I love maps.
I’m not talking about the Tolkein-esque pseudo-quaint maps that seem required in a certain kind of fantasy. I mean real maps, new, old, or ancient, representations of the things in the landscape that had meaning for their makers. I love maps of places I know and places I don’t know. When it’s a place you know, I suppose the pleasure lies in re-experiencing the familiar in a new way. Like looking at a Google Earth view of your neighborhood: hey, there’s the park, there’s the coffee shop corner, there’s my front porch. When it’s a place you don’t know, there’s romance in visualizing it, there is charm and mystery in the unfamiliar place names, you can feel transported to a new land in the way the best fantasy does. Maps both tell you where you are, and take you to a place you’ve never been, sparking your longing to explore.
Much traditional oral literature is intimately tied to a geography well-known to the audience, for whom just the place name can evoke the actual place in all its sensory detail. (A number of Native American place names are in fact little packages of sensory detail, like ‘water flows under cottonwood tree roots,’ which you can do in one or two words in what they used to call polysynthetic languages.) The landscape is one of the big missing pieces when we read such stories translated and anthologized. In the old Kwak’wala texts I’ve worked with, I always have to pull out the old place-name maps to follow the landscape the storyteller was visualizing. I wanted to publish a map with the last translation I did, but they wouldn’t let me.
Maps have been much on my brain recently because of an academic article I’ve been trying to finish, part of which has involved reading through old ship journals from the northwest fur trade. The journalists say where they went but left behind few maps (that I’ve been able to find, anyway) and many place names have changed. I have to try to match the log entries about wind direction and navigational hazards to modern maps of places I’ve (mostly) never been. It’s a strangely pleasurable process, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m a map geek.
The experience of landscape is linked to memory and imagination in humans at the neurophysical level. Many have read about the amazing feats of memory made possible via construction of a Memory Palace, but a recent study also showed that coopting the visiospatial regions of the brain for another task, in this instance playing Tetris, can also prevent memory formation. People talk about songs, or smells, evoking memories; I can stand in a certain spot in a house I helped build with my sister, and suddenly remember the conversation we were having as we laid that course of masonry twenty years ago. My memory of hearing about the airplanes striking the Twin Towers is of the spot on the street where I was standing where a random passerby told me the news. We’re hard-wired to process our experience in terms of place, and of movement through a series of places, probably in the same way we’re hard-wired to process our experience in terms of narrative. A journey is arguably the most basic form of story. Maps, places, and journeys are all, in Levi-Strauss’s famous phrase, “good to think.”
With regard to storytelling, actual maps are most interesting, I think, when they hold mysteries or serve as maguffins. Or both at the same time. In the first instance the protagonist has seen the map and has to decipher it, and in the second the protag has to get the map and use it. Having just subjected myself to the pain of National Treasure 2 and IJ & the Crystal Skull, let me just say: don’t do it this way. (I love Nicholas Cage, not to mention Harrison Ford’s three facial expressions, but Native American texts and decipherment and translation are my field, OK?) In those cases the map is the reason for the journey, not the representation of one. A map as a reference tool, as so many secondary-world fantasies provide, is only really interesting if it offers more information, more mystery, than you could otherwise find in the text. It’s a simple diagram and not an imaginative experience in its own right.
Neither the reference map nor the maguffin map do what real maps do at their best, and that is create a door into a landscape, known or unknown. I’d like to read a fantasy–I bet there are some out there–in which the map really is part of the story in an imaginative sense, whether it’s through constructing the sense of place or through creating the experience of the journey. Where the map itself produces the mystery, not as a puzzle leading to a treasure, but the way certain paintings or photographs compel you to reach for a story that can contain them.