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).


Peter Turchi (“Maps of the Imagination”) continued and other things.

Some of the most interesting things I look for in fantasy maps are the influence of medieval culture and myth on the locations, topography, place names, and artwork. I wish to dive further into Mapping Time and Space: How medieval mapmakers viewed their worldby Evelyn Edson during a later post, but I will discuss some of what I have learned as a means of bridging the gap between Turchi’s more abstract ways of thinking about fictional cartography and the aspects of reality that inherently exist in the way such maps are presented to readers. What I mean is that an imagined map is, in fact, and expression of the creator’s own perceptions and understandings of the world, much like a story is influenced and expressed through memories or events in the author’s life. How we construct time and space in our lives is how we may construct it for a fictional realm. Thus, specifically for fantasy maps, a medieval style (characteristic of the genre) of representation and presentation is the most common means of making them. Potential makes fictional spaces so incredible – the potential to create any space we want. This is difficult, though, because so much of what we imagine is influenced by our perceptions of reality. And the map, serving as a way to portray a fictional world as if it were real, seems to create certain limits, which are based in convention. It may seem like I am saying that reality places certain limits on how we can imagine space, which I believe is partially true after reading these two books, but what makes fiction great is being able to think beyond the conventional spatial limits.

The possible existence of weird people with strange anatomy was very popular in the Middle Ages and were sometimes depicted on maps at the edges of the known world.

“A great deal of what we know, we know only through our imagination – and that knowledge is crucial to our lives” (Turchi 92).

Castles on floating islands, mountain ranges extending in all such strange directions or citadels hanging over the edges aren’t something we see in reality, of course, but they can be represented as if they did on a map. As I have said before, the most common function of a map is to represent reality as a means of reference. It is a convention of cartography that people trust maps to show what is real. It’s an instinct for people to trust what maps say, just as they trust in their own mental maps (which they generate through memories and experience). To take it even farther, when someone suspends his belief of reality to trust in a story, or in Turchi’s words “accept its terms,” he instinctively trusts the map(s) accompanying it. Not once while reading Dragons of Autumn Twilight or the Fellowship of the Ring did I question the geography of those worlds. Yet, that’s just the thing, how can we begin to question these maps if they represent a “real” place that only exists in the imagination of the author/mapmaker? How can I critique something that represents something that truly doesn’t exist? And thus can’t be scrutinized against said reality?

It seems for now at least that I must use convention as a tool upon which to examine fantasy maps, based upon my readings so far. How do readers of fantasy stories understand imaginary maps? Do they gravitate towards suspended realism?

I have already established what the fantasy genre of fiction entails. In order to understand and critique the maps of those fantasy places, I must then subject myself to the imagined reality the story establishes. Real reality will always be the foundation upon which I form my perceptions and view those maps, but I must also try to perceive the geography as if that world were the reality.

“A few reminiscences…and the map itself, with its infinite, eloquent suggestion, made up the whole of my materials. It is, perhaps, not often that a map figures so largely in a tale, yet it is always important. The author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary, like his hand; the distance, the points of the compass, the place of the sun’s rusing, the behavior of the moon, should all be beyond cavil. And how troublesome the moon is!” (Robert Louis Stevenson, in Turchi 231).

Using reality to critique fantasy maps might actually create more problems than it would seem, as I will go into in a later post about Habermann and Kuhn’s article about determining the climate/biomes of Middle Earth. We can always try to apply cartographic principles or technicalities to these maps, but is it a futile effort? I hope to find out the more I read.

I don't even know what this is, but apparently they though something like this existed around that road, or something. People in the Middle Ages had healthy imaginations!

This brings me back to what I started writing about. Having read some of Edson’s book, I have learned that medieval mapmakers filled in unknown places with certain “fantastical” creatures. The griffons, leviathans, yetis, and deformed peoples that appeared in the far reaches of southern Africa, the Himalayas and out at sea did not actually exist, of course, but the mapmakers used their imaginations to fill in what they thought might have existed there (based on rumor and myth and such). And without the aerial imagery and technology we have today, mapmakers would have generally had to use their imaginations to draw how they best thought the world appeared from a bird’s eye view. It is easy to critique these maps for the level of inaccuracy, particularly when examining the places they knew best, but how does one critique the spaces filled with dragons and hippogriffs? What similarities can be seen between maps from medieval cartographers and maps of imaginary medieval places? I think, in pursuit of those answers, I can gain a better understanding of how “reality” in fantasy stories is represented through maps.

“Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer” – Peter Turchi

“Cartographers must continually confront the fact that there is no such thing as objective presentation” (Turchi 73).

As I discussed in my previous post, literary cartography constantly struggles with trying to represent objectively (the best they can) the geography of wholly subjective texts. Making a map of one’s personal experience of a fictional geography is one thing, but constructing a map that includes a general representation that many readers with all different experiences can understand and appreciate is completely different.

This is a transit map of Auckland, New Zealand. Even on real maps this is a crazy amount of information.

With a book, it is considered the author’s job to provide us with a text that can be interpreted in ways relevant or personal for the reader. The words act as a loose framework for a reader’s and the author must present those words and sentences in a way that makes sense. The words are read one at a time in a horizontal line and down the page. They are many rules in which those words must be order and constructed for them to function properly, or else the story is chaotic. Maps are, the other hand, present all its information at once. A reader is bombarded with all the symbols, lines and names of places wherever they look. This means the reader has to make decisions about where to start reading, where to read next and where to end. The first time looking at a new map, I don’t start in one place and continue in a systematic manner – my eyes dart around picking out pieces of information seemingly at random until I find my place (or a character’s place). In order for the map to make sense a mapmaker must prioritize and omit information, or else what’s presented on the page is just chaos. In this way, authors and mapmakers are inherently similar. Authors however, can also act as cartographers, even without the help of mapped representation. They create space with text, but maps cannot create space, only represent it, or so it would seem.

This brings me to the reading for today. Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, written by Peter Turchi, discusses they ways that writers and cartographers are similar, how writers can be cartographers, and the processes and implication regarding space, place and cartographies of fictional worlds and how the authors perceives them and the readers perceive them, particularly when they are represented on maps. There is much discussion on the abstractness of space in text versus the physicality and realistic nature of maps. It was useful while reading to have already had a basic understanding of cartographic principles, like what I learned in lower level geography courses.

“A reader enters the world of a poem or story, realistic or otherwise, willing, for at least a short time, to believe it and to accept its terms” (67).

Robert Louis Stevenson's map of Treasure Island. He apparently drew it for stepson and was later inspired to write his book.

Turchi says that the author of a fictional story that takes place in a fictional world must act as the explorer of that world as well. He calls for authors to “fully embrace” exploration and to contemplate their original intentions and the “vast unknown” of their imaginations. In fact, one must be wary of the conflicts that can arise while using maps to develop an imaginary world.

“If we attempt to map the world of a story before we explore it, we are likely either to (a) prematurely limit our exploration, so as to reduce the amount of material we need to consider, or (b) explore at length but, recognizing the impossibility of taking note of everything, and having no sound basis for choosing what to include, arbitrarily omit entire realms of information” (14).

Is it bad then to map out an imagined world and then make a story from it? Not necessarily, I don’t think. In fact, Robert Louis Stevenson drew a map of an island, and was then inspired to write Treasure Island. Maps of imagined places also exist on their own and can be used to tell stories that still exhibit great amounts of creativity and imagination. Thus methods of mapping fictional worlds do not seem better or worse than other ones. It does seem that breadth of cartographic creativity is particularly based on the writer’s own ability. Imagination knows no boundaries after all, but it’s those imagined boundaries that that determine the geography of one’s fictional world.

“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.

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.