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.

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Rather uncanny

Andrew Caldecott: Rotherweird
Illustrated by Sasha Laika
Jo Fletcher Books 2018 (2017)

‘Books reflect interests; interests inform personality and personality decides a course of action.’
— Chapter Six

I feared that this might be my kind of book, which is why I hesitated; and it turns out I was right to fear it. Its labyrinthine plot sucked me in — in a pleasing way — but rather than rush down its myriad pathways I chose to linger over details, ponder clues and savour solutions.

Rotherweird is itself a maze, a Troy Town in which it’s easy to get lost, an elemental island where earth, air, wood, water and fire lurk in uneasy proximity. And where the study of ancient and medieval history is not only discouraged but banned.

As a reader fascinated by history I wondered how its inhabitants would respond to this injunction: what had happened to the natural curiosity that is a basic human instinct? In Rotherweird we discover that it’s there just below the surface of the townsfolk, merely waiting for a catalyst to begin the reaction. Who will it be?

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An ideal state

Amgueddfa Cymru, Caerdydd

Inverted Commas 10: Ideal City

1. Steal Nothing, whether it be an abstract idea or another life.
2. Examine Everything.
3. Pay a Fair Price.

These are the laws of the city state in the Valley of the Golden Cloud, from Michael Moorcock’s fantasy The War Hound and the World’s Pain (1981). The city guard who announces this adds,

“And remember, to lie is to steal another soul’s freedom of action, or some fragment of it. Here a liar and a thief are the same thing.”

As Captain Ulrich von Bek suggests, these laws sound excellent, even ideal, to which his companion Sedenko adds, “And simple.”

Yet, as the guard rejoins, they sometimes require complex interpretation. Which then leads von Bek to muse that it had been many years since he’d been able to believe in absolute justice, and some weeks since he’d believed in justice of any kind. He’s been living through the Thirty Years War after all — and we seem to be living through an equally tumultuous period of modern history, with similar concerns about justice.

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Where no gaps were

Dürer’s Knight (1513). There will have been some changes in armour by the time of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648)

Michael Moorcock:
The War Hound and the World’s Pain
New English Library 1983 (1981)

Nicknamed Kriegshund or ‘War Hound’ by his men, Ulrich von Bek is a mercenary captain during the Thirty Years War which devastated Germany at the start of the 17th century. Disgusted by the massacre that occurred after the siege of Magdeburg and appalled by the lawlessness and plague that he witnesses elsewhere, he heads south, alone, to the Thuringian Forest. And it is in this quiet wilderness that he discovers a mysterious castle, which then sets him off on a quest to find a Cure for Der Weltschmerz, the World’s Pain.

The personage who sets him off on this mission is no other than Lucifer. Yes, that Lucifer. It’s what swings The War Hound and the World’s Pain from apparent historical fiction to bona fide fantasy (and not science fiction as the UK paperback claims). But, this being a Moorcock novel, expectations are sure to be confounded.

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Love leaves its mark

Gothic revival Cyfarthfa Castle, Merthyr Tydfil

J K Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Bloomsbury 1997

What can one say about the first of the Harry Potter books that hasn’t already been said, whether in praise or in some kind of disparaging commentary? I’m not certain whether my two penn’orth here will either enlighten anyone or even excuse or endorse anything already stated, but I offer it here as my modest contribution; in a sense, my purse of secondhand opinions is bottomless.

So: a young orphan, badly treated, visibly different, naturally gifted but full of anger and self-doubt, is bullied, thrust into danger, tested almost beyond his abilities. How is he to cope? The answer, as ever, is social resilience, bolstered by support from the surrogate family that is the school community, from loyal close friends and sympathetic teachers looking out for him. Above all, by the knowledge that he not only is, but was, loved. As Albus Dumbledore says,

“If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realise that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign … to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection for ever. It is in your very skin.”
— Chapter Seventeen

Love, as anyone who has read through the whole Harry Potter series, is the leitmotif that runs through each and every instalment.

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An archipelago of stories

Smoke drifting across a copse

Ursula Le Guin: Tales from Earthsea
Orion Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

A story may be pieced together from such scraps and fragments, and though it will be an airy quilt, half made of hearsay and half of guesswork, yet it may be true enough.
— From ‘The Finder’

In the middle of Earthsea, nestled within the vast island archipelago, is the Inmost Sea. In the centre of that sea is the island of Roke. And on that island is the Immanent Grove, by the eminence that is Roke Knoll. And above all, the sky. Earth, water, wood and air: elements that we meet time and again in Tales from Earthsea and, indeed, in the whole saga. And to those we should also add fire.

Ursula Le Guin’s five Earthsea novels, expanded from the original trilogy to a quartet and then, three decades on, to a pentad, have felt at times like the saga of Duny, later called Sparrowhawk but now known as Ged. True, it drew in other participants — Tenar, Lebannen and Tehanu, for example — but principally we have followed Ged from boyhood to Archmage and on to old age.

We will have always known however that there were — that there will have to have been — other stories to tell, and in this collection we are offered five of them, along with an essay giving us some of the who, what, when and where of this magical world. And I mean ‘magical’ in all the senses of this word.

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