Topographical diversions

Part of Tabula Peutingeriana, Konrad Miller´s facsimile from 1887
Part of Tabula Peutingeriana, Konrad Miller´s facsimile from 1887 showing the heel and toe of Italy; east is at the top of the map

Of course, books aren’t the only things that we can read. Anything with written or printed words count, naturally, but if you are musically literate you’ll also be familiar with notation, the ‘dots’ that singers and instrumentalists can transform into sounds as much as letters do for speech. And there’s more. There are maps.

I love maps. I love the virtual reality they offer for those who like wandering around landscapes or streets, for the bird’s eye view one can gain of an environment.

Now I know that not everyone gets on with maps. It’s occasionally said that dyslexics can have especial difficulties — our son has some dyslexia and so prefers to use satnavs for road journeys, for example — though this seems to be a problem to do with spatial thinking, with creating a mental picture of that space, a cognitive map. Topographical Disorder or Disorientation may be the wrong diagnosis here, because that condition appears to result from some damage to the brain. Maybe it’s more to do with easily confusing left and right, which many if not most of us experience to a greater or lesser degree.

But I digress. What I’d like to do is to begin discussing the place of maps in our imagination and particularly our reading, and whether or not it matters to us individually when we’re enjoying a book. Do we require a printed map to be included when the protagonist goes on a journey, can we make do with a schematic diagram in our head from the clues in the text or do we dispense altogether with any form of cognitive map as an irrelevancy?

Tolkien wasn’t the first writer to include maps in his fiction, though he may be the best known. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings provided the templates for many an aspiring fantasy writer, and even inspired spin-offs building on his originals (Barbara Strachey’s Journeys of Frodo, for example, or Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopædia). By contrast, the maps provided for C S Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are to my mind rather disappointing, despite Pauline Baynes’ best efforts, for their lack of real detail: perhaps they’re meant to be the equivalent of those late medieval maps with big empty spaces populated by mythical monsters.

The same can’t be said for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, with its marvellous frontispiece that helped kickstart the modern craze for fictional maps. It may well have been based on the outline of Stevenson’s own country, Scotland, though I rather fancy that the reoriented shape of Hispaniola (modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic) may have also contributed to the author’s concept. But the obsession with maps of fictional locations predates even RLS, witness the countries visited in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels — Brobdingnag, Lilliput, Laputa, the Country of the Houyhnhnms and so on.

Before I go on a Cook’s tour of all the possible literary places that you may or may not have heard of — and maybe others you haven’t — the ultimate Baedeker’s guide to these loci has already appeared, namely Manuel and Guadalupi’s Dictionary of Imaginary Places. This takes a po-faced approach to even the most ridiculous geographical spots, deliberately so, but a more tongue-in-cheek treatment comes with Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (Vista 1996, Gollancz 2004). Here’s what she says about the archetypal map that we habitually come across in fantasy books:

No Tour of Fantasyland is complete without one… It will show most of a continent (and sometimes part of another) with a large number of bays, offshore islands, an inland sea or so and a sprinkle of towns… If you are lucky, the Map will carry an arrow or compass-heading somewhere in the bit labelled ‘Outer Ocean’ and this will show you which way up to hold it…

So far, so familiar. But it’s not all that easy, this Map, for the benighted traveller, whether out in the open or in the comfort of an armchair.

You will look in vain for inns, rest-stops or villages, or even roads. No — wait another minute — on closer examination, you will find the empty interior crossed by a few bird tracks. If you peer at these you will see they are (somewhere) labelled ‘Old Trade Road — Disused’ and ‘Imperial Way — Mostly Long Gone’…

As Jones points out, “there is no scale of miles and no way of telling how long you might take on the way to see these places.” You may even now be succumbing to despair, so confusing and even perilous are these wastelands, and possibly entertaining doubts over continuing for, “in short, the Map is useless, but you are advised to keep consulting it, because it is the only one you will get.” Once you embark on the tour you are warned that “you are going to have to visit every single place on this Map, whether it is marked or not. This is a Rule.”

So now you may not be diagnosed with some kind of topographical disorder but after this ‘elucidation’ you may well be feeling it’s a distinct possibility. I can see why some readers just ‘go with the flow’ rather than bother with constant checking and reorientation. But I hope in future to help provide some guidance so that, when losing yourself in some imaginary world or another, you will feel a little more confident of knowing which way is up and, more importantly, which way is out.

To be continued

12 thoughts on “Topographical diversions

  1. I’m not sure why, but I do love a map in the opening pages of a book, though Diana Wynne Jones is right, they’re often useless. Yes, I love the map at the start of Treasure Island too and often wondered if it was based on a real place.

    Best, though are the medieval maps with dog headed men and chaps using one big foot as an umbrella – much more interesting than the ordinance survey. I included something similar in my YA book — written on calfskin (reputed to be human, or course), it’s as much the record of a quest as a map. Fascinating objects.


    1. Fascinating objects, Lynn, I agree. I hope to explore more of the ‘why’ we love maps in future posts. All those medieval maps in particular are riveting — I remember seeing the Hereford Cathedral Mappa Mundi many years ago and being intrigued as to its shape, orientation and purpose — and hope to cover those aspects along with many others.


  2. Like Lynn, I am drawn to maps on the opening pages. I use them to orientate my place in the author’s world. To me, maps help tell the story, as we see them frequently used in travel tales. The mountains and rivers are characters and should be noted.

    Personally I love medieval maps; I have several books on them. The drawings are fantastic. Besides, It is always good to know where the monsters are.


    1. So far it looks like we think maps are a Good Thing, Sari! If too the concept is from the author (rather than a publisher’s post hoc addition) then the map is a genuine extension of and qualifies the text — and I think that can only add to the enjoyment of the reading experience.

      Monsters are of course of huge interest to us all, and I really appreciate a well-realised impression of these imaginary emanations.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. For me a map is not so much about navigating as much as helping me in this feeling of anchoring myself to the story, and of having the world come alive in a little bit more detail in my head. They help me in “seeing” the story more vividly!


    1. I absolutely agree — as I say above, maps can be regarded as an extension and enrichment of the text — though they can be a delight in themselves. I suppose it’s not a question of either one or the other but of both, but which one ranks more important will depend where we’re coming from. 🙂


  4. I have always found maps in novels compulsive – I constantly refer to them to get bearings on the tale. In spite of this, I have been lazy in all my own books (maybe because I can’t draw for toffee) and described what characters read in them rather than show them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is a real skill, to create a sense of place through words without the need of a map: the converse of the ‘show, don’t tell’ advice. But the addition of a map is often nice …


    1. I’d never read the Milly-Molly-Mandy books, Gill, so I raided the shelves we have for our grandkids, and I see what you mean! I love the way the village plan has been redrawn and newly annotated for the different titles in the series (I looked at just three, but assume this happened every time). The style reminded me a bit of the maps for the Winnie the Pooh books, with the Hundred Acre Wood and the bridge from which to play pooh-sticks.


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