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What’s the Point of Mapping Imaginary Worlds?

februari 3, 2010

”If you open a fantasy novel, you’ll find a map.” This notion is remarkably widespread among readers and scholars within as well as outside the genre, and it is even more surprising to find how little research has actually been carried out about fantasy maps. (If there had been more, it would possibly be better known that only some 30 – 40 per cent of all fantasy novels actually have maps.) This dearth of scholarship makes it even more gratifying when one finds a well-reasoned text that makes an attempt to approach the issue.

Ricardo Padrón’s ”Mapping Imaginary Worlds” (in Akerman, James R. and Robert W. Karrow Jr., eds. Maps: Finding Our Place in the World. Chicago: U. of Chicago P., 2007. 255-87.) is such a text. It attempts to ”explore some of these maps [of imaginary worlds], in the hope of understanding at least some of the possibilities involved in this vast but peculiar branch of mapmaking” (256). On the whole, Padrón does so commendably, and the many sumptious colour prints of the various maps he discusses (and a few he doesn’t discuss) make this a very enjoyable reading experience.

Of course both ”imaginary” and ”map” are questionable words, and Padrón questions them before setting off, explaining that in the text, he will take them to mean iconographic maps of imaginary worlds invented by a particular person at a perticular time. From this, a fantasy buff would realise that fantasy maps must obviously be included, and will quickly learn that fantasy in no way was first with the inclusion of maps in fiction. Already during the Renaissance, Dante’s Hell and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia were published along with maps (which can be found on the book’s Wikipedia page). Other examples of literary (and imaginary) maps mentioned include the various islands visited by Gulliver as well as R. L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

Already from Padrón’s discussion of these early maps, I realise that we disagree on what seems to me a rather important point. To me, mapping an imaginary place as a creative process (or part of one) is quite different from mapping a world as a descriptive one. In other words, creating a map before there is a world to map (or doing the mapping as the world grows, alongside the writing) is not the same thing as trying to figure out how to make a map of an imaginary place already created by someone else. The maps various artists made from Inferno and the few descriptions found therein may represent imaginary places but they do not create the world. Stevenson, on the other hand, created the map first, before beginning to write about it. The map created the world, the text, to some extent, had to follow. I realise that any map based in a literary work needs the mapmaker to assume and fill in blanks (I have a map of Charles de Lint’s Newford which I have laboriously put together from tiny hints in the various novels and short-stories, and much of it remains my own assumptions). But creating worlds visually and verbally must be different. The spatial aspect of the map makes visible blanks and contradictions in a way text does not. Not to differentiate between creative and descriptive mapping is to ignore the difference between portraying and representing.

While Padrón came across as authoritative and credible most of the time, my trust in him faltered occasionally. In discussing the Utopia maps, he failed to take into account the time when they were produced (1516 and 1518, respectively). The comment that ”They so simplify or distort Utopia’s geography that they are useless as reader’s aids” not only begs the question, what is a useful reader’s aid? It also indicates that the writer is too busy looking towards his conclusion (they are fantasies about our quest for knowledge, not for Utopia) that he forgets the lesson of his own previous section: the Inferno maps follow the aesthetic ideals of Renaissance Florence. Of course the Utopia maps follow the map aesthetics of early 16th century northern Europe. A comparison with, for instance, a 1536 map of Exeter and the Devon coast shows the same foreshortening depth (this is one reason Utopia seems close to the land behind it) and focus on salient features (say, features useful for mariners at sea to navigate by). Other aspects of the Utopian maps also mark them as products of their time: the billowing sea and the distincs hatching of the coast; and the ships of both maps are quite similar to one found a 1513 German map.[1]

This is a tiny detail in a good discussion, however, and my basic problems with the section on ”Fantasy, Fun, and Fairies” started with details, too. I realise that to a reader who is not a Tolkien scholar, what I have to say now might sound like nitpicking. I agree; but I confess to feeling somewhat disappointed about all the nits that I had to pick.[2]

On the whole, this is as well-written as the previous section, and it is gratifying to find that even the problem of who is actually the mapmaker of the Middle-earth maps is addressed (in note 10). The point that there is a border between known and unknown where Rhovanion becomes Rhûn and Gondor turns into Haradwaith is well made. I agree: it is an invitation to daydream, to fill the terra incognita of Middle-earth with something. But I wish Haradwaith was spelt correctly, and that Middle-earth was written thus (Tolkien’s way) rather than ”Middle Earth”. And reporting Pierre Jourde’s point on the structure of the geography without apparently reflecting over it was, I fear, unwise.

Jourde apparently sees the west of Middle-earth as divided into Gondor & Eriador – lands of civilization and Goodness; and the east into Rhovanion & Mordor – lands of wildness and Evil. Pretty, reductive &helip; and misleading. Most of Eriador is uncivilised and wild; the entire northern parts are full of evil beasts kept at bay only by the Rangers, while Rhovanion, although wild in parts, also contains Lórien and Legolas’s people in Mirkwood as well as the Dwarves of Erebor and the Iron Hills – and the people of Rohan. Hard to say which region is the more civilised, really. I know that it has been popular to see Tolkien’s work in nicely binary terms, but it really isn’t, or at least no more than any other. In Middle-earth, evil can grow in anyone if they should fall to temptation, and no goodness is absolute. It’s there in the text; it’s there on the map.

Ultimately, the Tolkien maps are the fantasy maps analysed, if one does not include (and I’m tempted to do so) the short but punchy look at maps in online games, mainly World of Warcraft. The mapping drive of the players is noted and discussed: the maps developed in the games are linked to the idea of exploration and quest. These maps offer, we are told, new blank spaces, something suburbia is running short of. Excellent point, I’d say, and the conclusion that fantasy maps (in books or games) invite us to revel in imaginative travel rings awfully true.

After the WoW section, the text loses impetus; there is a look at two maps that combine fairy tale characters and settings in a land of Fairy-tales, a rather terse discussion of maps in the Modernists William Faulkner and Juan Benet, and a vague gesture to maps used in or produced as artwork (imaginary in a different way; the section felt somewhat contrived, but I can see the point). The ultimate conclusion was basically that we are affected by these maps of imaginary places, not because they are different as maps, but that the worlds are new and different. Any map, Padrón suggests, would probably have the same effect – and I suspect that at least partly, he’s completly right.

[1] An excellent book of early map history and aesthetics, which I have used for these comparisons, is Edward Lynam’s The Mapmaker’s Art: Essays on the History of Maps. London: Batchworth Press, 1953. The Exeter and Devon coast map is fig. 33, the ship is found in fig. 25. Back

[2] The one that hit me hardest was probably: ”Saruman, the lesser of the two evil wizards in The Lord of the Rings (275). While on some level arguably true (Saruman is the lesser of two evil maiar), it does diminish Sauron’s role something terrible. Back

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