Started with a map

“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.

Fantasy World Map (credit:

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.

Map of A Great Country, 1835 (a warning on the dangers of alcohol)

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.

Coterminous worlds

* 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.

Middle Earth

* 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.

Other paracosms

* 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.
Gollancz, 2004.
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.

24 thoughts on “Started with a map

  1. Coterminous is a word I was not familiar with (‘scuse my ignorance) but to find my way to an explanation all I had to do was hold my finger on the word and select “look up”. I love maps and similar to the loss of these as a means of finding our route (or place in the world), I also miss finding my way to the dictionary on the bookshelf (we have several dictionaries). It is, however, very quick and easy, convenient I suppose, to click a screen that you are already looking at and instantly get the answer to the question “what does it mean?” or “where am I?” Ah well, time moves forward ….. or does it? Hmmm.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, how times change and we each in our own way change with them. I spend a lot of the day (too much, I suspect, in these unusual days) on a screen, even if early mornings and late evenings are spent with my head in an old-fashioned book, my phone switched off and out of reach. And maps: I really have to have an atlas or an OS map spread open in front of me, even if it requires the use of a magnifying glass to zero in on an almost overlooked detail!

      And coterminous, obvious when you know and can break down the elements, but rather bamboozling to come across out of the blue!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I too had to look up coterminous, although once you know it does makes sense just as you say, Chris. We have a battered Road Atlas which I’m resolutely hanging on to but do use a Satnav also. Our copy of Britain on the Back Roads has provided many happy days out and holidays despite the fact the maps are now out of date. Maps have an appeal that I think will stay with me and as you know I love maps in books. A lovely interesting post, thank you.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I hoped this post might raise a few cries of recognition, Anne, and it has! Glad you liked it, even if I briefly discombobulated you with ‘coterminous’… Britain on the Back Roads sounds delightful, and reminds me of those Reader’s Digest and Shell hardback guidebooks that were a must for all middle class families in search of Interesting Places Off the Beaten Track.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. You made me realise that I don’t even have a road atlas in the car any longer. I should dig it out though because sometimes the sat nav is too narrow a view.

    I do find it helpful to have a map in a book even if it’s only a basic one because I have a hard time visualising from the text where things and places are in relation to each other.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We usually have a large road atlas somewhere in the car, often a year or three out of date, but glove box atlases have joined gloves as things long absent from there! But satnavs and phone apps are disorientating, especially when the message ‘You have arrived at your destination’ for me frequently evokes the near hysterical And where the hell is that?!

      Liked by 1 person

            1. Perhaps one of those apps where you can get a celebrity voicing the instructions has some some sarcastic responses? (I think Eddie Izzard may already have!)


  3. Thank you for this! As you know I’m a huge fan of maps, but have somehow missed the DWJ book (which is annoying because I love her writing). I think I’m possibly not so good at spatial visualising so I do like a plan or a chart – even those little diagrams in Golden Age crime books of the layout of the stately home or whatever. All adds to my reading experience!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yay, another map fan! I suppose the Cluedo board was the obvious next step to offer crime fans in that Golden Age who relished that map sketched out by an amateur detective such as Gervase Fen! Even if one’s comfortable with orientation — left-right and compass points — it’s the precise relationship of components that’s tricky to grasp from a text and where a diagram or map is often worth a thousand words. Symbolic as they are they’re a step on the way from the cognitive map to the real thing.

      The DWJ book I believe was originally envisaged as a sort of companion or prompt for The Dark Lord of Derkholm but is an absolute scream as you read through the entries: they superbly encapsulate the clichéd tropes inherent in much fantasy, but in a way that reveals both her knowledge of and delight in such tropes. Well worth seeking out, whether one’s a reader or a budding fantasy author keen to avoid pitfalls!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. piotrek

    My spatial imagination was always somehow lacking, I love mountain trips, but have trouble remembering all the names and routes, even when revisiting a place for the N-th time – and so I always loved maps. Even maps in the apps, and there are some nice apps for mountain tourism.

    But no electronic map will ever give me the same joy I get from browsing a solid atlas, of this or some alternative world. I have several world atlases, history atlases, fantasy atlases… they are in a way similar to lexicons, not necessary, but delightful.

    Alas, I don’t have your talent and cannot create good a map myself, I believe you experience some books on a whole new level. At least we have you posts to admire 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a passion for the map as a symbol — literally ‘a throwing together’ in origin, then a substitute — and as a signifier, encapsulating meaning. So even virtual maps, as much as physical ones, have worth: your app in the mountains has a practical use but you know that prominence, that path, that stream, all are represented on your screen, and in their turn represent extra effort, a time to look around, a hazard to tackle.

      Like you, though, I prefer the ‘solid atlas’ and have a small collection comparable to yours. And I can’t help but attempt to produce or reproduce maps where fiction chooses not to include them. (Though I’d dispute that there was much talent behind them!)

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Lovely video, not one I’d seen before but including Pangaea as part of a wider timescale with very clever visuals (and music!). Using imagined past geographies was popular in the early 20th century, wasn’t it, with fantasies based on an imagined continent Lemuria in the Indian Ocean or a presumed Atlantis where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is now.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m always talking against the Satnav with her self-satisfied tone. Nothing pleases me more than to hear her repeating in a panicked voice ‘turn around when possible, turn around when possible.’

    Not when I’m the driver though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hah! We have a mildly posh Englishwoman voicing our phone app directions who mostly — but not always — manages Welsh placenames with some aplomb. When she puts them through the mangler, however, she loses all authority and we snort in derision.

      Our old, now defunct, standalone satnav was like yours though, forever telling us to “turn around whenever possible” — so much so that I loved taking a different route and anticipating his exhortation with a passable imitation… I did feel a bit of a bully, I must admit, teasing someone who couldn’t respond!

      Liked by 1 person

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