Why we love underworld stories: Part one–Revealing Character

The vision of Drythemlm I think illustrates one of the key draws of Underworld literature in the classical or Christian tradition. These stories reveal the participant’s true character and often the character of the actors they see punished. In Alderik’s Quest I portray Iritana with the ability to intuitively see a person’s character. She uses this skill to direct the shades she meets to a better end in the story because justice has been supernaturally thwarted. The revealing of character in the underworld is a common trope.

These visionary and underworld stories make us confront the true nature of humanity.  There is no doubt that some of these works were used for overt teaching purposes. Gregory said that these visions were given so that “ when the torments of heaven and hell are shown to men and woman, sometimes it is for their own benefit and sometimes as a witness to others.” He encouraged learning from these vision experiences.

In accounts that showed many sinners and their punishments, the idea was not only to make people think about how they wanted to avoid punishments in hell but also to search their own characters and find where they were lacking. Carol Zaleski Author of Otherworld Journeys   writes, “These traditions see death as a journey whose final goal is the recovery of one’s true nature.” Underworld stories can be seen as a study of character and nature of a man. When Dryhemem exits from his vision he straightaway does what he can to purify himself so that he can return to heaven. He reminds himself almost daily as he dips himself into the cold water about the vision that he saw and the souls lingering there. He immediately changes how he split up his worldly possessions and dedicates his life to service.

The Stephen that was seen by the soldier in Gregory’s account failed to purify himself from all sins and so the devils had some claim on his soul. Though, he did improve so much in other areas that the angels could fight for him. These stories ask the implicit questions are you truly converted to your religion? What faults still remain in your character? What must you do to prepare yourself individually to inherit the kingdom of heaven?

These stories make us question the things we must give up in order to obtain some future glory. This is exactly the tough spot I place Alderik in. He is asked hard questions and forced to make decisions that will affect the outcome of his fate. In stories about the underworld, hard things are seen and hard choices are made. The things accomplished and seen in the underworld affect our destiny and change our course.

These character searches also lead to the idea of preparation. Zaleski also points out that it is “necessary to prepare-morally, spiritually, or imaginatively—if one is to die well.” It is interesting to ask oneself if I were at the point of death what would I worry about? Have I committed great sins? Perhaps this genre was so popular because it instructed people on how to die without regret or “to die well.” It hit at the heart of a universal fear, dying with regrets or things left undone and taught how to prevent such a thing from happening. These are ideas and themes that even we as a modern audience can relate to. Inside each of us is the firm knowledge that we will die. Though we differ much in perspective from our medieval predecessors, we still explore in literature and discussion the ways that we must deal with death and the wise use of time in our lives.

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