[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.
K. J. Parker’s “Let Maps to Others,” a novella published in Subterranean, deals with themes of interest to those of us interested in maps in fantasy fiction, though it’s not a map story per se. The story deals with the discovery of the country of Essecuivo three centuries prior by an explorer whose manuscript about it has been lost, and for which the coordinates are unknown. It’s narrated by an unnamed scholar of Essecuivo, whose actions regarding the lost manuscript lead to a duke mounting an expedition to find the place. A grand story that may end up on award ballots next year.
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.
Roger Zelazny’s Here There Be Dragons is a short fairy tale that first appeared as one volume of a two-volume limited-edition deluxe illustrated signed slipcased hardcover set published by Donald M. Grant in 1992. Zelazny wrote it and its companion story, Way Up High (about a girl and a pterosaur) in the late 1960s, and had Vaughn Bodé illustrate them before his untimely death in 1975. The story is about a kingdom that nobody ever left because its Royal Cartographers always wrote “Here There Be Dragons” at the margins of their maps, so everyone thought they were surrounded by dragons. Hilarity ensues when the princess wants fireworks for her birthday, but no one knows how to make them anymore, so the idea is hit upon to enlist the services of a dragon. And so it goes. It’s a clever little story, but you’re almost certain never to see it: the print run was limited to a thousand copies, and while the set is available used on Amazon and AbeBooks, it’s very, very expensive. I’m afraid it has become collectible. (I was lent a copy. I have to give it back.)
From the publisher’s blurb: “Much like the quasi-fictional adventures in map-reading and remapping explored by Paul Auster, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino, Dung Kai-cheung’s novel challenges the representation of place and history and the limits of technical and scientific media in reconstructing a history. It best exemplifies the author’s versatility and experimentation, along with China’s rapidly evolving literary culture, by blending fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in a story about succeeding and failing to recapture the things we lose. Playing with a variety of styles and subjects, Dung Kai-cheung inventively engages with the fate of Hong Kong since its British ‘handover’ in 1997, which officially marked the end of colonial rule and the beginning of an uncharted future.”
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.
Desde antiguo un enigmático astro llamado Argos siembra la atmósfera con una substancia muy especial. Sólo un pequeño grupo de sabios sabe cómo recolectar y emplear esa esencia de los cielos que permite la vida eterna. Pero en pleno auge de la Roma imperial, un desastre sacude a la hermandad de sabios. Desperdigados por el mundo y sin los conocimientos necesarios para mantener la inmortalidad, vagarán sin rumbo, condenados al olvido. Hasta que en el siglo XXI, una inquieta historiadora, Irene Abad, descubre un antiguo mapa que, sin saberlo, conduce hasta el peligroso secreto que los Hijos de Argos han perseguido durante dos milenios.
I wish I could say more about this, but I never studied Spanish and can barely navigate Spanish-language websites, much less read novels. El Viaje de Argos is available in ebook form via Amazon and iBooks.
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).
I have not forgotten my Maps in Science Fiction and Fantasy project, though it’s lain fallow for a bit while I juggled other things. Here are a few short stories about maps that I’ve encountered over the past few months.
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.