Westward Ho!

Map of the Countries near to the Land of Oz

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.

Middle Earth
Map of Middle Earth by Chris Taylor and Chris Guerette http://www.ititches.com/middleearth/me.pd

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 World turned Upside Down (New Internationalist: http://www.newint.com.au/shop/pics/2788_600.jpg)
The World turned Upside Down (New Internationalist: http://www.newint.com.au/shop/pics/2788_600.jpg)

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”.

31 thoughts on “Westward Ho!

  1. earthbalm

    A very interesting post. I’ve never thought about maps in that way. I’ve always thought of them as an objective representation of what is there but I suppose even the north / south orientation is a social and historical representation and borders are always a source of dispute. I never liked geography in school but I love maps. Thanks for provoking some thought in my tiny brain.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I doubt yours is a tiny brain, Dale, after all you’re a musician and we all know us musicians’ brains work in different ways!

      There’s nothing like living somewhere different to alter your perspective: I rabbit on about growing up in Hong Kong, where distant Britain was a little collection of islands off the teeny-weeny continent of Europe (teeny compared to Asia or Africa or Antarctica or the Americas). It was quite a shock to return to the UK in 1958 to witness its inflated sense of global power and influence and being at the centre of the world — all I could see was greyness, and bombsites, and smug self-satisfied ignorance.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. earthbalm

        Nothing much has changed really then. Currently, Britain appears to have a sizeable chip on its metaphorical shoulder. But it could be so much more!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. North or south, up or down – looking at a map “upside down” certainly changes our perspective or understanding. Everything goes topsy turvy. It is a common trick of artists, when “lost”, to turn their work upside down or look at it in a mirror to try and gain a new or more objective understanding of what they have done / are doing. Maps and history are so influential. I sometimes think we would be better off without (aspects) of them.
    Great post 😄

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Alastair! Yes, I’ve done that trick with pictures too, and not just turning them upside down: sideways on helps as well, and of course there’s that technique of examining them in a mirror. In fact, looking at a world map mirrorwise is even more disconcerting than turning it upside down! I’ve also imagined the seas as dry land, and islands as lakes — that’s quite mind-blowing!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: two birds looking at the wintry sun | Gill McGrath

  4. A great post – again. 🙂
    Really interesting to see the world ‘upside down’ – we often forget that there is no real ‘up’ on the globe at all, just the way we’ve grown used to viewing it.
    The idea of countries putting themselves always at the centre is an interesting one – one we’re all having to reconsider. It’s hard to shake off phrases such as ‘Far East’ and ‘Oriental’ – phrases that could be seen as pretty offensive and hangovers from an imperialist past – when you’ve grown up with them. But you’re right – from a personal to a national level, the universe moves around each of us as far as our perception goes.
    Really interesting.


    1. Pleased you enjoyed this too, Lynn — a bit rambling but I’m glad it sort of hung together, especially the point about up and down!

      I think it’s fair enough for us to use terms like Far East and Oriental if it’s clear from what perspective the view comes: ‘orient’ just refers to the direction the sun comes up (‘oriens’ of course is Latin for ‘rising’). If you live in China, say, the sun rises in ‘the West’ (if we’re talking politically) which is a tad confusing, but I expect there are political terms for The West which would be equally confusing from our perspective. It’s all very complex!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Isn’t it? My husband and I were discussing the other day some of the colourful terminology our dad’s used, just normal everyday terms, not swearing or anything, but they referred to other races in ways I don’t feel as if I can even repeat here for fear of coming across a big old racist! We can’t use phrases like that anymore and that’s no bad thing.


        1. I’ve just read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, following that with King Solomon’s Mines, and while both authors are not abusive or particularly condescending to black Africans just occasionally the way they refer to them makes me squirm. My father, who worked as a ship’s engineer in the Far East (there we have it again!) referred to people from New Guinea as fuzzy-wuzzies in the 1950s, and though I don’t think he saw anything wrong about it (the term referred to their curly hair) I remember feeling a little uncomfortable about it.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Interesting how our views on the power of language have changed. My dad was in no way a racist – he worked in the East End and Southall a lot when he was younger and was happy to know anyone. But he also wouldn’t have seen the language he used as offensive. We all take things like that much more seriously now

            Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a wonderful, thoughtful post. And reminds me of the maps I grew up with in my classrooms. The US was always so big and I never understood its lack of proportion until I got older. We do see the world from our perspective, but if we’re not careful we will believe ours is the only one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Laurie, and yours is a thoughtful response too. I think many of us grew up with a map of our own country by itself on the classroom wall — a perfectly normal thing, of course — and probably at an early age got to see it as more important than a world map.

      After all, many of us in the past may not have expected to travel elsewhere, let alone be interested in trade, or geopolitics, or historical polities.

      Such a focus can easily fossilise our thinking about our native country, to the detriment of a broader view of how all our lives and thoughts and actions impact on people on the other side of the world, and them on us.


  6. I guess you have played around with Google Earth or similar? Watching that small blue ball that is our planet from various directions (especially with all country borders invisible) really changes the perspective. I never fully understood how large the Pacific Ocean (for example) is before I looked at Earth this way.


    1. I don’t know how I missed this comment at the tail end of last year, so sorry.

      Yes, I have spent time with Google Earth — though not recently — and unfortunately it can be so time-consuming! My favourite activity in this respect is looking at a physical globe: holding it facing the expanse of the Pacific really brings home how this is truly a Blue Planet, one that we seem to be rapidly and thoughtlessly despoiling and poisoning.

      A globe is also better at showing how, when we fly or sail abroad, what at first appears on a map as the straightest and most direct route is in fact nothing of the sort. For example, when we flew to Seattle from the UK a route taking us over Greenland and Hudson Bay made much more sense than looking at an atlas.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Google Earth is certainly a dangerous time sink, especially with the possibility to zoom in which you don’t get from a physical globe. I was fortunate that I had some work related reasons to play with it when I wrote that comment.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting link, thanks, with one or two points new to me (like the original UN flag and the voter turnout map).

      Of course, apart from the orientations discussed there are maps with neither North or South at the top: in particular, the typical medieval European delineation, the so-called Mappa Mundi type, have east at the top, looking up towards the direction of the rising sun, the direction too of Jerusalem (usually centrally placed in a circular schema), and of Eden.

      I’m not aware of maps with west at the top however, though there may be some… 😁

      Liked by 1 person

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