Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’


Image: Munro Orr
This iconic map from
Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, is in the collection of the British Library.

As a longtime reader of fantasies, I know the pleasure of following the action with the help of maps. I also know how frustrating it can be if the maps don’t explain enough. As Sarah Laskow writes at Atlas Obscura, the art of fantasy mapping is a special skill.

“One of life’s great treats, for a lover of books (especially fantasy books),” she writes, “is to open a cover to find a map secreted inside and filled with the details of a land about to be discovered. …

“A new book, The Writer’s Map, contains dozens of the magical maps writers have drawn or that have been made by others to illustrate the places they’ve created. ‘All maps are products of human imagination,’ writes Huw Lewis-Jones, the book’s editor. ‘For some writers making a map is absolutely central to the craft of shaping and telling their tale.’

“The book includes the map from Thomas More’s Utopia, which when published in 1516 contained the first fantasy map in a work of fiction, as far as anyone can tell. The book also has the maps that were the objects of obsession of many a fantasy-filled childhood: Middle Earth, the mysterious Narnia, the Hundred Acre Wood, the roads Milo explores in The Phantom Tollbooth.

“But there are more private treasures here, too: J.R.R. Tolkien’s own sketch of Mordor, on graph paper; C.S. Lewis’s sketches; unpublished maps from the notebooks of David Mitchell, who uses them to help imagine the worlds of his books, such as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet; Jack Kerouac’s own route in On the Road (a fantasy of a different kind, no less obsessed over).

“Among these maps, the one for Treasure Island is a landmark, ‘one of the most iconic literary maps of all,’ Lewis-Jones writes. It comes up more than once in the book’s essays. …

“In one essay, Cressida Cowell, the author of How to Train Your Dragon, writes of being inspired by maps drawn by the Brontës as children, ‘in tiny, beautiful books that were in themselves a fascination, for the writing was as small as if created by mice.’ …

“Abi Elphinstone, the author of the Dreamsnatcher books: ‘I begin every story I write by drawing a map because it is only when my characters start moving from place to place that a plot unfolds.’ Mitchell doesn’t print maps in his books, but he needs them to get through the writing. …

“Philip Pullman (author of the His Dark Materials books): ‘Writing is a matter of sullen toil. Drawing is pure joy. Drawing a map to go with a story is messing around, with the added fun of coloring in.’ …

“Mapping does have difficulties. Frances Hardinge, a British children’s book writer, explains the problem of having described in her writing an island with an outline that ‘resembled a bird-headed biped with long fingers.’ Her first attempts at mapping the place just looked wrong. ‘For the record, drawing something that looks like both bird-human hybrid and a plausible landmass is a lot harder than you might think,’ she writes.”

More at Atlas Obscura, here, where you can see other maps, including one of Walden Pond — a surprise because Walden Pond is no fantasy. I know it well.

Image: Roland Chambers
Map by Roland Chambers for
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. Doesn’t this map make you want to read the book?


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I’ve been wanting to share this remix of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland but hoped to add something beyond saying that I like it.

Then today, Asakiyume tweeted some comments on fantasy that science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin posted at the Book View Cafe blog.

Le Guin was reacting to a comment Kazuo Ishiguro made about his latest novel when he was interviewed by the NY Times: “Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

Le Guin launched into a spirited defense of fantasy in which she mentions the very story I had been thinking about for this post.

“Fantasy is probably the oldest literary device for talking about reality. ‘Surface elements,’ by which I take it he means ogres, dragons, Arthurian knights, mysterious boatmen, etc., which occur in certain works of great literary merit such as Beowulf, the Morte d’Arthur, and The Lord of the Rings, are also much imitated in contemporary commercial hackwork.

“Their presence or absence is not what constitutes a fantasy. Literary fantasy is the result of a vivid, powerful, coherent imagination drawing plausible impossibilities together into a vivid, powerful and coherent story, such as those mentioned, or The Odyssey, or Alice in Wonderland.” More here.

I love Le Guin’s characterization of fantasy. It reminds of something C.S. Lewis said about writing good fantasy. He said that, within the laws of its own realm, everything had to be plausible. Or words to that effect. And he wrote an essay with a splendid title, “Sometimes Fairy Stories Say Best What’s to Be Said.” (For a comparison of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s ideas about fantasy, check this essay.)


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