Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet …
— Kipling 1889
Many years ago I had a Chinese poster from the Communist era showing the interior of a classroom. On a wall was a world map which — and this is what particularly interested me — positioned China dead centre. In a flash I understood where much of that country’s paranoia came from: to the left was Western Europe and Soviet Russia and its satellites, to the right was the USA, and it was quite clear that Red China felt completely beset by rivals or foes. Are we surprised that Chinese corporations are now busy exploiting commercial opportunities all around the Indian Ocean, South America and elsewhere if their maps continue to suggest China’s a beleaguered country?
It was a natural step for me to realise that America’s own Cold War paranoia stemmed from its world view, US maps showing the country surrounded by Chinese communists to its west and, to its east, communist Eastern Europe and Russian Soviets. No wonder conservative Americans worried about Reds under the bed and commie sympathisers.
On the other hand, the British psyche was long buoyed up by its being centrally placed on its world maps, the globe’s chronology even being set by Greenwich Mean Time. Huge swathes of the world were coloured pink — Canada, bits of Africa, Australia and innumerable colonies and possessions — until, in the mid-20th century, that Empire was slowly but surely eased from its hands. Right now Britain also feels embattled, cut loose from its former Empire, increasingly casting itself adrift from Europe and encouraged to believe itself menaced by ‘swarms’ and ‘floods’ of immigrants.
It’s interesting how we create and maintain a view of the world from our own perspective, despite Donne’s reminder that
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Island, archipelago, peninsula, continent, landlocked — fantasy lands come in all shapes and sizes but, like a satnav display or those cabin screens that show your aircraft’s position on a moving map, they nearly always show that one’s focus needs to be where the action is, in the centre of the picture. The Land of Oz is certainly in the middle of its map, and I dare you to find a fantasy novel with the action exclusively at one margin or another.
What interests me particularly with fantasy maps showing a substantial coastline is the direction that they face. I suspect this is largely to do with the author’s own geographical perspective (though this must be a generalisation with so many exceptions that it doesn’t really qualify as useful). Tolkien’s Middle Earth is the epitome of this observation, with the huge ear-shaped chunk of continent facing the Great Sea and the Undying Lands surely based on Tolkien’s notion of the Old World looking out over the Atlantic and the New World.
Another westward-facing continent that springs to mind is Ursula Le Guin’s Western Shore (from her fantasy trilogy ‘The Annals of the Western Shore’) which I can’t help assuming was inspired by her familiarity with the US West Coast from her home in Portland, Oregon; and there will be other examples familiar to this genre’s readers. (Of course, her vision of Earthsea as an archipelago of islands doesn’t fit this theory, nor does her landlocked country of Orsinia in a short story collection set there.)
I’ve often wondered if how some of us look at maps is related to how westerners read — from left to right and top to bottom — as opposed to, say, readers of Arabic or Chinese scripts. Looking first at the top left hand corner may be a learned instinct when some writers come to composing their own maps. Some decades ago I became aware of certain maps being turned upside down so that instead of Down Under (Australia, New Zealand) being virtually relegated to also-ran status at bottom right this part of the globe assumes more importance and maybe significance (as in this Peters projection publication from New Internationalist Australia). It certainly challenges preconceptions and may even stimulate re-assessment of our world view.
The form a map takes must always be delimiting, leading the observer to wonder what exists beyond the its confines. In medieval maps, with east to the north, perhaps the fear of dropping off the bottom of the world discouraged official support for exploring west and, instead, encouraged investigation of what remained unknown of the Old World, in Africa and in Asia. So many travellers went east, to reach Jerusalem, Paradise, China or Japan, and the Journey to the East fired the imagination of Marco Polo, Hermann Hesse and C S Lewis (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) among many others.
With the reorientation of charts around the 15th-century, showing north at the top, the fervour for heading in the other direction soon spread as the fear of falling off the globe faded, inspiring Columbus, Cabot and a fleet of pioneers, pirates, privateers and plunderers. Charles Kingsley borrowed for the title of one of his historical novels the cry of Tudor Thames ferrymen plying for hire — Westward Ho! But he yearned, more than just in his imagination, to voyage outwards from his familiar location in southern England: as he described in his non-fiction book (the aptly titled At Last) it wasn’t until late in life that he was able to fulfil his ambition of visiting the West Indies.
The map is certainly an invitation to travel: north, south, east, west. Whether home’s best or not, the journey is what fires the imagination. The fact is that unless we move our point of view we will never discover what it is that we have in common with other people, that we will always believe that “never the twain shall meet”.