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On reading “Here be cartographers”

    cartography     Tolkien

Nicholas Tam, occasional blogger at Ntuple Indemnity, wrote an immensely enjoyable post entitled “Here be cartographers: Reading the fantasy map” last … well, not “last” anything. Last April of 2011.

You know you’re reading a “long-form” blog, when it’s not until the seventh and eighth paragraphs that a writer tells you what he plans to write about:

So when we open up a novel to find a map, we can think of the map as an act of narration. But what kind of narration? Is it reliable narration or a deliberate misdirection? Is it omniscient knowledge, a complete (or strategically obscured) presentation of the world as the author knows it? Or is the map available to the characters in the text? If it is, then who drew up the map, and how did they have access to the information used to compose it? If it isn’t, then through what resources do the characters orient themselves in their own world? And finally, does anyone even bother to think about these questions before they sit down to place their woodlands and forts?

In the post that follows, I am going to informally sketch out a theory of fictional maps, which is to say that I will put up a lot of pretty pictures from novels and talk about why they are neat. There is likely some academic work on this somewhere — I would be astonished if there weren’t — but I’m not aware of any, and certainly nothing that has accounted for modern critical approaches to the history of cartography. Map history and the comparative study of commercial genre literature are niches within niches as it stands, and my aim is to entwine them together.

And so he does. Tam begin’s with “Thrór’s map” printed on the end paper of The Hobbit, observing that it can be thought of as a map drawn by Tolkien for The Hobbit, by Thrór for his heirs, by Bilbo Baggins (copying Thrór’s map), or by Tolkien (copying Bilbo‘s copy). And we’re down the rabbit hole.

With illustrations of different editions of Thrór’s map, and maps from The Princess Bride, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels, Treasure Island, Star Wars, a Soviet Hobbit, the Oz books, Peter Jackson’s movies, the Duncton books, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, as well as pulling in references to Mercator, Cassini, Barbara Strachey’s Journeys of Frodo, Pratchett, and Carroll.

He concludes:

Mapmaking does not seem to permit carefully targeted ambiguity with the same flexibility as prose alone. With other forms of book illustration, one always gets the sense that the visual depictions could always be replaced or re-envisioned some other way. Maps exert a stronger form of authority: any improvements or revisions by readers or in future editions take place within the author’s borders as if they were immutable, objective truths.

It is a strange twist indeed that we are less liable to accept in fiction than in reality that cartography is a form of language: a medium for our perception of place, not to be confused with place itself. If there is a remedy for this, it may resemble the solution we developed for language, and take the form of self-conscious experimentation with maps as narrative voices — subjective, perspectival, and often unreliable. Literary writing deserves a literary map.

For anyone interested in cartography, fantasy writing, publishing, or semiotics (and, truthfully speaking, how many of us are not?), Tam’s essay is worth reading in full. Make sure you have a good half-hour for it; you’ll likely be thinking about it for days.