There was a period in my life when my bedroom walls were covered not with stylish art from IKEA or trendy photography from that one Silverlake boutique but with maps.
I subscribed to National Geographic growing up, so I’d had a steady supply of full-color wall maps of the highest order. Often baffling to me in their focus – Pinnipeds of the World? The Great Plains? But a map was a map, so I learned about pinniped migration and where the thickest clumps of tall grass were. And I put them all up on my walls. “Going somewhere?” was the usual, irritatingly-obvious joke upon entrance of someone who couldn’t understand the raw appeal of knowing where places were in relation to other places. “HaHa Captain Obvious – I’m curious about the world and don’t have the money to travel” was the inside-my-own-head answer.
I’m the guy who uses two bookmarks in any book with a map: one where I’m reading and one in the map section. I like maps because I have a terrible sense of direction. You can’t just tell me where to go, aurally; I have to physically look at it. Maps set a mood of calm perspective: this is where everything actually is, now… what are you looking for?
What was I looking for with all those maps on my walls? Did I really need to have a map of downtown Beijing at the ready? Any pressing need to know how to get to Archenland or Harfang, when such places don’t actually exist? Can I even read a nautical chart? (No.) There is something about organizing the world – the world outside my head and inside it – an itch that is scratched by looking at a map. Maps tidy things up. Both my take on the real world and the spill of my imagination need tidying, often.
Real maps of real places, like the top-notch Nat Geo ones I own in abundance, are the result of centuries of grueling labor and expertise.
The Smithsonian’s Great Maps covers the gamut of this type, from the classical world to Google Earth, including thematic maps – though I don’t think there are any about pinnipeds, so you can’t really say it’s comprehensive.
I boosted this map from a party I went to. It’s just a napkin, though – so it’s not a big deal. It’s held on my fridge here with a magnet of a famous explorer.
Jerry Brotton’s A History of the World in 12 Maps is a look at the world thru the maps of various cultures and times. What does a map say about its context and those who made it? Here is a stellar review from The Guardian, which you should read with a British accent.
A Map of the World: The World According to Storytellers and Illustrators bridges the gap between real maps and made-up ones. They are works of art and sometimes insight. More or less useless for travel, these are interpretations of a place, using color and design and shapes. They might tell you why you should go to a place and what you should do when you get there – Italy has wine! And bicycles! Or they might give an impression of a place – This is what Reykjavik would look like if you drew it from the air, and everything was labeled- look a Viking ship! These are maps you could stare at even if you’re not a map nerd, like me. You could put most of these on a wall without any smart-ass “going somewhere?” comments.
Someone made a global google map with all your fave literature marked out in its real-life locale, featured here on Electric Lit.
Made-up maps of real places are the trickster gods in the pantheon of cartographic deities. I have this awesome book of maps of LA, North is West/ South is East, all hand-drawn by random people at LAX. The book was made by the amazing artist Kerry Tribe. You can prob only get it on Ebay; I have no idea where I got mine. (When you work for a bookstore, things just appear on your shelves.) They’re kinda maps and kinda just how these folks locate parts of LA in their minds. They have an extremely tenuous connection to the actual geography: ie – they are mostly just squiggly lines with a few famous landmarks. Fascinating, of course, but also hilarious – unless you actually need to find your uncle’s house in Inglewood, in which case they’d be infuriating. They make a good case for the standard type of map where the cartographers do boring things like “measure” and can actually draw. Still, they are snapshots of where folks have stored places in their noggins.
A little further down this same road are made-up maps of made-up places. This is a map of a made-up London. Like, Harry Potter stuff is over here – you got yer Hogwarts and what not – but then let’s put Sleepy Hollow, uh… just down the road. Yes, London is a real place, but this London is not. It’s kinda wishful thinking, and yeah – I relate. It would be cool if Jurassic Park was Mysterious Island adjacent. These dynamite pieces from Dorothy (also featured in A Map of the World, above) also include Star Charts of sci-fi and horror. Are they still maps? Maps of a made-up heavens, so yes. You can go even broader with James Turner (of Nil fame) who did this map of… everything.
Now we arrive at real maps of made-up places. If you could go to these places, you could find your way around, i.e. Bree is east of Hobbiton. As opposed to the above, wherein if you could actually go to Hogwarts, Sleepy Hollow is not around the corner. Here is Tolkien’s Middle Earth, in the First Age, when there was a big chunk called Beleriand, which was destroyed during a massive war. Most of this…
is completely under water by the time of Bilbo and Co.. The coast of “our” Middle Earth runs right about under that authentic, plastic Orc helmet there.
The thing that makes real maps of imaginary places really pop for me is the miles of nothing in between the exciting bits. The real world is mostly miles of nothing but rocks and tired squirrels. A good imaginary place is no different. That’s how you separate the quality imaginary worlds from the cheap knock-offs.
The Dictionary of Imaginary Places is almost comprehensive, lacking only Game of Thrones material (at least in my edition). It’s the kinda thing Gandalf would consult in the parchment-dust archives of Minas Tirith. (While smoking and surrounded by lit candles… which seems like a bad idea.)
Here are Game of Thrones maps.
I got 9 out of 10 on this quiz. A few of the books I’ve never even read, but I have that pure, genetic, nerd-bomb, mutant instinct for navigation of the fantastical. I’m the Ibn Battuta of imaginary worlds.
And finally: real maps of real places which have made-up places inside them. This is the original Disneyland map from OG Sam McKim. Physically, it is a map of an amusement park; emotionally, it is a map of childhood (mine, anyway).
In fact, you can trace the entire history of ol’ D-land thru its maps, as those box-loving Design-Architectos at KCRW did in this post. Don’t forget to check out the audio at the end of all the drawings and words.
I think this one belongs here, too: the Hidden Worlds Map shows where Elves (and their spiritual cousins) live in Hafnarfjordur, Iceland. But then, that depends on your view of Elves. You might place it with the real maps of real places – your call.
So, now I have taught you everything I know about maps, my young Magellan, and now you know where everything is, including the Elves. One thing remains: to chart your own territory. Make Map Art is you leaving the safety of our convoy, our flotilla of carracks and caravels, and schoonering off onto your own adventure. In it, you will find all you need to make your own maps – how to get started, small projects, pre-printed bits, etc.. Go, crest that horizon and record it all. Please, at least do better than Kerry Tribe’s poor, lost travelers, who all think they’ve found India, when they’re still in Inglewood. [rolls eyes] Godspeed.