“I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit […]. The other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities, and in any case it is weary work to compose a map from a story.”
— Tolkien to the novelist Naomi Mitchison (1954)
These days, when most people have a satnav app on their smartphone, a sense of how places relate to each other may be declining in many individual consciousnesses even as sales of road atlases and street maps continue to drop: less than ten years ago The Times reported that in the UK “the days of the dog-eared road atlas in the glove compartment are numbered: 2014 is expected to be the first year in which the majority of drivers use sat navs.”
This may not necessarily mean that we are losing an ability to navigate, however, merely that driving to somewhere new may be divorced from everyday reality when we’re using a device like a satnav or an app, because we’re able to allow a machine to dictate where we go while we concentrate on something else.
Generally, however, when we become familiar with layout and directions we can rely on what’s called a cognitive map.
A cognitive map has been defined as “a spatial representation of the outside world which is kept within the mind, until an actual manifestation” (such as a physical map) “of this perceived knowledge is generated”; in other words, it’s a mental picture of the layout of one’s physical environment. First defined by psychologist Edward Tolman in the 1940s, a cognitive map can help us
- navigate unfamiliar territory,
- give directions, and
- learn or recall information.
When we create cognitive maps it seems we often omit information deemed irrelevant, meaning that they may differ from the actual location being mapped.
I suspect that when we read novels we’re constantly creating cognitive maps of the spaces in which the fictional action takes place. Most contemporary fiction assumes its literary world is coterminous with our actual world and that the reader can envision — through the text’s description or the reader’s own experience — the environments in which the characters move and act.
Not all literary genres position their narratives in our actual world, however. As I’ve previously discussed, when novels which are more fantastical decline to offer a physical manifestation (that is, a map) of those environments, I find myself challenged to create my own.
Authors have always used mundane localities, sometimes only slightly disguised, in which to base their fictions, leading readers to embark on literary pilgrimages to whatever part of the world those novels may be set (as I recently expounded in in ‘Magic, literature and landscapes’). But writers of more speculative fiction often like to envision a reality beyond the everyday world, whether it involves additional but previously unknown land masses on (sometimes even in) our globe, or altogether new globes, as I alluded to in ‘Topographical diversions‘. Meanwhile, in ‘Westward Ho!‘ I mused on how reorientating maps helped give us a different view of geopolitics in worlds seen through fictional lenses.
Over the years I’ve read and reviewed or consulted a great number of ‘alternate’ (strictly speaking, ‘alternative’) worlds which could be called paracosms, though generally the term is limited to imaginary lands created by youthful writers like the Brontës. I’ve little interest in allegories and even less in overtly didactic works so I’ve not considered charts such as the pro-Temperance
Map of A Great Country, Lying Between the Ocean of Nativity of the West, and the Ocean of Eternity on the East; Containing a Population of Eight Hundred Million of souls. To which is appended a brief account of the Territories, Seas, Lakes, Rivers, &c. of this country. Carefully arranged from the best authors, and the latest and most accurate surveys,
all as imagined by the pseudonymous Timothy Temperance. What follows, therefore, is instead a brief index raisonné of works I personally have found either fascinating or useful, with links to any reviews I’ve posted on this blog; I’ve specifically omitted historical atlases, but may post on these another time.
* Ashley and Miles Bayton-Williams.
New Worlds: Maps from the Age of Discovery. Quercus, 2008.
How mapping developed from the late medieval period to recent times, taking into account new discoveries to make appropriate adjustments to existing topography.
* David Day. Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. Mitchell Beazley, 1993.
Though not highly regarded, this compendium includes a section on the geographical development of Middle-Earth.
* Karen Wynn Fonstad. The Atlas of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. HarperCollins 2016.
Hugely detailed maps, charts and chronological tables.
* Barbara Strachey. Journeys of Frodo: an Atlas of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Unwin Paperbacks, 1981.
Maps the action of The Lord of the Rings over the whole year covered by the narrative.
* Edward Brooke-Hitching. The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps. Simon & Schuster, 2016.
Localities which have never existed but found their way onto charts and maps.
* Huw Lewis-Jones. The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Worlds. Thames & Hudson, 2018.
Hugely enjoyable and handsome compendium with chapters by a host of different authors and profusely illustrated.
* Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi. The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. Macmillan, 1980.
A Baedecker-style guide, from Abaton to Zyndal and everywhere in between.
* Diana Wynne Jones. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Vista, 1996.
— The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.
Two different editions of this helpful guidebook, each sporting a different map of Fantasyland.
To conclude, after a fashion: I began with a famous quote from one of Tolkien’s letters which commenced “I wisely started with a map.” For readers the best of all worlds is of course the published work which includes a complementary map or two because, in the absence of a visual manifestation, the cognitive map which the reader may have to concoct could possibly prove as tedious as what Tolkien thought of as “weary work” — composing a map from a story.
But, I have to confess, half the fun of immersing myself in an imaginary world is the charting of its geography from clues in the text; and what Tolkien regarded as weary work isn’t going to be a habit I can see myself giving up on any time soon.