[A]t its best, work that prioritizes world-building offers pleasures that just can’t be found in other sorts of literature, the joy of traveling to, as Tolkien put it, “a Secondary World which your mind can enter.” The type of immersion that a massive built world provides is unique. It’s an almost physical sense of getting lost somewhere that isn’t home, but which comes to be home. A sense that one is walking, sometimes even dancing, on a tightrope between the fantastic and the mundane. As with the Thousand and One Nights, which so often—and yes, clompingly—mentions things like which vegetables were just bought or who the monarch was at a given time, the modern fantasy novel’s nerdy attendance to world-building gives it a strange mimetic heft not present in, say, fairy tales.
If you accept Ahmed’s argument—and I can see no reason not to—then the usefulness of a fantasy map is immediately obvious. If it’s all about perceiving that secondary world, the map is literally the key to that world. As Ahmed recalls George R. R. Martin telling him, “When college students and hippies started hanging up Lord of the Rings posters, Martin pointed out, ‘It wasn’t the book covers or some artist’s conception of Frodo that went on our walls. It was the map of Middle-earth.’”
Conversely, you could argue that a story that isn’t principally about the world-building doesn’t need the map.
You should know what you’re getting when you buy this. It’s not an atlas. It’s not even a book. George himself describes it as “a book-shaped box containing a whole bunch of gorgeous, glossy, fold-out maps of Westeros, Essos, and the lands and seas from A Song of Ice and Fire.” There is no text other than on a single-page introduction.
Open the box and you see two sleeves containing six maps apiece. Each map is 24 by 30 inches, single sided, in full colour, and on glossy paper, the kind you can see your fingerprints on. As fantasy maps go, this is a lavish production—a long way from the two-colour atlases we’ve seen for other imaginary worlds. (Some Amazon reviewers have expressed concern about wear and tear from folding and unfolding the maps; bear that in mind.)
Jeffrey Beebe operates in the same space as Jerry Gretzinger or Austin Tappan Wright. “Over the last fifteen years, I have created the world of Refractoria, a comprehensive imagino-ordinary world that is equal parts autobiography and pure fantasy.” The design language is pure fantasy map, but he goes deeper than that: in addition to maps, he’s created heraldry and constellations, among many other things: the primary source materials of an imagined place whose history has not been written. Boing Boing, MetaFilter.
Herewith my writeup of the “Maps and Fantasy Literature” panel at the World Fantasy Convention earlier this month in Richmond Hill, Ontario, based on fragmentary and cryptic notes and no doubt full of misrepresentations and misattributions. The panel took place on Sunday, November 4 at 10 a.m. Panellists were Robert Boyczuk, Laura Goodin, Matthew Johnson, Sara Simmons, Jo Walton, and Bill Willingham (who acted as moderator). The panel description:
George explains that this isn’t an atlas; in fact, it’s “not an actual book at all, but a book-shaped box containing a whole bunch of gorgeous, glossy, fold-out maps of Westeros, Essos, and the lands and seas from A Song of Ice and Fire.” (I hadn’t been sure.) Among the maps is an eagerly anticipated world map. George clarifies that “it’s not a complete world map, no. The idea was to do something representing the lands and seas of which, say, a maester of the Citadel might be aware … and while the maesters know more about Asshai and the lands beyond than a medieval monk knew about Cathay, distance remains a factor, and past a certain point legends and myths will creep here.”
The maps are the work of fantasy cartographer Jonathan Roberts. Sample images at io9 and Tor.com.
I know that some love maps, some are indifferent, and some dislike them. That’s as it should be.
I personally like maps, because I’m geeky that way but also because I process information both visually and kinesthetically, and thus maps make it easier for me to negotiate certain kinds of plots. Yet with other stories, I don’t even think of wanting a map. I wonder if there is a kind of story that seems more to benefit by a map while others just don’t have any call for them.
There are narratives in which there are things about the world you can’t learn from the story but which you can glimpse if the book includes a map, so in that sense a map can add a bit of extra dimension to a world. One of the challenges of writing the Spiritwalker books in first person is that there is a lot of information about the world that can never get into the narrative because it isn’t something a) the narrator would reflect on much less know &/or b) that is necessary to the plot.
The publisher calls it the “first in-depth study of the use of landscape in fantasy literature”; here’s an excerpt from their description:
In Here Be Dragons, Stefan Ekman provides a wide-ranging survey of the ubiquitous fantasy map as the point of departure for an in-depth discussion of what such maps can tell us about what is important in the fictional worlds and the stories that take place there. With particular focus on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Ekman shows how fantasy settings deserve serious attention from both readers and critics. Includes insightful readings of works by Steven Brust, Garth Nix, Robert Holdstock, Terry Pratchett, Charles de Lint, China Miéville, Patricia McKillip, Tim Powers, Lisa Goldstein, Steven R. Donaldson, Robert Jordan, and Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess.
I’m not sure I can overstate how much I’m looking forward to reading this. Once I do, I’ll tell you all about it.
One of the few downsides to reading Game of Thrones for the first time on a 2nd generation Kindle was that it was inconvenient to flip to the map every now and then to reorient myself when the action moved to a new city or battlefield. Like books with lots of footnotes, I think I’ll do most of my map-heavy fantasy book reading on dead trees.
My father experienced the same thing reading A Dance with Dragons on the Kindle. The insight here may not be particularly profound, but it is useful: fantasy maps may be largely illustrative, but they’re also referred to when reading the text. They may be an intrinsic part of the reading process—at least as far as “fat fantasy books with maps” are concerned. (Will electronic versions of said books need to have their text georeferenced, so that you can push a “map” button at any point and be placed at the proper position on the map? I have to admit that that would be kind of cool.)
What do you think? How do you use maps when reading fantasy fiction?
Over on The Awl, Victoria Johnson has an essay about maps of fictional places, which of course is relevant to my interests. Johnson has chosen some very unique and distinctive maps to discuss—Winnie-the-Pooh, The Phantom Toolbooth and The Princess Bride among them—rather than the sort of standard fantasy maps you get in standard fantasy (which, I suppose, aren’t worth discussing unless you like the fantasy world being mapped; certainly not as maps). Via Boing Boing (which sends a link in this direction).
The Farthing Party map panel (see previous entry) came off surprisingly well. I was actually shocked to discover that what I thought were my controversial thoughts about maps were actually not that controversial: I knew it was going to be a good panel when both Lila and Emmet said in their opening remarks that they were opposed in principle to fantasy maps.
On a related note, I’ll be on a panel about maps at Farthing Party tomorrow (“Maps and territories: What’s good and bad about the maps in our fiction, and why are they there in the first place?”) which I’m hoping will generate all sorts of ideas and things to check out. I’ll probably talk too much, of course, but I want to take lots of notes, too.
The role of maps in fantasy is an ongoing interest of mine, one I’ve begun researching in earnest. (Watch this space: I’m up to something.) So I was naturally interested when SF Signal asked a number of authors, illustrators, other publishing professionals and readers, as part of their Mind Meld series of interviews, the following question: “What is the role and place of maps in Fantasy novels? Which are your favorites? Why?”
Lots of answers ensued — here, for example, is an excerpt from Saladin Ahmed’s response:
Coming before the text of the novel as they often do, fantasy maps help to set a reader’s expectations. Prefacing a novel with a map is saying “An immersive made world is among my highest priorities here.” The map gives readers a panoramic view of the novel’s world — often a wider view than what is available to the characters – before zooming in on the local and personal details that are the building blocks of early chapters.
From Philip Athans:
I just hope that in the new era of austerity that’s descended upon the publishing business that the fantasy novel map will survive. Having a really good one drawn up by an artist who actually knows how to draw maps is not cheap.
From Mathew Cheney:
Maps in books are often more fascinating to me than the books themselves, because maps suggest possibilities. When I first learned to read, I tried hard to get through Treasure Island, but it defeated my skills and bored me. I didn’t care, though, because there was that gloriously undetailed map. That’s all I’d really wanted from the book, because with the map, I could make up whatever stories or characters I wanted.