Places Familiar and Fantastical
In the spring of 2014, I was struck with inspiration to draw a map of my home city of Pittsburgh in the style of a map from a fantasy novel. Working on this map, and a series of similar ones of other cities, was a revealing look into how people relate to the places that they live.
Fantasy maps have an important place in my life, starting with the iconic map of Middle-earth (drawn by the author’s son Christopher Tolkien) from Lord of the Rings. When I read LotR for the first time around the age of nine, I was captivated by the map. More than just a guide to keeping the journeys of the characters straight, it was an invitation to think about Middle-earth as an entire world, existing apart from the small slices we see in the story. I became fascinated with maps, poring over atlases and drawing hundreds of maps of my own invented worlds. Some authors, much to my dismay, failed to include maps in their novels – but I was on the job to map things out for my own use. (To judge from blog posts by writers like N.K. Jemisin or Joe Abercrombie, map-skeptics tend to treat fantasy maps as tools or even crutches for the reader, which thus serve as spoilers or breakers of the immersion provided by the text. This is quite the opposite of how I view fantasy maps!)
“Fantasy maps” are characterized by their faux-medieval-European appearance. Though they incorporate various modern elements (north, rather than east, is up on most fantasy maps, and they are usually presumed to be spatially accurate), they invoke an antique aesthetic. When depicting a fantasy world like Middle-earth, that aesthetic adds an air of authenticity – the map could be an artifact from that world, and in some cases (such as Thror’s map in The Hobbit) is explicitly said to be so.
Drawing a fantasy-style map of a real twenty-first century place, however, requires a process of translation. The fantasy aesthetic provides a sort of code. Parks and other green spaces become forests, hills and ridges become great mountains, skyscrapers become wizards’ towers, and colleges become castles. Occasionally I fill in empty spaces with dragons or sea monsters, in imitation of the mostly-apocryphal “hic sunt dracones.”
Of course, there is more to drawing a fantasy map than a simple algorithmic translation of information from sources like Google Maps, OpenStreetMap, and Wikipedia into fantasy imagery. The most satisfying maps are those where I am able to learn a bit about the city and convey aspects of local character. For example, the Pittsburgh map features the “Desolation of Civic” – a wasteland where once stood the Civic Arena, and before that a vibrant African-American community, and which is still the subject of much debate about its future redevelopment. Conversely, cities that lack easily fantasy-able features come out flat and lifeless (sorry, Amarillo).
I distributed the Pittsburgh map and subsequent ones through my Etsy store, Mapsburgh. The maps have been a huge hit and a steady source of sales, both of prints of the existing pieces and commissions to create maps of new cities. (I am sometimes asked why I have a map of city X and not of city Y, in a subtly accusatory tone as if I am acting out some secret grudge against Y – when in fact the answer is simply that someone from X commissioned a map, and nobody from Y has done likewise.)
Without having done any formal marketing research, I can only speculate on what motivates buyers and what makes my maps popular. I would speculate that a major factor is that these maps offer a re-mystification of place. Fantasy literature plays heavily on the idea of being transported into another world where magic and wonder and beauty abound, leaving behind the dreary mundanity of the world we really live in.
I judge that buyers are much more interested in what is on the map than where it is (provided the landscape is still recognizable). People want to see their own neighborhood, their own school, their own haunts on the map, and request additions with little regard for spatial accuracy. (I have received several requests to add a person’s hometown to a map whose borders stop a hundred miles away – and they are generally very accommodating when I suggest squeezing a marker into the edge of the map despite the inaccuracy. The same goes for people who want me to add three locations that are on the same block in real life.) Thus the navigational function of the map, that might help one follow the adventures of Frodo or Aragorn, is entirely sidelined by the map’s ability to encourage imaginative immersion in the idea of another world.
The fantasy maps that I make are works of art to be hung on the wall, not tools for navigation or analysis of the world. Yet I am still conscious of the responsibilities inherent in the way that I represent place. My maps can reinforce narratives about the nature of places precisely because they are metaphorical. For example, the choice of which neighborhoods to represent as tiny cities requires an intervention into local debates about the boundaries and identities of those neighborhoods. In the case of Pittsburgh I was conscious of this in choosing to label my own neighborhood “East Allegheny,” rather than the gentrifying developers’ preferred “Deutschtown.” In cities I know less well, I have doubtless stumbled unintentionally in the opposite direction. There is a temptation to displace responsibility onto Google’s database by adopting a more rigidly algorithmic mapping technique. But the data in Google (or OpenStreetMap, or any other source) is not socially neutral – it arises from the choices of particular sorts of people with particular levels of influence who are able to get their perceptions of place listed officially in a major mapping site.
On a broader level, there is something potentially troubling about the imposition of a European aesthetic (imitating the styles of Olaus Magnus, Gerardus Mercator, etc) outside the Euro-American world. Tolkien once described his work as creating a “mythology for England,” so is not taking the cartographic style he (and his son) popularized and extending it beyond his beloved “north-west” a form of cartographic colonialism? Perhaps, though I have received commissions (and laudatory reviews) from buyers hailing from Brazil, Laos, and a few other “southern” locations.
Meanwhile, for me to adopt a non-European aesthetic in mapping those places raises the specter of cultural appropriation. In preparing a map of New Zealand, I gently deflected the buyer’s request to incorporate Māori-inspired decorative elements, since as a white American who has never even been to New Zealand, I am on shaky ground adopting such a style. (Of course, New Zealand already has plenty of controversy over being transformed into Middle-earth as a result of Peter Jackson’s two film trilogies.)
In conclusion, I can perhaps say that the interest generated by my maps is a product of the fantasy aesthetic’s ability to make places simultaneously exotic and familiar. Exotic by suggesting a world of magic and adventure beyond the mundane everyday world, but familiar because the type of magic and adventure offered is a well-known and well-loved genre.
To see more of Stentor's maps please click here.