North of Neverland
Page count that would make Tolstoy tremble? Hooded gentleman on the cover? Chronology? Cast list? It’s a Fantasy novel all right, but what am I forgetting? Oh yes: maps.
Fantasy and maps go together like elections and promises.
Funny thing though, M. John Harrison, a writer I much esteem, is rather down on them. He says mapping Middle Earth is folly, and decries the “great clomping foot of nerdism”. For him Fantasy should unhinge the reader from the everyday world, and maps are altogether too literal a thing for that. It’s like doing your tax returns on mushrooms: it’s possible, but the results are unlikely to be inspiring. And he’s not revelling in obscurity either: the baroque grandeur of Viriconium
or The Centauri Device
show the merit in that approach. “Where we’re going,” Harrison seems to say, “we don’t need maps!”
Then there’s the George R. R Martin’s line of attack. Striving for an earthy realism, old George will show you a knight sitting by a campfire. He’ll tell you what armour yon knight’s wearing and who forged it. He’ll tell you about the animal upon whose leg said knight is chewing and how he cooked it. Family motto. Medical history. It can’t be that bad a method either when the results are so readable. Hard to argue with a bazillion book sales either… Naturally, Martin and Harrison both say Tolkien’s in their corner. He’s the guvnor after all.
Before starting Irenicon
, I was with Harrison. I had high-minded objections to maps, cast lists and all the traditional accoutrements. No longer. Directions mostly don’t matter, but sometimes – in war for example – they matter a great deal. Demographics is Destiny they say (they
usually being white folk terrified of their gardeners) but Geography beats Demographics every time. Show me a nation’s map; I’ll show you its soul. It’s no accident that Napoleon’s party trick was reading maps. Maps help when you don’t want to interrupt proceedings to remind readers every other chapter that Castle Skullface is southwest of The Forest of Shivers. Maps help in Fantasy the way they help in life: they get you there quicker.
So once you’ve cravenly bowed to tradition, how do you go about it? Typically you’ll want your map to be something your characters might conceivably lay their gauntlets on. How far to you take that? Our familiar North-Up, South-Down orientation is a relatively recent convention – and unforgivably Eurocentric – but it’s darn useful. Then there’s the question of accuracy. We have the armies of 19th Century surveyors – not satellites – to thank for the precise maps we’re used to. Have you seen
any medieval cartography? Columbus was lucky to get out of the harbour, let alone across the Atlantic. It didn’t help matters that mariners’ detailed knowledge of coasts was regarded less than received notions which held Jerusalem to be at world’s centre.
It’s a question of taste, rather like the inevitable language problems that arise from the historical settings of most Fantasy. Readers will wince if a medieval character says “OK” but beyond that, if it flows, if it’s consistent, it becomes invisible. Then it can serve the story. And story is ultimately is what the traditional accoutrements, like maps, help us get to.
So that’s my excuse. Tolkien drew them too. Jeez, get off my back…