A mind traveller’s vademecum

Baedeker 1937 Great Britain guide (Wikipedia Commons)
Baedeker 1937 Great Britain guide (Wikipedia Commons)

Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi
The Dictionary of Imaginary Places
Macmillan 1980 (1987, 1999)

I fell upon this book when it was first published like a punter attacking an ice-cream during the interval in an over-hot theatre. Just the title had me drooling, and once inside the book I was in seventh heaven. First of all it took places described in a range of literary works as literally true by giving each a Baedeker-style travel guide entry. Then, like any good Baedeker it provided maps and charts giving visual aids to familiar and unfamiliar locations. There have been at least two revised editions since 1980 but this was the first attempt to give an overview of dystopias, utopias, fantasy worlds and comic geographies from different cultures, languages and centuries. The mock-seriousness is sometimes leavened with equally tongue-in-cheek humour though I found that at times the terseness of some entries could be wearing.

Just a few examples of entries, almost at random, may give you a flavour. Bluebeard’s Castle, for example is described as “somewhere in France; the exact location remains unknown. The castle is famed for its many riches and fine furniture, tapestries and full-length mirrors with frames of gold. Travellers – in particular female ones – should proceed with caution…” Some places are in distant lands, such as King Solomon’s Mines, “discovered by Allan Quatermain’s expedition to Kukuanaland, Africa, in 1884”, or Shangri-La, which can “only be reached on foot and visitors are infrequent.” In contrast Ruritania is “a European kingdom reached by train from Dresden” while Wonderland is “a kingdom under England, inhabited by a pack of cards and a few other creatures.”

Here you can find entries for Atlantis and Oz, Camelot and Treasure Island, Middle Earth and Erewhon, Arkham and Hyperborea, Lilliput and Gormenghast, plus a plethora of more obscure places culled from even more obscure titles. Graham Greenfield’s wonderful line drawings have an antique quality about them which only adds to the sense of strangeness and wonder, while the maps and charts by James Cook are a joy to peruse and explore. Some maps from 1980 needed revision (Narnia, for example, had some crucial omissions and misplacements), but their consistent olde-worlde look (with hachures rather than contour lines, for instance, and Renaissance-style typefaces) is charming and lends character to the whole presentation.

In addition to the alphabetical listing of places, the authors include an index of authors and titles to help you cross reference. For example, if you can’t remember some of the cities visited by Marco Polo in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities they are handily included here. Which only helps to underscore that The Dictionary of Imaginary Places is a treasure chest to dip into again and again.

*

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Brian Stableford’s Dictionary of Science Fiction Places in 1999 attempted to do the same for SF worlds, with the same format for entries; unfortunately the quality of the illustrations let this homage down, meaning the sheer magic of the original is missing. In compensation, there is an independent online extension of the Dictionary, though that seems to have run out of steam in recent years.

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2 thoughts on “A mind traveller’s vademecum

    1. Yes, it’s a brilliant book, isn’t it? Delightfully conceived, lovingly researched and beautifully presented. I often wonder what the revised and expanded editions included; I’m sure some of my favourites of the intervening years made an appearance! Do you have the original or one of the later ones?

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