When I wasn’t even in school yet, my parents hung a poster on the wall of my bedroom. The name of the poster of was “The Land Of Make Believe”, and it was like a road atlas to the Country of Dreams. Literally, because the whole poster was illustrated with scenes from familiar fairy-stories and nursery rhymes, connected by a road that wound through that unreal but ever so familiar geography.
It wound past the wood where Little Red Riding Hood encountered the Wolf, leaped over a rushing stream on a bridge where the Three Billy Goats Gruff deceived the hungry Troll, and passed by the hill where Jack and Jill went to fetch their fateful pail of water. There were, in the background, fabulous castles wherein dwelt such notables as Jack the Giant Killer, and Grandfather-Know-It-All, as well as the Emerald City of Oz.
That map did not survive my parents’ divorce. I never saw it again until the Internet had matured enough to become the garage sale of Western Civilization, where if you are patient enough, and have good enough search engine skills, you can find almost anything. For some reason, it had never dawned on me that if I had one of these posters hanging in my childhood bedroom, others of my generation may have had the same poster and had been just as mesmerized by it as I was. On the Internet, I learned that it was drawn by the Czech artist Jaro Hess in 1930, and the figure of the Wandering Jew in the lower right hand corner had been changed to conform to post-Holocaust sensibilities to “The Wanderer”. It is still available, although it is not cheap.
The poster had been published in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which explains why it ended up in my bedroom. My family has deep roots in Western Michigan and it probably had belonged to someone in my father’s family, which explains why it disappeared after my parents’ divorce.
This dimly-remembered early childhood wall decoration may have begotten in me a love of maps of imaginary places. All I know is that, some eight years after the nursery rhyme map disappeared from the wall of my bedroom, I encountered a fold-out map of Wilderland in the front pieces of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Immediately hooked by the depiction of rivers, mountains, and forests to which I would never be able to travel, I finished the book in a single reading. It would not be true to say that the maps added nothing to my enjoyment of the tale. In fact, they gave the whole story a concreteness it would otherwise have lacked.
Since the appearance of The Lord Of The Rings in the 1950s, the Fantasy Map has become something of a cliché. I wasn’t surprised to find a map of Earthsea in Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard Of Earthsea, and truth be told, I’m glad the map was included. I would have been profoundly lost if I hadn’t been able to follow Ged around the numerous islands where the narrative took place. I don’t know if The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant would have been improved had they included a map. I doubt it. Jack Vance’s Lyonesse trilogy also lacked maps, although they are available on the Internet, but I had little trouble keeping track of the action as it unfolded. Robert E Howard’s Hyborean Age was nothing more than a set of political boundaries, but that didn’t keep my youthful imagination from filling in the dark forests and choking deserts from his muscular prose.
One of the newer fantasy worlds to be painstakingly mapped is George R R Martin’s brutal Westeros. Of course, Westeros is only one large continent in a much larger world, and a lot of the action takes place in geographies that are only hinted at in the maps in the earlier books. Martin has an eye for detail, and the maps come in very handy. Also, the maps appear to have evolved from the narrative, which I appreciate, since writers who create a map beforehand have a tendency to want to take you to every place mentioned on the map whether or not they have an adventure worthy of it. Even George R R Martin, in my opinion, spent too much time in Slaver’s Bay in A Dance With Dragons and maybe this wouldn’t have occurred had a detailed map of the area not accompanied A Feast For Crows.
A very beautiful, and very whimsical, fan map of Westeros has been produced.
Indeed, now that role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons have become so popular, it is customary for intricate campaigns in these games to come accompanied by maps. In order to allow the dungeonmaster to guide his flock through increasingly complex scenarios, ProFantasy, a UK software developer, has produced an array of software tools that allow the cartographers of Paradise to quickly render their visions into actual maps.
Finally, the whole idea of the map of an imaginary realm takes a metaphysical bent when you consider what CS Lewis said about fantasy stories, that they take place in the only alternative world known to us, that of the human soul. There have been innumerable geographers of the soul, including depth-psychologists such as Sigmund Freud, Joseph Campbell, and my personal favorite, Carl Gustav Jung, who proposed that the intricate mandalas produced by Tibetan artists revealed the unconscious geological strata of the human soul. Yet I believe that the Bible, with its wealth of stories and poetry, serves admirably in that regard, especially in that difficult-to-trace frontier between the human soul and the Divine.
The greatest danger with maps, especially with a map as accurate as is the Bible, is to mistake the map for the terrain itself. The best maps help you achieve your destination with the least amount of surprise and the greatest comfort. But only the most slothful and intransigent of armchair travelogues will mistake their knowledge of maps obtained in the comfort of the library for the actual arduous journey undertaken by the intrepid explorers of the psyche.