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Imaginary Maps in Literature and Beyond: Introduction

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Today’s post is from Hannah Stahl, a Library Technician in the Geography & Map Division.

Why would someone with an English degree have any interest in maps? Well, I’ll tell you.

No area of study occurs in a vacuum. In some of my English classes, and other classes I took for that matter, maps and atlases were integrated into our coursework and used to frame conversations about views of society. They were also used to show us where authors lived, where the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales traveled, and where Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy fell in love.

A Literary and Historical Atlas of Europe by John George Bartholomew. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.
A Literary and Historical Atlas of Europe by John George Bartholomew. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Perhaps more importantly, maps and literature are more intertwined than one would believe. The first exposure I ever had to a map was in a children’s book. When I explored the Hundred Acre Wood with Christopher Robin and the gang, the map in Winnie-the-Pooh helped me lose myself in the pages of the book because I could more clearly picture the world that A.A. Milne had created.

Detail from In the Land of Winnie the Pooh." Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.
Detail from In the Land of Winnie the Pooh.” Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

As Ricardo Padrón, one of the authors of Maps: Finding Our Place in the World states, “However effective words may be at helping us imagine spaces, at allowing us to enter them and inhabit them, however common and even powerful verbal mapping may be, words do not have the same impact, do not provide quite the same experience. That impact has everything to do with the seductions of seeing a world that is not our own.” Authors who choose to include maps in their works engage in world-building by laying out the geography of the places their characters inhabit. In doing so, they help their readers disappear from comfy armchairs by the fire into worlds with dragons and magic. This is absolute perfection for an English major. One famous example of this is the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Where would we be if we were not able to plot Frodo’s journey to Mordor with our own eyes? Would we lose an element of the story if these maps didn’t exist? I think so.

When authors don’t include maps in their works, sometimes their readers oblige. The drawers holding material in the Geography and Map Division are full of maps related to literature. We have maps of Shakespeare’s England, the journey of Huckleberry Finn, and maps that combine the stories of fairy tales and children’s books. This trend has been present since the Early Modern Period! Readers of Dante’s Inferno, written in the 14th century, mapped his version of Hell. It helped readers understand the nine circles of Hell Dante travels through.

The Inferno according to Dante. 15th Century. B&W photographic reproduction. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
The Inferno according to Dante. 15th Century. B&W photographic reproduction. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In present day, readers map imaginary worlds online such as Panem in The Hunger Games trilogy or the Marauder’s Map from Harry Potter. Lord of the Rings maps received a digital update on the LotrProject, which is a site that “is dedicated to bringing J.R.R. Tolkien’s works to life through creative web projects” such as interactive maps of Middle Earth.

There are even more maps available of imaginary worlds that exist outside the pages of a book. Maps are also present in video games, used to map board games, and create imaginary worlds designed specifically for satire. We’ll be exploring all of these types of maps and imaginary worlds this summer. Come revisit the Hundred Acre Wood and the other worlds of your favorite children’s stories, spend some time in medieval Europe, and run from White Walkers in Game of Thrones. Until next time, I leave you with this quote to think about:

What happens when we sit in front of a map of our hometown or of a country whose history we know very well? We travel. We revisit memories. We march in the company of armies, explorers, or peaceful protesters…What happens, then, when we come across maps of unfamiliar places, whether full of blank spots or dense with names? We explore, we imagine, we give play to our fantasies and desires.

Comments (5)

  1. Cool.

  2. We just returned from a visit to the Library of Congress. I am hooked!
    We saw a display of maps on the second floor. I think it was the old map of the United States. There was a quote in the display that said something like, Maps are how we organize the world. But I cannot remember it exactly. Can you tell me exactly how the quote reads?
    Thank you

    • Carol: We’re so glad you enjoyed your visit! I believe this is the quote you are referring to, in the “Exploring the Early Americas” exhibition: “Mapping is fundamental to the process of lending order to the world” (Robert Rundstrum, 1926).

  3. Thank you!!
    It was driving me crazy…

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