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  • Writer's pictureG R Matthews

I don't like maps in books

Updated: Jun 27, 2022

This title is a complete lie.

I love maps in books! Give me an atlas and I'm a happy little author. I'll sit there for hours, absorbed by following all the twists, turns, and meanders in a river or looking at place names in a country far away... I don't do well with colour coded maps even if they have a key* but I can appreciate the skill and information**.

I am aware, however, that there are some people out there - perfectly normal(1) in every other way - who dislike maps in books. Now, for a book set in real city, in the real world, I can kind of understand that stance. If you want to look up the place, the road or house, you can do that with Google (other map apps are available, apparently).

For fantasy books though, give me a map every day. Let me gaze at its majesty, let me wonder how to pronounce those names, let me make sure the rivers run down hill and don't end in the middle of a continent for no apparent reason, let me see those mountain ranges. A map gives a sense of scale to the world.

Yes, I know, the prose does that too but there are places named on maps which might get a passing mention in the book or none at all, but I know they're there. The scope of the world opens up to me - there exists the possibility for adventures in other places on that map, other lives being lived, other cultures and creatures. Maybe they know of the events in the book, maybe they don't. Maybe their lives will be effected by it, maybe they won't. Questions which are intriguing and waiting to be explored.

I stumbled over a good natured discussion on Twitter between some amazing authors and amazing readers. Glancing through gave the impression that it was about 50/50 with the like/dislike maps. The most interesting parts were the reasons given for including or not including maps in the books. It also turned out a number of authors commissioned (or created) their own maps rather than having an expert artist design them (who knew?).

Anyway, I am digressing, back to the long-winded point.

One of the reasons given for not having maps was that the character (quite often a prince, duke, royal, general, magician(2)) would not know about the rest of the world and if the character didn't know it why should the reader?

As you see above, I disagree with the latter reason. The reader can happily know because it creates a sense of space, awe, and scope to the world. Perhaps it promises that other books in the series will explore those parts of the world.

A better reason, in my biased opinion, was given that the author hadn't planned out the rest of the world, or even the story, and so a map could not be drawn. I can understand that point of view, but as the story progresses the reader creates their own mental map of the journey undertaken, and we all use Mental Maps every day (it is how we navigate around our homes, to work and back, and so on - you can call it memory if you wish, but it is memory with a spatial dimension). Does an author create a mental map (or use one) to write the story - quite likely. Even if it is subconscious, even if drawing on knowledge of the world around us to place events in a spatial context.

The other reason put forward was that most fantasy lands are pre-industrial and so maps weren't common place, known of, or very useful. So how in the hell Alexander found his way across the continent and back again is anyone's guess - second star to the right and straight on till morning?

Maybe we think that people, pre-1750 and the industrial revolution, could only produce maps like the Mapa Mundi which places the Mediterranean at the centre of the map (because that's literally what the word means.)

Is it accurate? Not really given what we now know, especially with Satellite images, but given the cartographer tried to portray the whole of the known world it is quite a useful tool. Maybe Fantasy Maps should be more like this... a representation of direction and landmark rather than accurate spatially?

OK, but that map isn't the be and end all of map making in a pre-industrial age. Some are better than others, but let's not denigrate the skill, ingenuity and knowledge of the world that people had before the invention of the printing press and factory. The Greek Astronomer Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth and its distance to the sun without the aid of Google, EXCEL, or even a Casio Calculator back in 200BC (or so). We knew the world was round - it just seems that lately some people have lost sight of that simple fact (4).

If we go to the 1300s via the invention of a time machine (or Google) we see maps like this one by Matthew Paris. It depicts England, Wales and Scotland, and you may scoff at it. You might point out how squashed everything is, how it doesn't look quite right.

"Has this man never seen the UK?" You may utter in disbelief before realising of course he couldn't have because he was alive in the 1300s and there were no satellites to take a picture of the earth below to show him, no GPS, no planes, no hot air balloons, and when traveling the land was all about going on foot or horseback, or by ship along river or following coast.

Honestly, for the time, I think he did a pretty amazing job. You can recognise it as those countries with just a little tilt of the head and a squint of the eyes.

Jump forward two hundred years to the 1500s and they get better, more accurate, more detailed and still without the help of Satellites, planes, balloons or other modern technology - and by that I mean post 1700s technology (bearing mind sailors traversed the whole world before that time and you bet your last pound coin they had a map - even if where they were on it at any given time was something of a guess until the 1700s and John Harrison's clock).

1 George Lily – 1548 2 Sebastian Munster – 1554 3 Gerard Mercator – 1595

1 1548 - yes, it's up the wrong way for the modern sensibility of always having north to the top, but it is recognisable. There is shape, distance and details here.

2 1554 - River courses are shown, towns, and that shape is recognisble.

3 1595 - The Cartographer who presented us with a projection of the spherical earth on a flat surface tackles a map of Great Britain and does an amazing job if it. Give or take a few sparse details in areas (Ireland) you'd be hard pressed to tell it from a modern map straight away.

All of which goes to prove something which may have got lost in during the typing and looking at maps... anyway, the point is pre-industrial cultures knew a lot about the world and how to navigate it. Maps existed, and though some might have been quite rare you can bet every last sixpence that a King, a General, a Prince and a Merchant would have seen one, would have used one.

Did everyone in pre-industrial society know the distribution of towns, rivers, and countries - of course not however, ancient civilisations right up to Middle Ages knew a lot more than we give them credit for. Today not all young children (5) or even adults (6) are aware of the world and where everything is upon it. But, and its an important but, those who had to know, who had plan journeys, develop tactics and strategy across an Empire, you can bet your last Euro that they had access to some form of map.

Maps are useful things - drawn maps are excellent, mental maps we can't exist without, maps in song (aboriginal songlines (7)), maps by word of mouth (underground Railroad), stylised like the London Underground (3), thematic maps which represent data, geologial, topographical, ocean currents, weather maps, and on and on. We think, some of us, that we don't need maps or the skills to use them any more, and then we ask our SatNav to get us home or to a McDonalds.

The End.


* I am colour blind

** A UK exam board recently apologised (by saying they'd got it right and everyone else had got it wrong in the way exam boards and governments apologise when they get things totally wrong) by producing a map question which was inaccessible to a fair number of colour blind pupils ***

*** There's more than one type of colour**** blindness

**** I'm British, I spell colour the right way *****

***** Every other word is fair game for a typo or misspelling though******

****** Should have used superscript numbers as these asterisks are getting out of control. Seemed so simple when I started!

(1) For a given range of normal - and yes, I've changed to numbers to see how that goes.

(2) Definitely not a Farm Boy or an Orphan... OK? Good.

(3) Bloody colours on the map - I struggle and have to plan beforehand. And the number is out of order due to me moving this to the conclusion... ah well.

(4) Discworld is however a Flat World traveling through space on the back of four elephants who stand atop the shell of the Great A'Tuin - and I'll have words with any who disagree!

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