There is something about the myth of a sunken city that seems to call out, siren-like, to our collected subconsciousness. They come in many shapes; the hubris of Atlantis, the horrors of R’lyeh and the decadence of Ys. Even Tolkien subsumes the idea into his own mythic cycle of The Silmarillion when he has Beleriand flooded after the War of Wrath. We can see quite clearly the dappled columns, kelp-wrapped and silent, and the shoals of darting fish that move between them. Abyssal canyons are populated with immense spires, outlined dimly by glimmering bio-luminescence and haunted by vast, lumbering shapes. Those of us who have lived by the ocean will have heard tales of forlorn church bells that ring out from under the night-time sea, pulled into life by the ebbing Spring tide or turbulent storm-waters. Perhaps we have even heard the bells ourselves.
What is it that makes this myth so forceful and we so ready to believe it? There are two strands to this answer.
The first strand is that the Myth of the Sunken City is a powerful allegory for humanity itself. Sunken cities, almost invariably, achieve a height of glory and power but then, as the wheel of fate turns, are cursed to slip under the waves and into history. This arc of success and decay, of youth and age, is a metaphor that has been picked up by innumerable artists across prose, poetry and the visual arts. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, in her 1910 poem ‘The Lost Land’, captures this feeling in a few short lines:
“For, as men muse upon that fable old,
They give sad credence always at the last,
However they have cavilled at its truth,
When with a tear-dimmed vision they behold,
Swift sinking in the ocean of the Past,
The lovely lost Atlantis of their Youth.”
There is something here of nostalgia, also, in that the sunken cities are simultaneously destroyed and preserved by the flood, as time destroys but memory preserves human lives. They become unavailable, exiled from reality, and so become pristine, immortal. The search for Atlantis, the thought that there is some lost knowledge that can be discovered or even that the city itself can be raised back to the surface, is a search back into our own selves. All the never-dids and couldn’t-dos that haunt us are held fast in the coffers of Atlantis and the thought that one day we could retrieve them, untarnished, is a powerful one. Equally, Atlantis’ diametric opposite, the “nightmare corpse-city” of R’lyeh, also threatens to rise again and exude all the horrors that lie hidden under its “mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry”, just as our own pasts hide things that we would rather remained lost and dreaming.
There is great power in a myth which taunts us with revelation, either of good or evil, but which makes that revelation impossible by removing it to a fundamentally different state of
existence. It is the same myth that drives religion, after all, and it is the same myth that drives the political rhetoric of returning to a Golden Age. Whenever someone talks of a return to ‘simpler times’ or of ‘better days’ or of ‘being great again’ they are talking of the Myth of the Sunken City. Rarely do they consider whether it is even possible to return to those times or, perhaps more crucially, whether those times were actually that great, ever actually existed.
What happens when your Atlantis turns out to be R’lyeh? What if it was R’lyeh all along and that was the point?
The second strand of the Myth of the Sunken City is simply this; it is not a myth.
In 1935 the Cumbrian village of Mardale Green, in the north-west of England, slipped under the waters of the artificially-created Haweswater Reservoir. The local residents had been evicted through notices of compulsory sale, their homes used for demolition practice by the British Army’s Royal Engineers. In a strange twist of irony the village’s church, which had once protected the villagers’ souls, was taken apart and its stones used to help build the dam which would flood the valley with 84 billion litres of water, water which was much-needed by the burgeoning industry of Manchester. It must have felt to the villagers like their valley was being intentionally drowned and, like many drownings, it was not quick. The idea of a reservoir in the area was first proposed in 1866, the development gained approval in 1919 and construction of the dam started in 1929. Mardale’s death was a drawn-out affair, the rural victim held down in the rising waters by the claws of Capitalism.
Unlike the fictional cities of Atlantis and R’lyeh and Ys, however, Mardale does sometimes rise again. In periods of drought, as there were in 2003 and 2010, the reservoir levels drop and reveal the bones of the village; a handful of stone paths, a few walls, the remains of the bridge that would’ve crossed the original watercourse. It is an eerie sight, not much different from the drystone walls that divide and sub-divide the nearby hills but somehow redolent with ghosts and a whispering sadness. It is not the return to long-ago glory we were promised. You can never go back.
This exhumation is the stark reality of the Sunken City myth; the waters may preserve but they preserve a corpse. Atlantis does not rise out of the ocean pristine and haloed but cracked and silt-smeared. Those who use the Myth of the Sunken City to turn our fear of the future into a mindless longing for a never-was past will only give us a future that is worthy of that fear.
Postscript: In writing this article I learned that Haweswater Reservoir is the lake where the doomed actor Withnail, played by Richard E Grant, howls out his demands on the world (“I’m gonna be a star!”) in Withnail & I. The film is, at least partly, about regret and wasted promise, about failure and the fear of failure. It is somehow appropriate that the perpetual present of a sunken village should be the audience for Withnail, a character who has “made an enemy” of his own future and has no past glories to return to.