Another data point for our consideration of what people think a fantasy map looks like, from the author of the Maptitude tumblelog: a fantasy map of Ireland, replete with, as you would expect, forests and hills. It departs from the fantasy map paradigm by using colour: red for political boundaries, blue for water. It also uses a vaguely uncial script: something we’ve seen in the movie versions of The Lord of the Rings, but less often in fantasy book maps. Not inappropriate for Ireland, though.
It turns out that Samuel Fisher has also created a fantasy map of Great Britain, in addition to his Australian fantasy map and one version of the U.S. fantasy map. Again: an important data point for understanding what people think a fantasy map looks like. (His lettering is a dead ringer for Christopher Tolkien’s on the Middle-earth map.) Via Fuck Yeah Cartography.
Like the fantasy map of the United States we saw last year, Samuel Fisher’s fantasy map of Australia is relevant to my interests because it shows what people think a fantasy map should look like—how it should be styled, what elements it should contain, and so forth. In this case, oblique mountains and forests drawn as stands of individual trees make their usual appearance; the labels are hand-drawn; and the colour scheme runs from cream to taupe. Via Maps on the Web.
Stefan Ekman’s Here Be Dragons (Wesleyan University Press, February 2013) is a book-length examination of the use of maps and settings in fantasy literature. Maps and settings. Which is to say that maps are not the sole focus of this work: mark that. There are four main chapters, only one of which deals with maps; the remaining three deal with the issue of borders and territories, the relationship between nature and culture in fantasy cities, and the relationship between ruler and realm. Taken as a whole, this book discusses the role of place in fantasy.
But I won’t be discussing that whole here: I am no literary scholar, and can’t say much of value about the chapters that do not discuss maps—nothing that would rise above the level of a last-minute undergraduate paper, anyway. But maps are something I can say something about, especially fantasy maps, since I myself have been paying attention to them over the past decade, first during my time blogging at The Map Room (see the [old] Imaginary Places category) and since then more sporadically, but with more focus, for my fantasy maps project.
One of the things I’m interested in for my fantasy maps project is the origin of fantasy map design: where does that tell-tale fantasy map look come from?
Look at enough fantasy maps, and it’s hard not to notice certain commonalities in design. As Stefan Ekman demonstrates in Here Be Dragons (yes, I have a review coming—soon!), the maps that accompany fantasy novels tend to be characterized by a number of typical features. “Like much high fantasy,” he writes, “the secondary-world maps follow a pseudomedieval aesthetic according to which dashes of pre-Enlightenment mapping conventions are rather routinely added to a mostly modern creation.”1 Fantasy maps look nothing like medieval maps, and can in many ways be seen as the hybrid descendent of 19th-century amateur mapmaking and early-20th-century children’s book illustrations.
Saladin Ahmed’s essay on the NPR website argues that the appeal of epic fantasy isn’t in its plots, characters or themes; it’s in its creation of a vividly detailed secondary world.
[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.”
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.
Previously: How Readers Use Fantasy Maps.
I knew that Swedish literary scholar Stefan Ekman has been studying fantasy maps—see, for example, this blog post of his—but I only found out today (thanks to the Locus forthcoming books listings) that he has a book coming out on the subject: Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings will be published by Wesleyan University Press in January 2013.
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.
More information today on a book I’d heard was coming: The Lands of Ice and Fire, a definitive atlas of George R. R. Martin‘s fantasy world from A Song of Ice and Fire (A Game of Thrones, et cetera). The publisher: “The centerpiece of this gorgeous collection is guaranteed to be a must-have for any fan: the complete map of the known world, joining the lands of the Seven Kingdoms and the lands across the Narrow Sea for the first time in series history.” Fantasy and roleplaying game cartographer Jon Roberts is working on the project. It won’t be out until October, but you can already pre-order it at Amazon.
It occurs to me that how readers use fantasy maps should be another line of inquiry for my science fiction and fantasy maps project. Take, for example, Donald Petersen’s comment on the Boing Boing post about Victoria Johnson’s map essay (posted here last week).
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).