Hobbit. Tolkien sometimes personifies landscapes, using them to signal turns in the plot. Old castles wear evil looks; Gandalf disappears. Stormy mountains become rock-hurling giants; Bilbo's journeying band gets taken by goblins.
Living landscapes serving as signposts to plot: fantastic!
But landscapes do even more wonderful things. Other great writers have used them to reflect the inner terrains of the human psyche, projecting the very emotions we desire hidden onto the great stage of Nature itself.
I've just finished reading Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, a classic sci-fi novel that delves into the inner life of its protagonist—and by extension, of humanity—as much as it travels into outer space. The universe serves as mirror, and the farther outward we go, the further inward it forces us.
On the distant planet that provides the novel's setting, a living ocean gives material form to the memories of the scientists who've come to study it. It also mimics the beautiful—and ultimately incomprehensible—complexity of the universe they seek to understand.
By mirroring the fundamental difficulty human beings have in understanding one another as well as the universe, the ocean in Solaris makes the life of the mind momentous and expansive.
For me, Solaris called to mind specific passages from other, earlier works of fiction, three of the most beautiful, in fact, each of which achieves a similar joining of inner and outer worlds.
All three happen at critical junctures in their stories, intimate moments when characters have tried and failed to forge connections with another person—friend, sibling, or lover—whom they wish desperately to understand. The landscape itself rises up in their way, ancient geography acting out human limitation.
Two of the passages are from novels by E.M. Forster; the third, from a James Joyce short story. I'm sure other writers have done similar things–leave a comment if any occur to you!
There was a long silence, during which the tide returned into Poole Harbour. “One would lose something,” murmured Helen, apparently to herself. The water crept over the mud-flats towards the gorse and the blackened heather. Branksea Island lost its immense foreshores, and became a sombre episode of trees. Frome was forced inward towards Dorchester, Stour against Wimborne, Avon towards Salisbury, and over the immense displacement the sun presided, leading it to triumph ere he sank to rest. England was alive, throbbing through all her estuaries, crying for joy through the mouths of all her gulls, and the north wind, with contrary motion, blew stronger against her rising seas. What did it mean? For what end are her fair complexities, her changes of soil, her sinuous coast? Does she belong to those who have moulded her and made her feared by other lands, or to those who have added nothing to her power, but have somehow seen her, seen the whole island at once, lying as a jewel in a silver sea, sailing as a ship of souls, with all the brave world’s fleet accompanying her towards eternity?
- E.M. Forster, Howard’s End
India a nation! What an apotheosis! Last comer to the drab nineteenth-century sisterhood! Waddling in at this hour of the world to take her seat! She, whose only peer was the Holy Roman Empire, she shall rank with Guatemala and Belgium perhaps! Fielding mocked again. And Aziz in an awful rage danced this way and that, not knowing what to do, and cried: “Down with the English anyhow. That’s certain. Clear out, you fellows, double quick, I say. We may hate one another, but we hate you most. If I don’t make you go, Ahmed will, Karim will, if it’s fifty-five hundred years we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then “—he rode against him furiously— “and then,” he concluded, half kissing him, “you and I shall be friends.”
“Why can’t we be friends now?” said the other, holding him affectionately. “It’s what I want. It’s what you want.”
But the horses didn’t want it—they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, “the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.”
- E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark, “falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
- James Joyce, The Dead