The Joy of Maps

Earlier this year at the SFX Weekender sci fi and fantasy convention in Prestatyn, Wales, a panel discussion was led by Juliet E McKenna called ‘It’s not a story, it’s a map!’, with China Miéville, Gaie Sebold, Sam Sykes, David Tallerman and Ian Whates discussing the merits, or lack of merit, of using maps as part of fantasy fiction.

To my surprise the absolute consensus was that maps are an unnecessary and pointless addition to books, and as writers the panel saw no use for them. McKenna, who has maps at the beginning of her Tales of Einarrin series of books, and who I therefore expected to mount a spirited defence, seemed to concede to the prevailing opinion, which centred on maps and drawing maps being a constraint on the development of a story, or merely useless. Possibly she was as taken aback as I was at the amount of dislike displayed, but as far as I can remember there wasn’t one argument for the humble map and I was sadly disappointed at this. Therefore, it is time for the flag to be raised for the greatness of maps, the majesty of a beautifully drawn mountain range, the wide sweeping pen stroke of a river, the giant forbidden forest, and the potential that this contains.

As I imagine you have gathered by now, I am a keen fan of maps. When I bought Skyrim and found there was a map inside showing me the as yet unchartered realm that lay within the disc next to it, I thought it was a fantastic addition. The map of Middle Earth is iconic, and recently the Game of Thrones HBO series won an Emmy for its title sequence, which pans down the map of Westeros and Essos.

I think there’s a strong case for the use of maps in fantasy fiction because a map doesn’t constrain a story; how the story has been written and where an author decides to place various points of interest is what the story has to sit in. Maps are the promise of an adventure, a piece of artwork inspired by the story, a scene-setter that, like the opening title of Game of Thrones, lets you initially skim across a world that you have yet to be introduced to, see the places that you may go, or you may never go, and orientate yourself to a starting point which, if you so wish, you can then follow as the story develops.

How you use a map, or whether you even look at it at all, is completely up to the reader, that’s the beauty of them.  They require imagination in order to bring them alive, so therefore a perfect accompaniment to a fantasy novel where usually a whole new world has been created. There is also an antique beauty to maps, a sense of romance, which brings to mind a world of exploration where electronic positioning devices were a mere figment of a far off future, suiting the pre-industrial period in which a lot of fantasy is set.

A map obviously defines boundaries and where places have to be, and I can understand that some people don’t like that, but it also provides a world of opportunities to what could be and where the story could go. What’s beyond the boundaries? What is the history behind the name of this bit over here? Has anybody ever been to this bit here? The map of Middle Earth is a fantastic example – we know about the Western Lands of the continent of Arda, but there’s a whole world outside of this that we are never taken to. The story which we read is just one little bit in a very big whole, both in timescale and location, which I think maps encapsulate because they’re timeless – they lift above the story because they show the ground the story is taking place on; the forests, the mountain ranges, the seas, lakes and rivers. These features are often integral to how the story develops. Going back to LOTR, the Misty Mountains cut across the path to the east, forcing the characters underground and causing the initial splintering of the Fellowship. In Game of Thrones, set in a similar time to Civil War England, where towns and cities are positioned and how battles are fought are determined by the topography. How various peoples develop is determined by their surroundings, and this is true for many fantasy series.

A map is the board on which the game is played – a representation of the foundations on which a story is built – and I think a lot of people would agree with me that maps can be a beautiful and useful addition to the world of fantasy literature.


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