From the archives: J.R.R. Tolkien

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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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Suggested reading, resuscitative edition

Thursday, 30 September 2010 — 4:44pm | Assorted links, J.R.R. Tolkien, Journalism, Literature, Music, Science, Video games

This space has suffered the longest drought of real and substantial content in its brief history, and I find it encouraging that several of my readers have seen fit to remind me of the fact. I could lay the blame upon the drain on my verbal facilities known as my masters dissertation, or perhaps my summertime adventures sans ordinateur, but the truth is a far more familiar one: the articles I’ve sketched out in my head are too big to write down. They will show up someday, if only in unfinished fragments pretending to stand alone; so keep an eye on the RSS feed and when they arrive, we may promptly rejoice together.

Link-dumping has never been an adequate stand-in for commentary of my own, and if you want to read what I read you are better off checking Twitter (the only circumstance where that is ever the case). Nevertheless, here is a slice of the pileup.

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Wednesday Book Club: Watership Down

Wednesday, 25 February 2009 — 8:28pm | Book Club, J.R.R. Tolkien, Literature

This week’s selection: Watership Down (1972) by Richard Adams.

In brief: An impressive adventure story from head to tail, Adams’ bunny-rabbit odyssey truly shines as a demonstration of how myth-making and nation-building go hand in hand—or in this case, paw in paw. The history, legends, and language of rabbit society show off a depth of imagination that stops just short of overwhelming the tale on the surface. Here is a novel unashamed of its bid to be a classic, and has the mettle to pull it off.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Watership Down, keep reading below.)

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Wednesday Book Club: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Wednesday, 17 September 2008 — 12:32pm | Book Club, J.R.R. Tolkien, Literature

This week’s selection: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) by Junot Díaz.

In brief: Astounding. How often do you see a serious (but ironic) novel about serious (but ironic) things like immigration, masculinity, and postcolonial despotism get away with comparing the Dominican Republic to Tolkien’s Mordor, casting a mongoose as a guardian spirit, and measuring acts of brutality in hit points of damage—and make it all look so genuine?

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, keep reading below.)

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Wednesday Book Club: Ivanhoe

Wednesday, 27 August 2008 — 6:51am | Book Club, J.R.R. Tolkien, Literature

This week’s selection: Ivanhoe (1819) by Walter Scott.

In brief: Somewhere halfway between Shakespeare and Tolkien resides this beautifully written romance of 12th-century derring-do, an exemplary specimen of literary nostalgia for some good old-fashioned English chivalry. Armed with a healthy measure of Norman-Saxon linguistic hostility, a critique of Christian anti-Semitism, and a bit of Robin Hood here and there, Ivanhoe is, in a word, ideal. While the novel loses its focus as the plot expands in scope, and at least one plot thread feels resolved by divine providence rather than moral action, Scott’s colourful supporting characters and sweeping historical reach keep the story alive at every turn.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Ivanhoe, keep reading below.)

Continued »

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