Let Us Speak of the Underdark

In which the author delves into the deep places of the earth, where nameless terrors sleep...

Traversing an Abyss by Stephen Tappin
Traversing an Abyss by Stephen Tappin (found in the Underdark)

Let Us Speak of the Underdark

Dear Reader,

The goblins capture Bilbo and the Dwarves in a night ambush, dragging them down into the bowels of the mountain to face the Goblin King. When Gandalf strikes to save them, it is with the sudden and terrible power of a wizard. Then they're off: the Wizard, Dwarves, and Hobbit racing down the dark tunnels, only to have poor Bilbo tumble off alone, into the night below – where waits a ring and its wretched creature…

Decades later, in the Mines of Moria, Gandalf leads a different party (this time of nine) into the mountains. This is a more patiently drawn out journey: from the door through the caverns to the battle in Balin’s Tomb all the way to the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. There is a greater sense of the oppression of being trapped underground, journeying in the unrelenting dark.

These were my earliest encounters with the underground world, the deep places of the earth of fantasy literature, but I would come again.

Years later, I followed R. A. Salvatore's Drizzt, a native of this strange land – who had never seen the sun or the open sky – up to the surface to leave behind his cruel people and the sunless world. After that, I stumbled in the dark with young Tomas in Feist’s Magician: Apprentice as a wraith stalked him.

These journeys are different from, say: Aeneas’ descent to visit the spirit of his father, or even Orpheus’ quest for his lost wife, or Dante’s journey in the Inferno with Virgil. Such classic texts document journeys down into the underworld, where the dead wait.

Unlike the underworld, the underdark is a realm under the earth with cultures and economies and lost treasures.

And slumbering terrors.

Today, we’re going to briefly visit the Night Below. The deep places of the earth. Perhaps even the sunless sea of underland (though I could have referenced this underland as well). Thankfully we will not be taking the route that Bilbo took his first time down…

A Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide

After Lord of the Rings and Narnia, it was Dungeons & Dragons that more fully introduced me to the strange, dark realm under the surface. Underground adventuring has its roots back in the 1st edition of the game, and so I first delved into the underground perusing the pages of my older brother’s Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (pictures follow).

Stalactites and stalagmites

I didn’t so much read the book as page through, drinking in the images, catching the chapter headings, absorbing the otherly atmosphere: cave formations, unnatural locales, spelunking hazards (including cave-ins), map-making by torchlight, fungal forests, malevolent elves, but, most of all, the strange three dimensional maps.

Columns and draperies

Later on, I bought the Night Below boxed set, a D&D campaign meant to be played over an extended period of time. In the narrative, the heroes are drawn by strange happenings on the surface, down, down into the darkest earth. From these pages, I became deeply fascinated with the denizens of the ever-dark realm: fish people, giants, insane dwarves, aboleths, mindflayers. This world was a place of strange, terrifying life.

Flowstone and gypsum flowers

Now, I never played Night Below (alright we started it once and didn't get far), but I would page through the books inside that dark box over and over and over again – drinking it all in.

It would be years later, when Wizards of the Coasts released the Underdark sourcebook for Forgotten Realms by Bruce Cordell, Gwendolyn Krestel, and Jeff Quick, that I would go beyond paging through and staring and imagining, into actually drawing stories out from the gaming book.

But by then, my well of inspiration was already full to overflowing. I had an idea what adventure in that kind of world should look like – from the first cave entrance to the lowest vault, perils and all.

Burrowing Through the Earth

Like any good wilderness, survival becomes more difficult the further one goes from safe harbors. Access to food, light, friendly faces all diminish the deeper you go. So those who wish to journey into the underdark should come prepared (if they can).

Rope and fire, food and water– these are all critical to have on hand. But if you have ability to do it, I definitely recommend making a map as you go.

Having passed into the night, you will journey down passageways and caverns. But these don't just go straight like hallways, no, they run up and down and along and nowhere. And you must think in 3 dimensions when traversing the underdark (much as would have benefited Khan when he failed to understand that Kirk could strike from above).

Dungeoneer's Survival Guide, pg 76
Dungeoneer's Survival Guide, 76 (Layer 2 of 4)

Your questing will bring you through layers piled atop one another, riddled and punctured with tunnels, pits, and dead ends. Climb down here, scramble up and over this wall, slither through this gap, duck down into this pool and swim underwater to find if there's an adjacent passage – it can be easy to get lost, disoriented.

Dungeoneer's Survival Guide, 77 (Layer 3 of 4)
Dungeoneer's Survival Guide, 77 (Layer 3 of 4)

Then you add in the fact that you don't know what else is nearby. What's around that corner? Might there be the entrance to a vault through that ceiling? Is there a sink hole out in that grotto? Your city of dwarves could grow and thrive with only feet between them and, well, shadow and flame – as the Fellowship learned.

The Nameless Things

When the Fellowship enters Moria after the attack of the watcher in the water, Gandalf says (ominously):

“There are older and fouler things than Orcs in the deep places of the world.”

The Wizard's words gesture at a kind of consensus, sometimes spoken, that closer to the surface are peoples like orcs and dwarves, but the further down you go, the more strange and dark things become. There might be the ruins of ancient civilizations or enclaves of undead sorcerers, Cthuluesque nightmares, sentient and terrible fungi, giants, dragons, long-forgotten gods – or just “empty night” as Gollum found:

‘All the “great secrets” under the mountains had turned out to be just empty night: there was nothing more to find out, nothing worth doing, only nasty furtive eating and resentful remembering.

(Though it seems that Gollum just might not have gone deep enough or he got lucky…)

Later, after Gandalf has fought against the Balrog in the deep earth and followed him to his own death on the mountain side, he recounts his passage through the realm of endless night:

“Far, far below the deepest delvings of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day.”

The world he left behind was so dark, that to even speak of it would darken the daylight world itself. And Gandalf had to follow the Balrog to escape it, chasing his enemy from the deepest dungeon up to the surface once again. That's one way to find your way out if you get drawn into the deepest depths.

Though escape isn't always an option. You could be trapped. Buried alive.

Trapped in King Solomon’s Mines

The lamp grew dimmer yet.
Presently it flared up and showed the whole scene in strong relief, the great mass of white tusks, the boxes of gold, the corpse of the poor Foulata stretched before them, the goat-skin full of treasure, the dim glimmer of the diamonds, and the wild, wan faces of us three white men seated there awaiting death by starvation.
Then the flame sank and expired.
- King Solomon’s Mines, H. Rider Haggard, Ch 17

C.S. Lewis was impacted by his reading of Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, specifically the sense of being trapped underground. He makes a point of comparing a movie adaption, which he had seen, to the novel itself.

In that comparison, he takes issue with the director’s choice to discard Haggard’s original sense of oppressive terror with a cataclysmic event: “The maker of the film version, however, apparently thought this tame. He substituted a subterranean volcanic eruption, and then went one better by adding an earthquake” (C.S. Lewis, “On Stories” in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, 5).

Here is the original text that follows after the 18th chapter title, “We Abandon Hope”:

I can give no adequate description of the horrors of the night which followed. Mercifully they were to some extent mitigated by sleep, for even in such a position as ours wearied nature will sometimes assert itself. But I, at any rate, found it impossible to sleep much. Putting aside the terrifying thought of our impending doom—for the bravest man on earth might well quail from such a fate as awaited us, and I never made any pretensions to be brave—the silence itself was too great to allow of it. Reader, you may have lain awake at night and thought the quiet oppressive, but I say with confidence that you can have no idea what a vivid, tangible thing is perfect stillness. On the surface of the earth there is always some sound or motion, and though it may in itself be imperceptible, yet it deadens the sharp edge of absolute silence. But here there was none. We were buried in the bowels of a huge snow-clad peak. Thousands of feet above us the fresh air rushed over the white snow, but no sound of it reached us. We were separated by a long tunnel and five feet of rock even from the awful chamber of the Dead; and the dead make no noise. Did we not know it who lay by poor Foulata’s side? The crashing of all the artillery of earth and heaven could not have come to our ears in our living tomb. We were cut off from every echo of the world—we were as men already in the grave.

In this passage, Haggard is able to accomplish what I think is the most important part about writing an underground story: evoking the distinctiveness of the deep world and its dangers. Story-telling changes when there is always a ceiling over everything: the measurement of time, the challenge of illumination, the absence of traditional weather.

And the dangers that you face down there, they too should belong distinctly to that world.

Here, Dear Reader, we will return to the surface, having made our first gestural survey of this strange realm. Yes, we leave behind whatever treasures or terrors may yet abide in the darkness below us, yet I think we will descend again in the future, to learn more.

Until we speak again next week.

Best regards,


Want more words, Traveller? Come visit my website at bryanerye.com, or take the direct route to the blog.

Want to throw me some coin to support me financially? I have a Busker's Hat to help buy coffee and used books.

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Well met, Traveller into Perilous Realms. I am your guide Bryan Rye, Game Master and Author. Stay awhile and let us speak of many things.

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