Where rocks dance and trees yawn with the dawning of day
With its jagged coast and mountainous topography, Norway is a prime setting for stories of mythical beings. Trolls lurk among the fjords while seductive spirits haunt the forests. Such creatures seem one with their natural home, and to describe their domain is to offer readers a deeper understanding of the greater world they inhabit. Much of the fiction I write is set in the north, where the reader is wise to look out for rocks dancing and trees stretching their stiff limbs as they awaken (even if not literally). One of the literary elements I am working on is giving voice to setting, so that it’s crafted almost as a character itself.
Looking to three works for examples, I’ll begin with A Woman in the Polar Night, Christiane Ritter’s memoir of spending a year in Svalbard, Norway, in 1933. In the desolate ice world far north of the Arctic Circle, the sun makes its final brief appearance in October and disappears until February. Shuddering when this “terrible moment” arrives, Ritter notes the infernal qualities of the changing light.
The conflict between the weakening light of day and the triumphing light of the moon creates bewildering contrasts in the very clear, violently bleak landscape. … Like the reflection of a distant conflagration, the northern lights, growing steadily more visible, drift in subdued reddish gleams across the sky. Moonlight and arctic light are warm and glowing in contrast to the cold blue of the sky. The moon lights up Cake Mountain. … It looks as though the jaws of hell had opened behind the shadowed mountain wall, outlining its massive bulk with a diabolic glare. These are scenes not made for human eyes. The drama of the polar world sinking slowly into shadow is played out in utter silence and remoteness. The scenes are changed by sorcery.Ritter, A Woman in the Polar Night.
In unassuming, plain language, Ritter describes the setting in such a way that allows the reader to envision it and feel its oppression and psychological impact. With clean prose and simple words, Ritter carries the reader through the bleak landscape with an ease that allows us to journey with her.
As in A Woman in the Polar Night, Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard relies on engaging and varied descriptions to take the reader along on his spiritual journey through the Himalayas. Much of the journey is difficult. Even so, he infuses the descriptions of the setting with hope.
Clouds creep after us, up the canyon, and for once skies look more promising ahead: a shaft of sun that lights the snow at the head of the Seng Khola is a beacon. Then come the first gray drops of rain, this cold rain with a cold wind behind it that overtakes us every afternoon. The river is somber, with broken waterfalls and foaming rock, in a wasteland of sere stubble and spent stone, and I wonder why, in this oppressive place, I feel so full of well-being, striding on through the rain, and grateful in some unnamable way.Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard.
Finally, the oppressive and lonely settings in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre serve as companions for the often-solitary Jane, creating a mood that allows readers to access the deeper part of the protagonist’s heart. Jane, an orphan, is a governess at Thornfield Hall. A place haunted by mysterious shrieks and secrets, the hall seems to possess the dark and unpredictable tendencies of its master (and Jane’s future fiancé), Mr. Rochester. After their thwarted wedding, Jane escapes into the remote landscape, finding shelter in an earthen bed. Nature provides a motherly sort of refuge from the elements while it tends to her emotions.
I struck straight into the heath; I held on to a hollow I saw deeply furrowing the brown moorside; I waded knee-deep in its dark growth; I turned with its turnings, and finding a moss-blackened granite crag in a hidden angle, I sat down under it. High banks of moor were about me; the crag protected my head: the sky was over that. Some time passed before I felt tranquil. … I looked at the sky; it was pure: a kindly star twinkled just above the chasm ridge. The dew fell, but with propitious softness; no breeze whispered. Nature seemed to me benign and good; I thought she loved me, outcast as I was.Brontë, Jane Eyre.
In summary, these works demonstrate several ways of using settings to create an engaging, rich experience for the reader. Christiane Ritter employs simple observation and creates dynamic descriptions that allow the reader to feel the psychological impact of the setting. Peter Matthiessen infuses his emotional experience into the details, helping the reader experience his journey as if we were along with him. Finally, in Jane Eyre, each setting serves the story in some way, reflecting the inner moods and emotions of the characters. Each of these examples informs the way I intentionally use setting. Even if there’s no troll or elf in sight, the northern lights paint the sky with an otherworldly glow and the mountains cast brooding shadows over the villages below, infusing the stories I write with a sense of place that’s strong enough to feel like a character.
Brontë, Charlotte, and Stevie Davies. Jane Eyre. London: Penguin Classics, 2008.
Matthiessen, Peter. The Snow Leopard. Penguin Classics. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2016.
Ritter, Christiane. A Woman in the Polar Night. Fairbanks: Univ. of Alaska Press, 2010.