Place Character Shibboleth: Towards an understanding of bypass stories: 03/29/18
In the beginning there was the land, the river, and the animals who traversed the landscape and carved out the first roads through their repeated movements. Then came mankind across the land bridge and the animal roads were repurposed and new paths created. Then came European mankind across the sea and larger communities were built with roads to connect them. Some were the old animal paths. Some were the Native American ones. Some were larger, guarded things — turnpikes with money collected to maintain them, to keep the landscape from encroaching and reclaiming the soil.
Then came the Industrial Revolution and with it the Engine. Water, steam, and gasoline when given axels and wheels could drive faster and farther across well made roads or along large waterways or along smooth laid rails. But it was two particular vehicles: the safety bicycle and the gasoline driven automobile that demanded the biggest change in to landscape. Their wheels worked best with smooth, dry, straight or gently curved roads. First came the named highway, then the numbered routes, and finally the interstates.
With each new road comes the reality of isolation through bypass. Old lands, old homes, old towns all run the risk of being forgotten as new roads find new routes. In the American road narrative, these bypass stories fall into two categories: ones where good towns are forgotten and the new road is the enemy, and others where evil lurks in those forgotten, bypassed locations.
In my study of the American road narrative, I have collectively called these types of stories, "Crossing the Cornfield" because it was the cornfield stories I first recognized. As I read further and expanded my horizons, I came to realize that the cornfield is but one manifestation of the bypass story.
These stories have three distinct features: a place that is separate from other places, a particular type of character who either is trapped by the bypass or is the warden of said bypass, and a lexicon of magical words or special items that are the key to freedom.
I'm using the word shibboleth loosely here because it fits so well with my initial "crossing the cornfield" designation. Shibboleth literally means "ear of corn" but it has been used to mean a secret word to prove one's right to pass — or more broadly a distinct sign of one's nationality or membership in a group. For the bypass story, the shibboleth is the word or thing that allows free passage across or through or around that bypass.
Take for instance, Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz. The first Oz book opens with Dorothy feeling trapped in her gray world of routine on her aunt and uncle's Kansas farm. A cyclone (Baum's choice of word) picks up her house, carries it over the cornfield and well beyond what she could cross on her own, and puts her down in Munchkin Land on the far eastern edge of Oz.
Now in this case, Dorothy is both free of her initial bypass entrapment, and now, newly trapped in a much stranger bypass. Oz, as we learn in later books is completely encircled by a deadly desert. On the other side of the sands are other countries and all of those collectively are then separated from the rest of the world or reality or whatever by an ocean. Oz is very isolated in comparison to landlocked Kansas.
But for that initial Oz encounter, Dorothy is promised a way home if she "follows the Yellow Brick Road." In The Road to Oz Dorothy will learn that when traveled correctly, the Yellow Brick Road can even take one back to Kansas. The road, though, here is not her shibboleth. Instead, that is a two parter: the slippers she takes from the corpse of the Wicked Witch of the East (be they silver or ruby) and the phrase "there's no place like home."
Again, interestingly for Dorothy, the "there's no place like home" changes meaning over the course of the series, ultimately settling on home being Oz.
The point though of my Dorothy Gale example is that the bypass story has three parts: a specific location, specific characters who can interact with the location, and a specific phrase or item that allows passage.
Below is a chart of ones I've cataloged so far.