Terra Incognita

Lev Grossman, whose next book is not coming out nearly soon enough for my liking, has an interview up on his site with Roland Chambers, the creator of the maps for The Magicians series. It’s a fascinating insight into the art of mapping fictional geographies. Chambers’ description of the process involved in transforming a narrative into a map particularly caught my attention. (The me of the interview is Lev Grossman.) Shout out to io9 for bringing it my attention.

Roland: …. I read it and made a list of what I felt were the critical geographic moments, starting with the hare in the clearing. There was something uncanny about that I loved – the invisible storm.


me: …. Did you have maps you use (sic) as models or inspiration — Narnia, Middle Earth, Earthsea? Or do you just get it out of your head?

Roland: I pretty much get it out of my head, though as I say, I get it first out of your head. You came up with this stuff. It’s your fault. But once the lines are there, then it starts to have a life of its own and I get to feel it’s mine a little too, that I’m building in a world that’s in my own head. But when I come to think of it, that’s what reading a really good book is like too. You feel like it’s going on in your own head. Anyhow, the lines first, then small dramatic scenes, the hare and trees, the ship, the doldrums…

I admit to being a little bit obsessed with maps generally and maps in fantasy fiction books in particular. Chambers’ description of the transformation of written narrative into a cartographic illustration that unfolds in physical space puts me in mind of the medieval craft of mapmaking.

One of the key insight of recent art history / geography is the idea that pre-modern maps were visual representations of both spatial and temporal dimensions. Modern maps represent consynchronous geographical space. In other words, we conceive of a map as a snapshot of physical space at single moment in time. In contrast, pre-modern maps presented historical and narrative information in a geographical format. (1)

There are some fairly obvious parallels between the art of fantasy fiction cartography and medieval maps. There’s the appropriation of the iconography of mermaids and other fantastical beasties from medieval maps. Pretty unsurprising given the genre. But there are also interesting, functional similarities between the two kinds of maps.

One of my favorite maps is the itinerary map created by Matthew Paris, a monk who worked in the scriptorium of St Albans Abbey during the thirteenth century. Similar to a strip map in conception, it illustrates the journey from Western Europe to Jerusalem.

Itinerary Map of Matthew Paris, c. 1250

The itinerary map allows the reader, originally envisaged as a monk, to undertake an imaginary pilgrimage.(2) Much like maps in fantasy fiction books, it’s an aid to creating a mental image of a physical space which the reader has never visited.

Also from Medieval England is the Hereford Mappa Mundi.

Hereford Mappa Mundi, c. 1300

This one’s tough to see in detail, the original being roughly 1.5 meters square. It includes some crazy antipodean monsters that fit right in with fantasy fiction maps. It also incorporates events from world history from the Garden of Eden, through the reign of Caesar and projecting forward to the Day of Judgement.

This is where I find Chambers’ description of his artistic practice revealing. The idea of mapping temporal or narrative information in a medium that is non-linear is counter-intuitive to contemporary viewers. This is precisely why medieval maps were overlooked in the history of cartography until the eighties. Chambers’ approach to transcribing a textual narrative in visual format reflects this non-linearity. Dramatic and striking events are recorded on the page leaving behind vestiges of the artist’s path through the narrative. These are seen all at once by the reader/viewer upon opening the book, and then they are slowly revealed in their narrative significance through a process of interaction between reader/viewer, image and text.

The TL;DR version? Maps are wicked cool.


1. David Woodward, “Reality, Symbolism, Time and Space in Medieval World Maps,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 75 (1985): 511

2. Daniel K. Connolly, “Imagined Pilgrimage in the Itinerary Maps of Matthew Paris,” Art History 81:4 (1991)


~ by medievalness on June 24, 2011.

One Response to “Terra Incognita”

  1. […] of mediaeval Europe, like the one preserved in Hereford Cathedral, were intended to be used to tell a story rather than as a navigational tool. Their aim was to show everything and everywhere of importance […]

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