A quarter of the Earth's surface lies at heights above 3,300 feet or more above sea level but these mountain areas are thinly populated by man. Mountains are the closest we can get to the heavens on earth and this says much about their symbolic significance in stories. From the peak of a mountain a character has a better perspective on things. Perhaps he can even see the divisions of ecosystems from his lofty observation point. He can see where the deserts end and the prairies begin and where the oceans stop and the land begins.
Throughout history, mountains have symbolized constancy, eternity, firmness and stillness. Mountain tops, notes J.C. Cooper, "are associated with sun, rain and thunder gods and, in early traditions of the feminine godhead, the mountain was the earth and female, with the sky, clouds, thunder and lightning as the fecundating male." On the spiritual level, observes Cooper, "mountain tops represent the state of full consciousness." Cooper notes that pilgrimmages up sacred mountains symbolize aspiration and renunciation of worldly desires.
The profoundest symbolism of the mountain, Cirlot notes, is one that imparts a sacred character by uniting the concept of mass, as an expression of being, with the idea of verticality.
"As in the case of the cross or the Cosmic Tree, the location of this mountain is at the 'Centre' of the world. This same profound signicance is common to almost all traditions; suffice it to recall mount Meru of the Hindus, the Haraberezaiti of the Iranians, Tabor of the Israelites, Himingbjor of the Germanic peoples, to mention only a few. Furthermore, the temple mountains such as Borobudur, the Mesopotamian ziggurats or the pre-Columbian teocallis are all built after the pattern of this symbol. Seen from above, the mountain grows gradually wider, and in this respect it corresponds to the inverted tree whose roots grow up towards heaven while its foliage points downwards, thereby expressing multiplicity, the universe in expansion, involution and materialization."
Mircea Eliade in Images And Symbols, emphasizes the mountain as the center of the earth. He says that the "peak of the cosmic mountain is not only the highest point on earth, it is also the earth's navel, the point where creation had its beginning." This mystic sense of the peak, writes Cirlot, "also comes from the fact that it is the point of contact between heaven and earth, or the center through which the world-axis passes."
Sunless in winter and capped with permanent land ice and shifting sea ice, the world's polar regions present an image of intense and everlasting cold. Polar conditions preclude all but the toughest life forms on land. Anartica, the great sothern polar continent lies under an ice mantle 5.4 square miles in area and sometimes 13,000 feet thick. In the Artic of the northern hemisphere the three islands of Greenland lie under a pall of ice more than 700,000 square miles in area and up to 9,800 feet thick.
The place symbolism of the polar regions is similar in ways to desert place symbolism in that they are vast areas of unchanging landscape. But unlike deserts, these regions have little life and symbolize the most barren places of the world. And unlike deserts which have a rich tradition in storytelling and story genres, they have found their way into very few story genres. Probably the best-known stories of polar regions are those from Jack London.
5. Places Within Ecosystems
Within the large ecosystems of the world are smaller natural places. Often, they will serve as background for an entire story because they provide a significant amount of space in which to play out the action of the story.
These internal elements of the larger ecosystems are caves, valleys and canyons, islands, rivers, lakes, peninsulas, bays and shores. It is not difficult to see various connections between these and their larger ecosystems. In fact, they are often a part of the larger ecosystem and could not exist without it.
For instance, an island is part of the ecosystem of a body of water such as an ocean or a lake. Likewise, a shore is part of the ecosystem of a body of water such as a lake or an ocean as also is a bay or a penisula. A bay is almost a lake within the larger water ecosystem and a peninsula is almost an island against the larger water ecosystem. A valley needs mountains to be defined as valley.
All of these smaller background settings have played a strong symbolic part in many very famous stories and in fact have a strong correlation to various literary genres. For example, the early adventure genre stories of Robert Louis Stevenson utilized islands as story background. In these stories, the islands were places to go to rather than places to live on. Other writers such as Daniel Defoe and William Golding used islands as entire narrative background settings in stories such as Robinson Crusoe and Lord of the Flies. The Hardy Boys stories often used islands as background but the islands were most often islands in lakes rather than islands in oceans. Islands are places which can hold secret treasure (Treasure Island), dangerous monsters (The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad), and a primitive way of life (Robinson Crusoe and Lord Of The Flies). They can also serve as places where the main character struggles to escape from as in the modern children's story The Island Of The Blue Dolphins.
River symbolism has played an important part in many story genres. This symbolism, though, is somewhat ambivalent. J.E. Cirlot notes that river symbolism "corresponds to the creative power of nature and time. On the one hand it signifies fertility and the progressive irrigation of the soil; and on the other hand it stands for the irreversible passage of time and, in consequence, for a sense of loss and oblivion."
If ocean symbolism is based primarily around water in a relatively unmoving form, river symbolism is based around water in movement. In the book Jung And The Story Of Our Time, Laurens van der Post notes that a river is the image of "water already in movement, finding its own way through great ravines, carrying all over cataract and rapid through conditions of external danger, to emerge intact and triumphant for union with the sea out of which it rose as vapour at the beginning." He says that it succeeds in doing so:
"...only because it finds its own way without short cuts, straight lines, or disregard of any physical impediments but in full acknowledgement of the reality of all that surrounds it, implying that the longest way round is the shortest and only safe way to the sea ... The Rhine is one of the great mythological rivers of the world, a dark and angry stream, as dark and in as strange a rage and passion to get to the sea as the Congo issuing straight out of the darkest center of Africa."
It is the great movement of rivers which have given rise to labeling them with them with personalities and seeing in them symbols for the progression of life itself from small bubbling mountain streams to raging youth to death at their conjunction with the seas and oceans.
Rivers have played an important part in stories. They were important boundary markers in western films and crossing the Rio Grande had a symbolic significance beyond the relatively quick and simple act of moving across a body of water. Besides symbolizing boundaries they also symbolize roadways into the heart of continents and civilizations or away from the heart of continents and civilization.
The Amazon River provides a passageway into the heart of the jungle ecosystem as does the Congo River. In narratives using trips up great rivers the symbolic significance of this setting has to do with a return to the primitive heart of mankind. By going up a river the character must push against the natural flow of the river's current and this presents a significant struggle to overcome. One of the most famous stories of the twentieth century, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, demonstrates one of the most effective uses of combining the symbolic background setting with the main idea of the story. This is done by Kurtz's trip up the river into the "heart of darkness."
In addition to providing a passageway into the heart of a continent and a nation, a river can also provide a way of escaping from the culture of the nation. The stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn utilize the Mississippi River as something to flow down, with the current, and away from civilization.
Significantly, cities on rivers take on a symbolic importance in stories. There are cities like St. Louis at the intersections where smaller rivers flow into the great rivers. There are cities like Memphis and Cincinnati which are along great rivers. There are cities like New Orleans and London which are at the mouth of great rivers.
For the smaller towns on the rivers, the river brought life to the town. Mark Twain in his Life On The Mississippi talks about this symbolism:
"Once a day a cheap, gaudy packet arrived upward from St. Louis, and another downward from Keokuk. Before these events, the day was glorious with expectancy; after them, the day was a dead and empty thing. Not only the boys, but the whole village felt this... the white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer's morning; the streets empty, or pretty nearly so; one or two clerks sitting in front of the Water Street stores ... the great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun; the dense forest away on the other side ... bounding the river-glimpse and turning it into a sort of sea ...Presently a film of dark smoke appears above one of those remote 'points' ... The town drunkard stirs, the clerks wake up ... and all in a twinkling the dead town is alive and moving."
It is the river which brings life to the "drowsy" little towns along its banks and so much defines the characters which live in these towns.
Apart from providing life along their banks, rivers also possess their own life. This symbolic life has also served as symbols in much literature. Few rivers provide as great of a symbol as the great Colorado River.
One of America's greatest nature writers, John C.Van Dyke, catches this life cycle of the Colorado in his book The Desert. "The career of the Colorado," he notes, "from its rise in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming to its final disappearance in the Gulf of California, seems almost tragic in its swift transitions." He tells the life story of the Colorado River from its "birth" high in the Wyoming mountains to its "death" in the Gulf of California. The passage might describe the life of a person, from the person's youth:
"It starts out so cheerily upon its course; it is so clear and pure, so sparkling with sunshine and spirit. It dashes down mountain valleys, gurgles under boulders, swirls over waterfalls, flashes through ravines and gorges. With its sweep and glide and its silvery laugh it seems to lead a merry life."
And then after youth the period of struggle of adult life:
"But too soon it plunges into precipitous canyons and enters upon its fierce struggle with the encompassing rock. Now it boils and foams, leaps and strikes, thunders and shatters. For hundreds of miles it wears and worries and undermines the rock to its destruction. During the long centuries it has cut down into the crust of the earth five thousand feet. But ever the stout walls keep casting it back, keep churning it into bubbles, beating it into froth."
Then the period of old age:
"At last, its canyon courses run, exhausted and helpless, it is pushed through the escarpments, thrust out upon the desert, to find its way to the sea as best it can. Its spirit is broken, its vivacity is extinguished, its color is deepened to a dark red - the trail of blood that leads up to the death."
And finally, it meets its "obliteration" or death by flowing into the Californian Gulf:
"Wearily now it drifts across the desert without a ripple, without a moan. Like a wounded snake it drags its length far down the long wastes of sand to where the blue waves are flashing on the Californian Gulf. And there it meets - obliteration."
And the waters of the Colorado, remain a mystery to those who try to understand it:
"The Silent River moves on carrying desolation with it; and at every step the waters grow darker, darker with the stain of red - red the hue of decay...there is only one red river and that is the Colorado...there is more than a veneer about the color. It has a depth that seems luminous and yet is sadly deceptive. You do not see below the surface no matter how long you gaze into it. As we try to see through a stratum of porphyry as through that water to the bottom of the river."
Van Dykes says that to "call it a river of blood would be an exaggeration." And yet, he concludes, "the truth lies in exaggeration."