April 5, 2011


For a touch of fantasy, note the cyclops pictured in the west (the
middle of the page), and the kingdom of Prester John to the east.
        I love maps.  I love reading them, I love drawing them, I love looking at them as art.  Maybe my love of maps is only to be expected, considering that maps have a long history of overlap with both block printing and fantasy.
        There are so many issues to think about in cartography: the sheer difficulty of making an accurate picture of something that no one can actually see (at least before the invention of aerial photography, anyway); the advances in technology, from compasses and GPS to printing presses and computers, that change how maps are made; the conventions that must be balanced with innovation; the fact that a map is a tool for imparting information of a certain type, and that maps can be completely different depending on what sort of information they're concerned with; how maps are both practical scientific tools and objects of artistic beauty; how maps are supposed to reflect reality and yet so often end up defining it…
        My thoughts here, though, must come back to block prints and fantasy.  Woodcuts were a dominant medium for European maps in the 15th and 16th century, especially in northern Europe.  There's a nice summary of the history of woodcut printed maps in Europe here at mapforum.  Although the development of copper engraving permitted much finer detail and eventually supplanted woodcuts, the wood blocks did have the advantage of being able to be set and printed at the same time as any text on the page, whereas copper plates had to be printed in a separate run through the press.  Some wood blocks were carved with holes or notches in them where the names were to go.  The lettering could then
be printed by fitting moveable type into the holes, allowing not only finer, easier text, but also allowing the same map to be printed for different languages by changing out the type.
        The Japanese were also producing woodblock maps, I think mainly in the 17th-19th centuries, although I couldn't find much information on the history.  There are lots of lovely examples of Japanese woodblock maps posted on the internet, though.
        Early maps of the world are often quite fantastic and largely fictional.  Fantasy maps, by contrast, are often as detailed and precise as possible in order to enhance the illusion that they portray real worlds.  I love maps in fantasy books, not only when they're helpful to follow the story, but also just for the fun of seeing an imaginary place made real.  Through high school my bedroom wall was adorned with maps of many of my favorite fantasy locations (much to my father's annoyance, since he didn't appreciate my spoiling my walls with tape!)

This map has east and west reversed,
an error that has plagued those
looking for Oz consistency ever since.

I was 11 when I made this
map and the book of
which it was a part.
And naturally I loved to draw maps, too.  I was especially given to using an old-fashioned ink pen, and browning the edges of my maps over a candle flame for that satisfyingly ancient look.  (P and T love making maps, too.  Indeed, I think all right-thinking children must draw imaginary maps from time to time!  But I have not yet introduced them to the joys of artificial candleflame aging.)  Of course I put maps in most of my books.  Who wouldn't want maps?  Maps are a wonderful part of the immersion in illusion that makes fantasy so engaging.

[Pictures: map of Africa from Cosmographia by Sebastian Münster, woodcut, c.1556 (image from Altea Gallery);

     map of the world from Universalis Cosmographia by Martin Waldseemüller, wood block print from 12 blocks, 1507 (image from Wikimedia Commons);
     map of Edo or Tokyo, wood block print with hand coloring, 1849, (image provided to Wikimedia Commons by Geographicus Rare Antique Maps);
     map of Middle Earth, pen and ink by J.R.R. Tolkien, mid 20th century;
     map of Earthsea from A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, map originally drawn by LeGuin, illustrations by Ruth Robbins, 1968;
     map of Oz from Tik-Tok of Oz by L. Frank Baum, I assume drawn by illustrator John R. Neill, 1914;
     map of Iscamer from Iscamer: The Land of the Iscateers, pen and watercolor by AEGN, 1982;
     map of the part of the Otherworld described in A Threatening of Dragons by AEGN, 2008.]


Anonymous said...

What, no one has commented on your evocative post about maps and cartography? Something's wrong here. Maps are awesome; maps are beautiful; maps are vital to life. As a boy I spent hours paging through and absorbing a gigantic atlas that my father brought home from work, a gift of the Container Corporation of America. There was, in addition to all sorts of international maps, a page for each U.S. state, and best of all, a listing of all places named on the maps and their populations, according to the 1940 census. It was what I did on rainy days; that and eat.
Rebecca West once said that "looking at maps is a masculine form of auto-hypnosis." I cannot believe that there were not lots of girls equally taken by maps. For me it wasn't auto-hypnosis but rather that maps energized me and tempted me to travel and to want to see more of the world. Thankfully, my wishes were fulfilled.
Keep up the good work.
The Aging Wordsmith

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

It's nice to hear from a fellow map-lover!
It is sort of strange that maps are stereotypically masculine. I guess that dates back to the time when women were supposed not to be capable of understanding anything beyond the confines of their own homes. But it seems to me that maps appeal equally to girls and boys - at any rate, they certainly are enjoyed equally by the two males and two females living in our household.

Anonymous said...

Yeah bookmaking this wasn't a high risk conclusion outstanding post!

Anonymous said...

Keep this going please, great job!