From the archives: April 2011

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Here Be Cartographers: Reading the Fantasy Map

Monday, 18 April 2011 — 11:14pm | J.R.R. Tolkien, Literary theory, Literature

It is hard to imagine a world without maps.

Now stop—and diagram that sentence. Break its syntax apart. You can parse it in at least two valid and meaningful ways:

  • It is hard | to imagine | a world without maps. The use of maps is so embedded in our daily lives, so essential to our normal functioning, that the idea of a pre-cartographic society is as alien as the thought of a pre-literate one. On top of this, our idea of what it means to be a mapped society is itself confined to our familiarized expectations of what maps are like. How did people get by without maps—or rather, without the sorts of maps we know and understand?

  • It is hard | to imagine a world | without maps. Maps govern the way we think about space, and that extends to imaginary or hypothetical spaces. Without a graphic representation on paper or in our heads, our plans for things not yet built—homes, roads, electric circuits—may be cloudy and ambiguous. They may lack precision in the same way we have trouble with describing things that are outside our linguistic abilities. This is a negative definition of maps as a form of language: to be without a map is to be without language, and it impedes us from communicating ideas in the mind—to others, yes, but also to ourselves.

In both of these senses, maps of fictional places are remarkably challenging texts.

One of my chief interests in fiction, along with art in general, is how it presents itself as evidence of the way people receive the existing cultural data around them before they process it and spit it back out. (In literary criticism you will encounter words like allusion and intertextuality, but I think of them as subtypes of a broader cognitive activity.) When an author plans out a story’s setting in place, or when a reader attempts to reconstruct it from the words alone, the maps they produce tell us not only how they imagine the depicted geography, but also how they imagine the idea of maps. Furthermore, the author/audience distinction isn’t always sharp: some privileged readers, such as the illustrators at a publishing house or manuscript historians like Christopher Tolkien, participate in the interpretive stage as well as the official construction of the space for everyone else.

So when we open up a novel to find a map, we can think of the map as an act of narration. But what kind of narration? Is it reliable narration or a deliberate misdirection? Is it omniscient knowledge, a complete (or strategically obscured) presentation of the world as the author knows it? Or is the map available to the characters in the text? If it is, then who drew up the map, and how did they have access to the information used to compose it? If it isn’t, then through what resources do the characters orient themselves in their own world? And finally, does anyone even bother to think about these questions before they sit down to place their woodlands and forts?

In the post that follows, I am going to informally sketch out a theory of fictional maps, which is to say that I will put up a lot of pretty pictures from novels and talk about why they are neat. There is likely some academic work on this somewhere—I would be astonished if there weren’t—but I’m not aware of any, and certainly nothing that has accounted for modern critical approaches to the history of cartography. Map history and the comparative study of commercial genre literature are niches within niches as it stands, and my aim is to entwine them together.

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