Updated: Feb 7
One of my favourite bookish experiences is flipping through the opening pages of a story to find a series of beautifully designed maps. I feel like a kid again: my brain kicks into gear and my imagination goes wild with the possibilities.
Will characters I haven't met yet explore that forest? Or climb that mountain? Will that field be a place for the last stand of a courageous army? And yeah, that creepy castle is definitely the home of The Bad Guy.
Though I've always loved fantasy and have a visceral emotional reaction to studying fictional maps, there are tonnes of other reasons for including them in a book.
A collection of fictional maps from books is laid out on a picnic blanket. Image: Madeleine Corbel, 2020.
What is a map?
According to the Macquarie Dictionary, a map is 'a representation, on a flat surface, of a part or the whole of the earth's surface, the heavens, or a heavenly body.'
I'd like to argue that the Macquarie has left out a very important qualification (gasp); a map might instead be a representation of a part or the whole of the earth's (or a fictional world's) surface. A very clumsy addition, but possibly an important one?
Stefan Ekman, in his book Here Be Dragons: Exploring fantasy maps and settings, suggests that maps are a kind of threshold, a 'liminal space between the actual world of the reader and the fictional world of the fantasy story'. They are a bridge connecting our experiences to those of the characters we are about to meet.
This is why, at least for some readers, these fictional maps feel just as important as real ones.
A map in a book can link our imaginations to the physical, providing a point of reference or logic so that the unfolding narrative is provided with context. As a reader, we can then pinpoint the exact location of the characters as they move about the world. This can often make or break a story, especially if it's a complex one.
In their article, Maps in Literature, Juliana and Phillip Muehrecke write: 'Maps appeal in a natural and logical way to our visual sense and to our need for conceptualisation'. In other words, as humans we have to be able to visualise a place and equip our spatial awareness. In the following pages of the book, the author gives life to that visualisation, dropping characters and objects into a space that we've already imagined.
As the Muehreckes point out, a map's ability to summarise the locations of a complicated narrative can stimulate our understanding, create our frustration, enhance our confusion or provide aid and clarity.
From an industry perspective, maps can be a tool for communication. For a start, the presence of a map is an indicator of genre. Dicovering a map in the preliminary pages of a book is like having Ned Stark or Frodo Baggins standing next to you screaming 'FANTASY' directly into your ear.
A map of Luthadel from Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series lies open. Image: Madeleine Corbel, 2020.
There are a number of reasons for clearly establishing the genre of a book early. It is way easier for readers to buy a book if they know what kind of a story or experience they're going to get. There are many people who don't enjoy a fantasy read, just as there are plenty who don't enjoy romance or history books. Maps are like outposts stationed outside the text – they tell you what the water's like before you dive in.
This signposting has the added benefit for booksellers of making a title easier to advertise and display in their stores. A book with a map can easily be compared to other existing titles (if you say your new story is similar to A Song of Ice and Fire, be prepared for some high expectations and an immediate spike in sales). A book with a map can also be easily stocked in the right place on a shelf, so that a buyer can immediately see what they're about to get (and I can travel directly to the sections of the shop that are going to inspire the happiest book-buying dance).
Another happy consequence of putting a map in the beginning of a book is that it provides more work for designers, keeping the industry healthy and glowing. Though I'm sure this also provides a heck of a lot more work for editors and formatting designers down the track.
Middle-Earth, from Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, is one of the most famous examples of a fantasy world. It has sparked the imaginations of generations of readers, and remains one of the most impacting explorations (maybe even creations) of genre in history. The maps that depict Middle-Earth aren't just beautifully crafted or instructional, they are also used by the author to create the story itself. Far from being an added bonus or special feature of a new edition, for example, the maps are included as a fundamental part of the text.
Clay Andres outlines this process in his article: 'You can see all this information laid out for you and it helps you better understand why the characters make the decisions they do, making you empathise with them and the world they live in.'
In this video, Books and Quills discusses maps as a signpost for fantasy books. Video: YouTube, 2022.
The characters' motivations, developments and thought processes are enhanced and explained by maps. In The Fellowship of the Ring, the protagonists must decide whether to continue by a route that leads them past a dangerous tower, or whether to brave the mines to reach their destinations – this is all explained through the visualisation of the maps provided to reader at the beginning of the book. In another example, the military outpost of Osgiliath stands between the city of Gondor and the evil realm of Mordor – the reader can clearly see the placement of these three places on the maps provided. We can understand the peril of the characters and the reasons behind their geographical movements.
Maps present these fantastical, imaginary places as if they're real. And if the places feel real, the characters and the story will feel real too.
Maps can make us feel things. They present possibilities. They are the flags of the fantasy genre, which has earned respect and appreciation after inspiring generations of readers to do a Bilbo Baggins and cry out 'I'm going on an adventure!'
Maps contribute to the culture of books because they teach us to imagine new, exciting, dangerous places while sitting comfortably in our jammies with a cuppa tea.
Thanks a bunch for reading with me.