Fantasy readers love a paratext—dramatis personae, glossaries, and, particularly, maps of exotic, far-off, and non-existent lands. I am, of course, no exception, having inhaled Anne McCaffrey's The Dragonlover's Guide to Pern at an impressionable age, and so when given the opportunity to read and review Swedish creative writing instructor Stefan Ekman's aptly titled Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings, I jumped at the opportunity. But this rumination on fantasy landscapes is uneven, at best; it lacks the delicious density of most fantasy paratexts themselves and eventually wanders into more pedestrian literary criticism.
Of course, it's important to note that the title promises an exploration of fantasy maps and settings and does, in truth, live up to this promise. Only the first chapter here is focused upon "Maps," with those that follow spiraling out (and decreasing in apparent relevance) from those maps and through the topics of "Borders and Boundaries," "Nature and Culture," and finally "Realms and Rulers." But it is the first chapter that is, in fact, the most engaging—and not merely because it contains a few integral illustrations and descriptions of fantasy maps. Aside from the rank appeal of the material itself, Ekman's analysis is quite illuminating. Most intriguing is his observation that, depending on various details of the maps in question, fantasy maps generally can't be assumed to be purely paratextual. Rather, many occupy a liminal space between the fictional and the supplemental, between the world of the narrative and the world of the reader:
A "close reading" of a fantasy map means an investigation of what the map makes known and how it makes it known. In such a reading, it must be recalled that although the map is a conspicuous part of how the fictional world is understood, it is never a stand-alone portrayal of that world. Nor should the fantasy map’s customary position at the front of the book be taken to mean that the map is to be read without reference to the text. Text and map go together. (p. 43)
And, later, in Ekman's analysis of the maps in The Fellowship of the Ring:
Not only space but time is encoded in the map. A map's tense . . . is the direction in time which it points: whether it refers to its own past, present, or future. The tense is relative to the map; a map from 1858 that refers to the world of 1858 uses the present tense. A map of tomorrow's weather will remain in future tense when we look at it a week from now. The Shire map, at first glance, appears to refer neither to its past nor its future—surely, it uses the present tense? There is nothing on the Shire map that suggests any temporal direction. To the extent that the Middle-earth maps (and other fantasy maps ) have a tense, it is fiction, based on a time when they were created and the direction in which they point in the fictional time line. The Shire map, unlike the western Middle-earth map . . . lacks any sign of future or past tense, so it must indicate its own present. (p. 48)
Ekman returns to the example of Tolkien again and again throughout Here Be Dragons, but his analysis is never as astute as in this first chapter—in his suggestion that this Shire map indicates not just a present but a "constant present" (p. 49), untouched by Saruman's destruction but also by the Hobbits' own alteration of the landscape, such as their camps or cut-down trees. And yet this same map indicates a temporal past, through names such as "Old Forests," a history mirrored by that of a text which likewise suggests "older villages."
Ekman slowly teases out the deeper meaning behind the choices of the mapmaker—both actual (that is, the author), and fictional. "By examining the choices of the mapmaker," he writes, "it is possible to learn how the map relates to the story it presumably supports, but such an examination also sheds light on some of the social norms and constructions behind the map" (p. 54). A thesis about the mapmaker's political inclinations is gradually developed:
The middle of the map presents what is at stake, but the periphery warns about the enemy. Ranged around the northern, eastern, and southern borders on the map are names that signal the threats to the people of the West. . . . Being marginalized also means being primitive. . . . The privileged direction in Middle-earth is west: western Middle-earth is superior to other parts; the humans from Numenor . . . are superior to other humans. . . . Regardless of whether the periphery is teeming with the enemy or offers the only way to sail to an Elysium off the map, it is the unknown margin outside the relevant middle, beyond the reach of the story. (p. 64)
These observations are striking and quite well-researched. Ekman's survey of maps is extensive, and this is not only evident through the book's appendix but through the ease with which he makes these assertions.
But as he proceeds through the remaining three chapters of Here Be Dragons, Ekman's focus becomes both diffuse and oddly focused on a small sample of examples. The following chapter, on "Borders and Boundaries," follows closely on the heels of the first in discussing threshold spaces and borderlands between "real" places and apparently fictional places, such as Faerie, within fantasy novels. Discussion of Wall in Neil Gaiman's Stardust is especially astute ("The route from Wall to London is offered as a pattern for further extension," Ekman notes, "From London, the reader can extend the story world to Cardiff, or Vancouver, or Auckland" [p. 83]). But soon Ekman begins to discuss fantasy polders, enclosed domains where the laws of the universe differ from those in the spaces external to them. Ekman once more discusses Tolkien—his apparent Ur-example for all fantasy setting tropes—but his other examples seem, perhaps, oddly chosen (Pratchett's Djelibeybi and Holdstock's Ryhope Wood), particularly when one realizes what he's overlooked. Narnia is a conspicuous absence here, particularly when Ekman muses at length about fantasy polders and border spaces between realms where time operates differently from the lands external or adjacent to it.
And while the chapter on "Borders and Boundaries" seems to have a close relationship with Ekman's earlier, excellent analysis of fantasy maps, the two final chapters (on the relationship between nature and culture and finally, and on political structures within fantasy realms) feel quite a bit less relevant—and quite a bit more pedestrian. In each, Ekman chooses a handful of representative examples from either Tolkien or fantasy novels seemingly chosen at random, and discusses each, in turn. Yet though he's eventually, ultimately able to draw his argument back to geographical features such as the type one might see on maps in his discussion of the impact of evil characters, races, or cultures upon landscapes, these arguments felt more imprecise and certainly less insightful. He even notes, in his introduction to the chapter on "Realms and Rulers," that much of the discussion is not particular to fantasy landscapes themselves.
Here Be Dragons starts with promise, but unfortunately meanders into familiar territory. I would have easily inhaled two hundred plus pages on fantasy maps alone, because Ekman's analysis is full of insight. But I could have happily left the broader discussions of setting by the wayside—no new dragons are uncovered here.
Phoebe North writes SF for teenagers. Her first book, Starglass, came out in July from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. Visit her blog at www.phoebenorth.com.