Quick AN: My first of really anything to be posted on here, despite how long I've had this account. As such, I would love constructive criticism to help me later on. Read and review if you feel that there is something comment worthy.
Note: This is an extended and edited article from my original that was posted on Stop the Press's semi-monthly issue you can read on here. If, by chance, anyone on here wants to read the original or just to check out the group itself, you can find the link in my profile. It's just a general collaboration between some of the readers and writers on fiction press.
Something groped out with trailing fingers of mist from the mountain's shadow. In a cave by a deep lake, a lonely shade sighed and thought of the sun.
The society of man has always been fascinated with death. When a young kid's favorite pet dies, one of their questions may be "what's death, Daddy?" When you are a kid, you are generally naïve and sheltered by your society from the evils of civilization and life. It is the undoing of our race to want to fix or conceal the inevitable.
Think Odysseus, the sibyl, Psyche, Persephone, and all the others, mortal or immortal that ran into death, sometimes quite literally, in Greek and Roman myth. In Japanese myths, the creator goddess dies in childbirth bringing life to a fire god, and her husband travels to the land of death to bring her back, only to discover the horrors that lurk there. Oedipus and Eurydice shared a similar end as well.
Sentients, like their gods and heroes, want to plumb the mysteries of the afterlife, or bring a loved one back from the ice and fire. Our myths reveal this, and are as interconnected to each other as the many flood stories that are spread throughout our cultures. We are morbidly (pun intended) obsessed with death and dying.
How often do we come across modern day retellings of journeys to the afterlife? Not a lot; our mythology and religion contain much of those myths with a layer of dust over all of them. However, you still get the classic retelling of clichés that are replacing those trips to the shadowy Underworld such as people with terminal illnesses, or Christian angels and pearly gates. With the advent of modern technology, much of our previous fascination of death and the great beyond is restricted to cotton candy promises of a paradise and longevity enhancing treatments. The Mesopotamian afterlife filled with dust and shadows is gone and replaced by such dreams and promises which lack the chills and substance of previous eras. Obviously, while modernity is definitely something to be appreciated, it has drained the adrenalin out of religious philosophical of much older civilizations.
In fantasy, this is not the case. The Underworld, Hell, the realms below, the Fields of Aaru, and all its other names and epithets are well and alive in the various sub-genres of fantasy. The older, more shadowy places that the dead 'live' in are still created and contemplated over by many writers and readers today. Like in the older religions and myths, those heroes that do go down below have many reasons, and many more ideas on the exact geography of the land of the dead.
So when a hero muses on life or journeys to the ends of the world (like in the Odyssey or even Pirates of the Caribbean) in the fashion of the epic hero, their reasons will be great and many. Whether it's a culture of brainy mongooses or a fishing village of humans, intelligent life will almost always have reasons or descriptions of death and the underworld. Life is curious. Fantasy is no exception.