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.