“Cartographies of Fictional Worlds” – Piatti and Hurni

That's not Gimli and that's not Aragorn...shhh

The characters went all over the place in this book. The map in front was helpful, but it wasn't necessary.

When someone looks at a map, what is he trying to do? The simplest function of a map is to provide spatial information regarding where someone or something is and providing the necessary related information to determine how to get to another place, or how far away something is. The map would need to be accurate or else it would not be useful for him. The goal for that mapmaker would be to provide information as objectively as possible (those who study cartography know that maps are inherently subjective, but they can be less subjective – they also know that it’s not always the mapmaker’s goal to be objective). When someone reads fiction, or nearly any other form of literature, all analysis is subjective. No two people experience the text the same way. So how can someone’s personal experience be represented by a map that objectively provide information regarding a fictional piece of literature? Does the objectivity of a map detract from the reader’s experience? How can these two components be analyzed from both a literary and cartographic perspective?

A contradictory relationship seems to exist between cartographic objectivity and literary subjectivity and merits examination, particularly when an author creates a map for his/her story. If the author is trying to convey a message through his/her text, what kind of message is the map conveying, particularly regarding what is included, emphasized and omitted on it? Barbara Piatti and Lorenz Hurni in The Cartographic Journal wrote an editorial called Cartographies of Fictional Worlds discussing what exactly literary cartography is, uncertainties regarding the subject, and how scholars have approached it.

The first task is to distinguish between literary geography and literary cartography. Literary geography, they say, “is the observation that fictional plots are set along a scale of localizations that range from the realistically rendered, highly recognizable to the completely imaginary.” When it comes to space in fantasy, there are no restrictions – I am thinking about all of the examples of cities or castles built on a cliff edge or how vast some locations seem or how climate seems to change so drastically over short distances. A writer can make his world any way he wants. Literary cartography can be seen as a focus within literary geography, a way to “provide one possible approach by using symbolic language; spatial elements of fictional texts are translated into cartographic symbols, which allows new ways in exploring and analyzing that particular geography of literature.” It has to be said that this is not limited to maps that authors create with their stories. This study pertains to actively mapping stories as well from a reader’s perspective, or a historical one, etc.

Piatti and Hurni say there are some concerns worth looking into. Some tension may exist when trying to map out a story, particularly regarding the intension of the story’s author. Virginia Woolf said in her essay Literary Geography in 1905 that “A writer’s country is a territory within his own brain; and we run the risk of disillusionment if we try to turn such phantom cities into tangle brink and mortar…to insist that [a writer’s city] has any counterpart in the cities of the earth is to rob it half of its charm.” In what ways do maps detract from a piece of fiction? What do they add? (I wish to explore this concern more closely in a subsequent post about Ina Habermann’s and Nikolaus Kuhn’s attempt to create a climate map for Tolkien’s Middle Earth).

When it comes to literature, readers tend to praise ambiguity, because the reader can experience the story in his own way without having to adhere to structure or certain rules – you can’t tell people how to read your book. Ambiguity on a map can be confusing, which is why they are many rules which should be observed to make it understandable. So how can something with virtually no structure upon which to interpret it be conveyed using a method that requires a great deal of structure to produce? And how can geographical components on the story be interpreted and represented?

“…literary cartography…has to deal with more than one uncertainty factor, both in the primary material and on the methodological level. First the texts themselves do not always provide distinct information concerning their topographical and geographical dimensions; second different interpreters can choose different viewpoints.” (220)

from Dragons of Autumn Twilight

A functional, albeit simple map. Where is that cool part where the black dragon comes out of the well in that ancient city? Aw, man.

“In short, also a seemingly scientific approach such as database-supported mapping of literature in fact includes an unpredictable undercurrent of hermeneutic ambiguities and uncertainties.” (220)

Much discussion within the study of literary cartography has to do with generating maps from texts rather than examining maps that are already provided by the author. However, I think that this article brings up a number of significant points related to how space is created, portrayed, interpreted and mapped in fiction, which I can then apply specifically to fantasy maps. One aspect that I find interesting is how the author maps out his world versus want I wish to see on the map. Reading The Lord of the Rings, everything located to the northeast of the Shire held no significance for me, yet Tolkien thought it was significant for him to include it on his map. His map is very detailed. The maps in the Dragonlance series, particularly from “Dragons of Autumn Twilight” (left) and “Dragons of Winter Night” the maps were small and did not include some of the more specific geographical features that were described in the text.

It all boils down to the objective nature of maps and the subjective nature of fiction interpretation. Both concepts are directly related to each other and although maps and texts can exists separately, there exists some uncertainty from both geographic and literary scholars, as well as readers, on just what they mean for the other.


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