31 January 2013

A Personal Treatise on Maps and Fantasy.

Map of Minas Tirith from
The Lord of the Rings
(cc) by Rama
Please read part II here. It's a bit more coherent and expands on the idea.

My first assigned book of the semester is The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien.  The course is Fantasy Classics, so although it's a readings course, it's primarily slanted towards students who write in the fantasy genre, as opposed to the general reading public.

So although I normally do a full-on review for an assigned book, in this case, we were given class prompts. The prompt I chose was to analyze the presence of maps in fantasy literature.  Tolkien was big on including them, and since many writers emulate Tolkien, they're pretty much a fantasy staple. In fact, it's argued that they are a genre requirement of fantasy.  I disagree.

When I first started reading fantasy at a young age, I stuck mainly to stories that re-imagined fairytales. The most "epic" series I managed to wade through was C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, and I never finished it--I gave up right around The Horse and His Boy. But the only book of the series I actually remember is the first: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

I no longer have physical copies of my Chronicles of Narnia book set, so I'm not sure if they contain maps of Narnia in the front covers or not…but that's primarily what I use to gauge whether or not a novel is an epic fantasy. And if it is, I tend to pass on it.

History is full of fantastical maps!
Here is Asia, redisgned as Pegasus.
Map from 1581.
Epic fantasy is very difficult for me to read, even if it's considered a classic or is very-well reviewed. I thought it was an absolute miracle I made it through the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy my freshman year of college, and when I finished it, I vowed, "Never again will I read this book!" It's a big reason why I avoided reading The Hobbit until it was assigned for this class, although I was very familiar with the story (I grew up on the Ralph Bakshi cartoon, and the first stage musical I performed in was The Hobbit.) I've tried to crack open books such as Eragon, The Wheel of Time, and The Sword of Shannara, and I usually quit a quarter of the way into the book. I'm afraid to attempt the Song of Ice and Fire series for fear that I'll burn out on it before I make it halfway through the first book (although an article like this one gives me hope that I may actually be able to get through it after all).

All of the books I listed above have maps in them (some even go the extra mile and include glossaries and histories). I don't think that's a coincidence. It's part of the reason why I ended up disliking them so much.

Because including maps with fantasy novels has "certainly become the proper thing to do," (my professor's words) I feel a bit lonely with my beliefs as a reader and writer of fantasy. I don't like maps, or glossaries, or appendices, and I don't want to write a work of fantasy that relies on them in any way. I'm not against world-building at all--one of my favorite things about fantasy is the discovery and invention of new worlds--but in my experience, books that include maps suggest to me that author will only let you interpret his world-building on his terms. The author exerts a little more control over how much of that world you can imagine on your own.

What else is considered an epic fantasy
genre requirement?

(cc) by David Revoy
A huge chunk of readers want total immersion in a fantasy world. Which means the more pronunciation guides, glossaries, histories, and maps there are, the closer they feel connected to that world. These supplements to the book can quickly communicate to a reader that the world is solid and complete; that there's even more going on besides what's happening in the story.

Since I grew up on fairytales, I was always content with the idea of something happening "Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom…." There wasn't much more development than that. There were no strict geographical rules or histories to the world I could imagine--the only guideline was the world was not the world I live in, and not the world I live in now. By leaving out these kinds of details, the story can belong to anyone--it's a type of direct interaction with readers, because you're allowing them to build the world up as much as they see relevant to your story.

In my thesis, which is dark epic fantasy, I don't name the year in which the story takes place. When I write it, I picture the late 18th century-early 19th century (closer to the British Regency), but to me, it's not very important for the reader to know that. I "suggest" the era through descriptive details, such as clothing, technology, and character dialogue, but if the reader doesn't pick up on the time period exactly, it doesn't matter. All they know is that it's "Once upon a time, long ago…"

As far as geography goes, I will mention names of cities for the sake of suggesting that the world is bigger than the town in which much of the story takes place. My characters aren't static either--they travel (as characters in fantasy often do), but I only drop names if it's relevant to the action; not to establish a history (unless that info will immediately pop up later). I will very generically say "Silva is in the south, the Kun are from the east," and that's it. No countries, kingdoms, or continents. It's enough info for the reader to know that the world isn't the one we live in today, and if they want to fill in the geographical blanks themselves, they can.

For many readers, this is the default fantasy setting.
(cc) by David Revoy.
Readers have a tendency to imagine things the way they want to, anyway, so I don't want to fight that impulse too much. For example, whenever I submitted excerpts of my thesis to workshops, many readers kept imagining my thesis in the Middle Ages, even though I've not dropped any clues to lead readers to that era. It's what they want to see. (Or, you could argue, it's what they've been programmed to see, considering most epic fantasy suggests basis off of medieval European civilizations.) It's not what I see when I write, but I still can't tell the reader they're wrong for envisioning the world that way. It's still "long ago and far away," which is the only real rule for the book.

By keeping some of the world-building a bit on the bare-bones side of things, not only will my reader create enough info on their own (and only as much as they need), I also feel like the emphasis will remain where I want it.

 I write character-driven fiction, which means I also spend less time on plot than a typical epic fantasy does (the quest, after all, is a story that comes from a specific action). Books with maps indicate to me that the story will be more plot-driven than character-driven, and so far my assumption hasn't been wrong yet, though I'm sure someone will be able to give me an example that proves otherwise.

My promise to you, readers:  my fantasy will always be
Anyway,  part of the reason why I fail to make it through an epic fantasy series is because I don't feel connected to the characters. Why would I follow someone over the mountains and across to the sea and to the ends of the earth if I just don't like them or identify with them? The journey that is so much a part of epic fantasy feels like a chore--a series of tasks, that although are of Dire Consequence, mean nothing to me if I'm already exhausted before they've reached the first landmark in the journey. How do I know what the first landmark is? The map in front of the book told me--if it took one hundred and fifty pages to get from point A to point B, and there are still five more areas to cover on the map, it suggests to me the story is going to take forever to get through and won't be worth it (especially if I haven't found someone in the party to root for).

Many fantasies I've read and dropped had maps and info that, although included, didn't seem to integrate well with the actual story, and if they did, it took forever to make it relevant (which means, after I quit reading). I think this speaks to the idea that fantasy authors feel "obligated" to include them for the reader who wants to dive into immersive fantasy--again, this info can help solidify the world even if it has no direct relevance to the plot. But I don't care for books that do that, for the many reasons I already stated. I am far more in favor of a fantasy book that includes maps to complement the text as opposed to supplementing it.

Readers, what do you think? Do you read fantasy, and if so, do you read for the world-building, or do you read for the characters and story? How do you feel about maps and supplemental materials published in fantasy novels? Are they a genre requirement?