The map fantastic

Contemporary sketch map of Rye (17th century?)

Contemporary novels, set in the real world, rarely if ever need a map included in the text. Historical novels occasionally offer one, especially if they show old territories or ancient names for places. Dystopian futures and distant planets do often require them and, ideally, so should fantasies: the more fantastical they are the more we need a cartographic guide, however sketchy, to orientate ourselves.

What happens though when either no map is available or, if one is offered, it’s so sketchy as to be next to useless?

The answer, for people like me, is to make my own from whatever clues are offered in the text, letting logic — and occasionally imagination — fill in the rest.

And that’s what I have been doing recently: tripping the map fantastic, as it were.

The Wyrd and Wonder reading fantasy month of May has had me busily scritching away on paper or using an online app trying to follow in the footsteps of the principal players of the books I’ve read. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea was already mapped, and there are plentiful attempts to depict J K Rowling’s Hogwarts available online, so I moved on to Michael Moorcock’s The War Hound and the World’s Pain. This last required a look at both modern maps and historical atlases to plot the quest of Ulrich von Bek through central Europe and further west, a task especially challenging in that the narrator kept slipping into the liminal land of the Mittelmarch.

Next came Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird. Here is a marginal example of low fantasy, supposedly set in our own world but filled with anomalies such as an independent city state somewhere in England and a cryptic gloss in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. On the covers of the books in the trilogy (the sequels are Wyntertide and Lost Acre) we catch glimpses of a 16th- or 17th-century depiction of the town from a bird’s-eye view. The problem is that, not only are the details partly obscured by scrolls and titles, but that what details we can see vary from cover to cover, even from edition to edition, and that closer inspection reveals ambiguities and contradictions.

In a separate post I shall be offering my own interpretation of the plan of Rotherweird, based solely on what I’ve gleaned so far from the text of the first book and hints from those highly duplicitous covers. Reading the sequels may mean I have to change details or revise my extrapolations. At the moment I’m inclined to see Rotherweird as partly modelled on the East Sussex town of Rye, which has a river Rother skirting it — another literary association for this spot if my speculations prove correct.

And now I’m currently re-reading Diana Wynne Jones’ early fantasy The Power of Three. This comes with at least one marvellous twist for which I shall avoid spoilers. But this too lacks a map of any kind though plentiful clues are given in the pages. A review follows soon, hopefully, with a map in tow.

You may be asking why I have this urge to represent a narrative plot on a page: why can’t I just enjoy a story, focus on the characters and let the incidentals take care of themselves?

Maybe it’s for the same reason that indigenous Australians draw plans of their Dreamtime walkabouts, why medieval cartographers filled the interiors of terra incognita with monstrous hybrids: to mentally inhabit the unreal spaces dreamed up by wouldbe godlings and demiurges that are us humans.

But, if you need to ask me why I do this, it may be that it’s an alien concept to you and that I will never be able to explain it adequately!

Anyway, prepare for an onslaught of maps and charts here in the next little while, whether you will or no, and see if I can’t infect you with the same sense of wonderment.

19 thoughts on “The map fantastic

  1. I just love that you’ve compared and contrasted the covers of different editions of Rotherweird as well as the different books in the series! I love maps of other worlds. My map of Middle Earth, colour, Pauline Baynes, is held together these days by sellotape but there’s no way I’m getting rid of it! It’s so magical.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I had that Pauline Baynes one too! I think though somebody had it on ‘permanent loan’ not that long after I first acquired it… Anyway, glad you appreciated my little bit of research, Lynden — the third volume doesn’t come out till July but the cover image is online.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I love close reading of such texts to extract as many clues as possible — that’s what I’ve been doing particularly with Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles (as you may have noticed). Do you still have those childhood maps? I must see if I’ve kept any of mine, though I doubt they’ve survived.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I may have one or two at my parent’s place, I’m not sure. I did another map project more recently though, where I redrew the map of the town I lived in but including only the streets and places that I knew, creating my own personal map over the town. I should do that again where I live now.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I love what you’re doing. I’d love it even more if you had been doing it to my own fantasies. I’ve had to keep their concepts simple — ‘Magic Circles — because I can’t draw for toffee other than in words.

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  3. Hallo, Hallo —

    dropping through the feeds for #wyrdandwonder today – blessedly my head left me alone the last half of the week and it has enabled me to both work on my posts for the event and swing through the feeds on Twitter and the blogosphere!! 🙂 I personally LOVE maps which are included in stories – not just limited to Fantasy or SciFi either – I like how they root you in the world and in the exact setting where your feet and heart are about to take a walkabout in this world someone else invented and imagined.

    Similar to you – I try to noodle out the clues, seeing if I can ascertain the boundaries of a world and get the general lay of the land. Some writers do this expertly and sometimes I think some writers trip themselves up as it were – the best bit is when the map and the descriptive narrative are an equal match to each other but also explore the fullness of the world itself but leave a few unknowns too.

    Sounds like you’ve a lovely mind for not just sorting out the topography of the stories but you can then put them to paper and draw your own conclusions about how these worlds were meant to be seen on paper. That’s an extraordinary gift! Even if others aren’t doing this – keep doing what gives you the most enjoyment out of the stories – after all, once a writer publishes their story, the reader completes the circle of its evocation in the world! Each reader brings new insight and new layers of perspective so the fact your tripping through the map fantastic is another lens of insight which should be shared.


    1. You echo many of my feelings, Jorie — thanks for kindly commenting! — especially the complementary way text and maps can work together in building that world. And further, your observation that writer and reader are complementary in that the reader can fill out details that the writer either didn’t think about or chose not to include.

      Anyway, I hope to continue my literary cartographic forays — I’ve been doing it some years now for Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence, even though I’m only just over half way through.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The Power of Three was the first Wynne Jones that I read many many years ago but the force of that twist still remains with me, equalled only by the revelation on page 50 of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses. I really must go back and re-read The Power of Three.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve still to read the Blackman novel but I know the twist you mean! And it’ll be hard for me to review DWJ’s novel knowing that some readers don’t often appreciate spoilers, let alone hints of those spoilers. My reread has more sense to me this time, especially when put into its historical context — Diana not long graduated from Oxford and the furore over the recent-ish flooding of the Llyn Celyn valley — plus her subtle introduction of motifs from The Mabinogion. All that background has helped me appreciate why the novel appealed so strongly to me when I first read the copy I’d acquired in Seattle in the early 2000s: I knew there was more than met the eye.


  5. Maps: such a joy to study and explore….but such a pain to draw! I suck at making maps, which is a bit a drag because I need to work out where people are getting picked off in my two novella WIPS….


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