More literary cartography – Using maps in modern fiction to understand maps in fantasy

Continuing in the discussion of literary cartography/geography I would like to provide a summation of what I have learned from a small article by Christina Ljungberg called Constructing New “Realities”: The Performative Function of Maps in Contemporary Fiction and from a book by Eric Bulson called Novels, Maps, Modernity: The Spatial Imagination, 1850-2000. Both pieces of writing have more to do with modern fiction (where settings typically take place in cities or other areas that actually exist, but can still be imaginary, i.e. Dublin, Ireland but with the street name changed) than with fantasy stories, but they discussed a great deal in how space can be constructed and cartography be used to represent that space universally in reference to an imagined place. This, of course, I consider valuable in order to further my understanding and apply it to a map of my own.

There is not a great deal of information to be pulled from Ljungberg’s writing that can be directly applied to my study of fantasy maps, but she makes a few significant conclusions regarding maps in fictional stories. She provides some basic information about maps that she argues writers like to use as a means of letting readers “see” their stories in various ways. In other words it provides readers with another dimension for interacting with the content of the stories – to visualize the text spatially.

Ljungberg says “the reason why writers display such an obvious fascination with maps may well lie in their own constant struggle with the limitations of writing” (160). I touched slightly on how writers may be restricted with expressing their imaginations regarding space and place, but how exactly are they limited? I recall Tolkien being more descriptive of the surrounding environment and the landscape than any other fantasy writer I have read. In fact, I have heard quite a few people complain about how much time he spends talking about the scenery. But, then again, Tolkien also provides us with a map of Middle-Earth, and it supplements his writing well.

“…although both maps and texts are abstractions, the map’s superior spatial representation makes it seem much closer to the geographical, “real” world than a written text in which there is no such direct resemblance between the words and the forms, relationships or processes that the writer tries to express” (160).

A description of the Fellowship approaching the Argonath as they travel the Great River. From the "Fellowship of the Ring."

Therefore, we assume that just viewing a map provokes the idea that one is “seeing” the “reality” of the story in terms of space (of course when speaking of reality we should assume that we have suspended our own to accept the terms of the writer’s imagination). That visual connection to even just the top-down perspective of the land allows us to imagine a number of other spatial elements aside from mere location and pathways. The words describing Rivendell allow me to visualize the city from the ground level, and then apply it to the birds-eye view. This may just sound like basic map-reading, but I want to emphasize how important a map can be for further immersing oneself in the story. In fact, there have been a few times that I have gotten lost in a book – geographically lost – because I could not visualize distances or boundaries. It is not necessarily the author’s fault, especially considering that interpretation is relative. But when one is trying to explain all the aspects of geography (history, culture, populations, scenery, etc.) that is associated with introducing a new place, it can be confusing.

“Instead of floating in our minds, the street signs and place names are pinned down and their spatial relationship decoded. The space of the novel, then, makes sense on the map in a way that it does not in the novel” (Bulson 125).

Just as an example, though it’s not fantasy genre, I am reading a book called Man-Kzin Wars IX, a science fiction novel, which does not include a map and, using the text, I am only able to vaguely visualize an entire planet’s surface features and related locations of all man-made structures both on the surface and on surrounding satellites. Turchi said that even the smallest amount of information can be comforting, though (which is why we seem to be satisfied with overly simple color-coded political maps of the U.S.).

The idea that representing the spatial aspects of a story on a map in some way provides readers with ways to progress their perspective of it outside the text is not just restricted to fantasy story telling. Modernist style fiction utilizes this as well. In modernist fiction novels, space is usually heavily rooted within reality. Stories take place in places that do exist, even if the names of streets or other characteristics are altered. Thus the readers experience fictional realism that situates their imagination in believable space.

“Indeed, the ‘realistic particularity’ of space, has always played an important role in the rise of fictional realism. Instead of happening in a place long ago and far away, novels have been set in cities towns, and regions that readers would recognize as real even if they were not exactly sure where to find them” (Bulson 21).

Bulson uses Don Quixote as an example on this page. The novel takes place in Spain, a real place (obviously) but the story is fictional. One can take a map of Spain and estimate, using geographic cues from the text, the journey that Don Quixote took across the countryside. Here we have fictional information overlaying real information. In this case the story becomes even more “real” to us because we can visualize how it might be real. So how does this relate to the fantasy genre? Fantasy writers treat the space I which their stories take place as if they were a part of reality, so the maps of their worlds will represent that “reality.” Both fantasy maps and maps that represent reality can serve as “realistic” platforms in which readers can track the movements within fictional space of characters within a story. The connection is that readers and map readers wantrealism within imaginary worlds. It makes things more believable and less outrageous or over-the-top. Readers have a desire to visualize the abstract space that text generates realistically, and maps, whether created by the authors, or created by the readers themselves, accomplish that.

A map of Don Quixote's journey across Spain. Spain is real, but his journey was not. How can fantasy maps achieve this same sense of realism without using real places?

“To conclude, the use of maps in fiction constitutes an interesting strategy for adding new and challenging dimensions of reading. This is, I would suggest, due to the map’s superior spatial and abstract potential, which allows writers to develop additional meaning by means of a non-sequential two-dimensional semiotic system, different from the linear, one-dimensional system of writing” (Ljungberg 173).


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