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Imaginary Maps in Literature and Beyond: Half-Real, Half-Imaginary

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This blog post is part of a summer series on imaginary maps, written by Hannah Stahl, a Library Technician in the Geography & Map Division. Read the introductory post to the series here.

We are getting close to the end of our summer series on maps of imaginary places. To finish the series, in several posts, we will examine maps that are half-real and half-imaginary to ease your transition back to the real world. Today, we examine maps of fictional stories that take place in the world around us instead of the worlds in the pages of books. Like the fans of Dante’s Inferno felt compelled to map his world, fans had the same impulse to map real world settings in relation to the stories they read. For example, Jane Austen’s works all take place in real cities in England. Why should Jane Austen fans miss out on the fun of mapping simply because maps of those places already exist? That’s right, they shouldn’t.

One of the oldest maps we have in the Geography and Map Division that depicts a fictional story in a real setting is that of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish. This novel is set in the English Colonies during King Philip’s War (1675-1676). The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish follows a Puritan family through this conflict and is inspired by true accounts of King Philip’s War. The Geography and Map Division’s copy of this map is in French, and was most likely drawn as an accompaniment to a French edition of the novel. The title of the map is, “Carte dressée pour la lecture du Puritain d’Amérique, Roman de J. Fenimore Cooper.” Roughly translated, the title states, “Map drawn up for the reading of The Puritan of America, novel by J. Fenimore Cooper.”

Carte dressee pour la lecture du Puritain d'Amerique
“Carte dressee pour la lecture du Puritain d’Amerique, Roman de J. Fenimore Cooper” by A.M. Perrot. ca 1829. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

The map shows the journey of one of the characters, Mark Heathcote, as well as the settlement Wish-Ton-Wish. The map allows readers of The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish to not only follow the journey of characters in the novel, but also explore the New World through Cooper’s story. The map accurately shows “Nouvelle Angleterre” (New England) and its boundaries during the setting of the story. It has an element of the imaginary in it because the settlement of Wish-Ton-Wish featured on the map only exists in Cooper’s story, whereas everything else on the map exists in the real world.

“Julius Caesar: A Map of the Roman World in Caesar’s Day” by Barbara Rogers Houseworth, Published by Educational Illustrators. 1962. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. Map shows boundaries of Caesar’s empire in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Asia Minor.
“Map of Scotland illustrating Shakespeare’s Macbeth” by Barbara Rogers Houseworth, Published by Educational Illustrators. 1957. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Aside from personal reference, another popular use for maps of fictional stories with settings in the real world is for educational use. Maps can be a powerful educational tool in the hands of not only geography teachers, but also English and history teachers as well. Maps showing boundaries as they appeared in a novel from 1500 can help illustrate why certain countries are at war. One such cartographer that endeavors to show such boundaries is Barbara Rogers Houseworth. The Geography and Map Division has several maps produced by her, including maps of two of Shakespeare’s historical plays: Macbeth and Julius Caesar. Both maps show historical boundaries of the settings of the works. They include illustrations from the plays around the borders, and places mentioned in the plays.

As I’m sure you all know by now, the Internet creates a whole new opportunity for map lovers and story lovers alike. Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings maps become interactive, fandoms speculate of the shape of worlds in their favorite novels, and maps of imaginary worlds are produced in enormous volume. It should come as no surprise then that maps of stories that are told in the real world are just as abundant online. The Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) devotes a page on their website to maps of places in Austen’s novels. The maps JASNA features show a distinction between real places Austen mentions in her novels, and the approximate locations of made up places as well. For example, the map of Sense and Sensibility locations lists “Combe Magna,” the estate of Mr. Willoughby in the novel, as fictional. The map gives its approximate location in Somersetshire based on clues from the novel.

The tourism market has picked up on the importance of mapping half-real and half-imaginary worlds as well. Visit Scotland launched a campaign to reach fans of the TV series Outlander by creating a map of locations in Scotland that were used to film fictional places in the series. Similarly, fans of the TV series Game of Thrones have taken to mapping real world locations used to create fictional locations, crossing over into half-real and half-imaginary mapping.

In the next installment of this series, we leave the literary world for the high seas and the creatures that lurk in them. Our focus will be on monsters found on 15th and 16th century maps. I bid you adieu until next time, map lovers!

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