Where to begin? Laying the foundation.

Thror's map of the Lonely Mountain from The Hobbit.

When I first read The Hobbit back in middle school, I spent more time flipping from the middle of the book to the front of the book to look at the map than I did actually reading. I did the same from The Lord of the Rings, the Dragonlance series and especially Dinotopia. I have never actually read The Chronicles of Narnia but I used to look those maps, too. I have also read a few other fantasy books with maps in them, but they weren’t as good as Tolkein’s or Lewis’s. Nonetheless they were still intriguing and awesome as my younger self would (and my older self still) say.

Fantasy is not strictly contained in literature, of course, as this genre can exist in almost any storytelling medium. Movies, video games, comics and role playing all have their fair share of fantasy story hits. Before breaking categories down, fantasy must first be defined.

A fantasy can be any mental image conjured from the imagination; it is unreal and usually extravagant or unrestrained. Fantasy is fictional, therefore any story that is not history or news or whatever can be fantastical. Fantasy is also a genre of storytelling, one that commonly uses magic and the supernatural ad elements of the plot, theme, characters, setting, etc. There are a few different sub-genres contained within, and often fantasy crosses over with science fiction and horror, distinguishing itself by generally not containing significant scientific and macabre themes. The most common trend is to set stories within medieval-type realms or have aspects that can be considered from the medieval era, like sword fighting, castles, dragons and other medieval mythos, and magic. In such a way, fantasy is inherently tied to a medieval style of imagination. Tolkien set his stories in a world with many magical creatures, like dragons, trolls, and giant spiders, as well as magical people, like elves, wizards and dwarves. The entire world of Middle-Earth and places beyond has a medieval style. C.S. Lewis’s world of Narnia is medieval as well, as the characters were transformed into sword fighting protectors. The entirety of Wizard’s Dungeons and Dragons, the very popular role-playing game, is medieval and magical. There are many examples of fantasy video games as well, including the recent Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and The Legend of Zelda. Each story has its own terms and twists to the general fantasy genre to which it belongs. Each story has its own world which can potentially be mapped and has already been mapped by the creator, which is what brings me to the main focus of my directed readings: studying the form and function of maps that represent fantasy worlds.

In order to continue, however, it is necessary to break down exactly where and why maps may exist in different kinds of storytelling. Maps in literature act to accompany the reader as a means of providing spatial awareness of the places and events in the story. It can be seen as a reference tool and can help guide the reader along the paths that the characters take. The text and the map are separate entities, but can be constantly visualized while reading. A book can tell a story perfectly fine without a map, so maps in books exist to provide more information. Yet, when a map accompanies a story, they are inseparable to the imagination of the reader, as they represent the space in which it takes place. These ideas do not truly answer the questions regarding these maps, however. Questions like: What cartographic functions do maps serve in fantasy novels? How is fictional space represented on maps? How do maps of fantasy worlds compare to maps that represent reality? What are the relationships that exist between traditional cartographic objectivity and traditional literary subjectivity? What parts of an imagined world can and cannot be mapped and where do the limits of cartographic power exist therein?

These questions and more will be the subject of a number of following posts – beginning with a reading of an editorial from The Cartographic Journal on cartographies of fictional worlds, and continuing with Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination. The readings are not exclusively about fantasy novels, but I believe much of the information applies directly to my focus. The goal is gain a solid understanding, through a broader examination of all types of fiction, of the function of maps that accompany or are contained within fantasy literature.


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