Chapter 6

image n.: an explanatory list of the symbols on a map

Most of us, I suppose, have a secret country, but for most
of us it is only an imaginary country.


In September 1931, Austin Tappan Wright was driving east across the country, returning from a visit to California at the end of his summer break at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught corporate law. A few miles outside Las Vegas, New Mexico, he was killed in a tragic car accident, leaving behind a wife and four young children. Wright had grown up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father, a prominent Greek scholar, was the dean of Harvard’s graduate school. He studied at Harvard and Oxford, practiced law in Boston, and then turned to teaching, at Berkeley and Penn. But only his family knew that for most of his forty-eight years, he had also lived somewhere else entirely: the remote Southern Hemisphere nation of Islandia.

Islandia is a tiny kingdom at the southern tip of the Karain sub-continent, isolated from the rest of the world by the impassable Sobo Steppes and hundreds of miles of trackless ocean. Its people are peaceful and agrarian and have for centuries resisted the influence of outsiders. In fact, the national assembly passed the Hundred Law in 1841, limiting the number of foreign visitors to no more than one hundred at any given time. But that isolation was no obstacle to Wright, who was able to become the West’s foremost expert on Islandia while circumventing the Hundred Law entirely. You see, he had invented the entire nation and its geography, its people and history and language and culture, all out of whole cloth, as a young boy. Islandia, though intricate and fully realized, is an entirely fictional country.

Wright rarely mentioned Islandia to outsiders, but his family knew about it, and knew that some part of him was always there. “This view looks like Islandia,” they would hear him remark at times, as he studied some landscape that must have reminded him of the vivid utopia in his mind’s eye. He named the family sailboat Aspara, the Islandian word for “seagull.”

When he died, he left behind the work on which he’d spent over twenty years: twenty-three hundred longhand pages describing every aspect of Islandian life, from the sarka plum liqueur enjoyed by its inhabitants to the candles, shielded from the wind by waxed paper, that light the streets of its capital city. He may never have intended anyone else to read it, but his widow, Margot, taught herself to type and transcribed the entire text. Wright’s oldest daughter, Sylvia, who later became a successful humorist and essayist in her own right,* spent the next decade cutting two hundred thousand words (about the length of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment) out of the manuscript and shopping the result around to New York publishers in seven thick binders, so heavy that she couldn’t carry them all herself.

When Islandia was published in 1942, at the height of World War II, it was a sensation. Readers had certainly visited fantastic places before, in day trips to Wonderland and Lilliput and Dante’s Inferno, but spending 1,013 pages among the simple, peaceful people of Islandia and their carefully constructed world was an entire vacation—especially at a time when real overseas travel was off the table due to the war. Reviewers clutched for words to describe this brand-new approach to fiction. Time called it “perhaps the most sustained and detailed daydream that has ever seen print . . . trompe-l’oeil on a vast scale.” The endpapers of the first edition were carefully drawn maps of Islandia, no doubt a crucial part of the illusion.

Today we can still be absorbed in meticulously imagined artificial worlds. In 2010, CNN reported that thousands of viewers of James Cameron’s Avatar were reporting feelings of loss and depression after watching the 3-D film, even contemplating suicide at the prospect that real life would never be as vivid and impossibly beautiful as the movie’s computer-generated moon of Pandora. But Cameron’s utopia was the result of hundreds of millions of dollars and man-hours and state-of-the-art digital technology. I prefer the image of the respectable law professor scratching away by gaslight after his children are in bed, trying desperately to record every detail of his little island, the byways and folkways that only he can see but that he has known since childhood. It’s the ultimate outsider art.

The creation of geographies must have been in the Wright family genes. As a young boy, Austin Tappan Wright refused to let his younger brother, John, share Islandia with him; John shrugged and created his own island, Cravay. John Kirtland Wright would grow up to gain fame as an influential cartographer, director of the American Geographic Society, and coiner of the term “chloropleth map.”* Their mother, Mary Wright, wrote a series of popular novels set in a painstakingly detailed but wholly fictional American university town called Great Dulwich, and the boys learned after their father’s death that he too had spent hours mapping an imaginary world of his own devising.

I’m sure we all like to think that we carry within us whole worlds that our fellow humans never glimpse, but few of these worlds, I’m guessing, come complete with their own plum liqueurs and nineteenth-century immigration laws. It’s easy to write off the Wrights as a family of dreamy eccentrics, but many people invent their own countries and draw maps of rugged coastlines that never were; we call these people “children.” The Wrights were unusual only in that they kept summer homes in their childish kingdoms through adulthood.

Some of the most famous pieces of “unreal estate” in literary history were, after all, inspired by children’s maps. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, with its famous treasure map, would never have been written if not for Stevenson’s young stepson Lloyd, who passed a rainy summer painting watercolor maps with his stepfather in their Scottish cottage. The place-names they hand-lettered onto the map, like “Skeleton Island” and “Spyglass Hill,” inspired the events of the story.* And when J. M. Barrie dreamed up Peter Pan’s home isle of Neverland, he purposefully imitated the cartography of children:

I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island, for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose.

When I was in the third grade, my friend Gerald and I were kings of twin monarchies called Oofer and Uffer. (I am now seeing those names written down for the first time in twenty-five years.) I can still picture the maps we drew: Oofer is in orange crayon, Uffer green, and a long narrow strait of cerulean sea separates them, running from east to west. But why did we draw the maps? I haven’t the foggiest notion. In hopes of refreshing my memory, I pay a visit to Benjamin Salman, a Seattle eighth-grader who is, I imagine, what Austin Tappan Wright must have been like at fourteen.

Like Wright, Benjamin is the offspring of gifted parents: his father, Mark, is a concert pianist, and his mother, Sarah, is, quite literally, a rocket scientist. (She used to be an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she worked on the Voyager probes; now she teaches math at a nearby university.) Their living room is a pleasantly cluttered space full of antique furniture, musical instruments, stacks of books and National Geographics, and papier-mâché masks hung on the walls. Benjamin is crouched on the wooden floor in front of me, spreading out a grid of eighteen sheets of typing paper.

“This is Augusta, one of the largest cities in Alambia,” he tells me. “It is a complete, exhaustive map.” It’s a Thomas Guide of the imagination, with thousands of nonexistent streets, parks, and businesses meticulously laid out and labeled. “But this one”—he begins spreading out a map of his entire continent—“will never be finished.”

Benjamin’s own Islandia is actually a modified version of the real-world continent of Australia, moved northward and tilted at a rakish 30-degree angle, “for geographic diversity,” he explains in his offhand, slightly elevated way of talking. He’s sitting on the sofa now with his knees around his chin, occasionally chewing on a knuckle. “The actual contents—the geography, the history, the people—they’re all completely different.” When Benjamin talks about his world, his is not the enthusiastic chatter of the evangelist but the cool, knowledgeable tone of the expert. I wonder if that’s part of the appeal of documenting your own alternate world: the knowledge that, despite your tender years, you are the greatest living authority on some subject. More than that, in fact—that you are the unquestioned master of the entire realm. The godlike feeling of dominion that comes when children look at a map must be amplified when they know that the maps are entirely their creation, that they can erase cities, raise up volcanoes, and flood river deltas at will.*


The mean streets of downtown Augusta, hand-drawn by Benjamin Salman, the only person who’s ever been there

“Do you feel like you know your world as well as you know any real place?” I ask.

“Yes. Better! Because I made it up.”

Benjamin has been living in his world almost as long as he’s been living in ours. Even as a baby, he insisted on speaking a language of his own invention. “We just had to pretend we didn’t understand him, and then he’d answer us in English,” sighs Sarah. His country was born as a home for his childhood stuffed animals—Blue Roo the conductor, Day-Glo the inventor. The original residents are probably all in attics and thrift shops now, but their homeland has vastly expanded. It’s not just the hundreds of neat city and country maps stacked on a bookshelf: Benjamin’s Australia is a whole world. Whatever he’s currently learning about in his homeschool classes—the Cyrillic alphabet, colonial history, plate tectonics—gets incorporated into the fabric of his imaginary continent. During the 2008 election season, he became so fascinated with the political process that he filled notebooks with his own fictional districts and candidates and their vote totals.

“The Conservative Democratic Party’s presidential candidate has just resigned,” he announces abruptly, later, as we’re chatting over cheesecake. His update doesn’t sound like a creative decision he’s made but like a genuine news flash beamed in from another world. Time is passing there, just as it does here.

Do Benjamin’s parents worry about his unusual dual citizenship? I suspect their concern isn’t really their son but the possibility that outsiders (like me) will see him as weird. “It’s eccentric, but that’s okay,” says Sarah. “For us, it’s more interesting to have children who are”—she gestures vaguely—“whoever they are.” After all, Benjamin’s doing just fine. He’s an impossibly bright teenager with a wide array of interests—not just maps but history and science and old Marx Brothers movies and classical music. He wants to be a pianist like his dad when he grows up and has just finished composing his first symphony, which he wrote—and orchestrated for fifteen parts—almost entirely in his head, not noodling at the keyboard. (Benjamin has perfect pitch.)

I wonder if Benjamin’s Australia will survive adolescence into adulthood, the way Islandia did but Oofer and Uffer did not. Maybe his parents would be relieved, in a way, if the maps and ledgers and histories joined Blue Roo and Day-Glo in the attic, but I can’t help thinking it would be a tragic loss, almost like the fall of a real empire.

All that time and knowledge gone forever, without even ruins left to commemorate their passing.

Maps of fictional places are a peculiarity of childhood, but among adults, they’re a peculiarity of geek culture as well. Harry Potter’s Hogwarts and the starship Enterprise have been mapped in more detail than much of Africa, and many kinds of gaming rely on maps, from the beautifully elaborate maps of 1970s “bookcase” games to the quickly sketched dungeons of a fantasy role-playing campaign to the pixel art that maps computer games, both classic and modern.* Even comic books aren’t immune: as a kid, I once came across an Atlas of the DC Universe in a bookstore and eagerly scooped it up, unable to believe that someone had finally combined my two great loves: (1) atlases and (2) he-men in long underwear punching each other. But I was ultimately disappointed by the book: Gotham City and Metropolis seemed more mythic to me somehow before I knew that they were officially located in New Jersey and Delaware, respectively. C’mon, DC Comics. Superman would never live in Delaware.

If most kids grow out of made-up maps around the time they discover girls, you might think that the prevalence of kiddie maps in geeky pastimes like these is just another sign of arrested development, like eating Hot Pockets and playing Halo all night even though you’re in your thirties. But fantasy map fans prefer to see a different connection to childhood: a way to recapture the innocence and awe of discovery.

“The hallmark of epic fantasy is immersion,” says the best-selling genre writer Brandon Sanderson. “That’s why I’ve always included maps in my books. I believe the map prepares your mind to experience the wonder, to say, ‘I am going to a new place.’ “

Brandon and I were college roommates a decade ago, and in most of my memories of him, he’s following one of his roommates around the apartment, reading aloud passages from his latest bulky fantasy manuscript, presumably part three of some eight-volume saga where all the characters had lengthy names full of apostrophes. At the time I was amused by Brandon’s antics, but hey, at least it was a pleasant surprise not to be the nerdiest guy in the apartment for a change.

Well, Brandon had the last laugh. In a shocking twist, the epics he’d been writing while working the graveyard shift at a local Best Western were actually, uh, good. He sold his sixth completed novel, Elantris, two years before graduating, and on the strength of that book and his follow-up trilogy, Mistborn, Brandon was chosen (“handpicked,” the accounts always say, as though he were a grape-fruit) by the author Robert Jordan’s widow to complete The Wheel of Time, the megaselling fantasy series that had been left unfinished at the time of Jordan’s 2007 death. His first Wheel of Time book, the twelfth installment in the series, debuted atop The New York Times’ best-seller list, knocking Dan Brown out of the number one spot.

A Japanese samurai sword, which Brandon was allowed to choose from Jordan’s immense personal collection of historical weaponry, hangs over the fireplace in his Utah basement, where we’re talking. Brandon and his wife have plans to remodel the basement into a stone medieval dungeon, complete with torch holders and maybe a mounted dragon head on the wall, but currently it’s just an empty bonus room with a navy blue beanbag chair the size of a Volkswagen Beetle sitting in the middle of it. This is where Brandon does most of his writing.

The summer after eighth grade, when Brandon first fell in love with the genre that would eventually pay for his house, maps were a big part of that love. “I started to look and make sure a book had a map,” he remembers. “That was one of the measures of whether it was going to be a good book or not, in my little brain. When I first read Lord of the Rings, I thought, ‘Oho, he knows what he’s doing. A map and an appendix!’”

J. R. R. Tolkien single-handedly created the epic fantasy genre with his publication of The Hobbit in 1937 and then the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the 1950s. Tolkien never read Islandia, but his own world, which he called Middle-earth, was just as meticulously constructed. He drew upon his day job as an Oxford philology professor to create entire languages for his imaginary races, borrowing some Finnish here, some Welsh there. He designed their calendars and wrote their genealogies. And of course, he drew maps.

Many earlier authors had dabbled in fantastic events and settings, but Tolkien’s books were the ones that created a whole new “Fantasy” aisle in the bookstore, one lined with those florid painted covers of dragons and wizards that make Yes album covers look tasteful and restrained by comparison. Why was he so influential? Tolkien’s readers were less captivated by his plotting or his characters (which were memorable but, as Tolkien freely admitted, largely lifted from the Anglo-Saxon myths he so loved) than with the bold stroke of his world building, the fait accompli of Middle-earth, already there, as if it had always existed. Other books typically followed familiar characters from “the fields we know” into fairylands, whether through a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, or a chalk sidewalk drawing, but, says Brandon, “Lord of the Rings did something very different. It said, ‘No, we’re not going to transition you into it. We’re going to start you off in a completely new world where nothing can be taken for granted.’”

Fantasy readers like that abrupt drop into the deep end and the learning curve it takes to keep up. They’re not hurrying through the book the way you’d power through a thriller from an airport bookstore. They’re taking time to study the rules, to pore over the odd names and arcane histories. Just like Benjamin Salman, they enjoy the sense of being authorities in a whole new realm. “By the end of a big epic fantasy novel, you’ll have to become an expert in this world that doesn’t exist,” says Brandon. “It’s challenging.”

For this very reason, fantasy novels are the kind of reading that comes closest to the way we look at maps. Reading text is a purely linear process. Look: you are reading this sentence. Now you are reading this one. The words from the line above are gone; you are only here, and the words from the line below don’t exist yet. But maps tell a different kind of story. In maps, our eyes are free to wander, spatially, the way they do when we study new surroundings in life.* We can sense whole swaths of geography at once, see relationships, linger over interesting details. Fantasies are read a word at a time too, but less propulsively than any other genre. The author is less interested in pulling you through to an ending than in creating a texture, showing you around a new world.

As a kid, I considered C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books to be somehow lightweight, mere fairy tales compared to Tolkien’s books, and I realize now that maps were at least partly to blame. Elaborate maps were always to be found in front of Tolkien’s books, but my Narnia paperbacks had no maps. Mr. Tumnus’s forest in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was just a bunch of trees, but Bilbo’s forest was Mirkwood, between the mighty Anduin River and the wastes of Rhovanion in the east. One forest was just in a story, but the other was in a place.

It’s the importance of place to the genre, not just slavish imitation of Tolkien, that explains why today’s fantasy authors still make sure maps are front and center. David Eddings, one of epic fantasy’s most popular writers, went so far as to put maps on the covers of his books. (Eddings’s nation of Aloria was born the same way Stevenson created Treasure Island: he doodled the map first, and the map inspired the adventure.*) The maps are certainly functional too; many fantasy novels are episodic quests, and a map is an easy way to plot that course for a reader—it’s no accident that the word “plot” can refer to the contents of both a chart and a narrative. But Brandon’s tried hard to get away from the quest narrative in his own books, most of which take place in contained urban settings, yet he still makes sure his books have maps. His latest novel—the first volume in a projected ten-book series—is called The Way of Kings, and it includes no fewer than nine maps.

In fact, maps are so important to Brandon that he’s paid nine thousand dollars out of pocket to illustrate the book with full-page maps and other “ephemera.” Fantasy fans don’t just want maps that look as though they’ve been laid out digitally on a Mac. They want their maps to be artifacts from the other world, maintaining the illusion that it actually exists somewhere. The map in the front of The Hobbit wasn’t commissioned by a New York publisher; no, it’s the very same map the dwarves in the story use to find their way to the dragon’s lair. If you’re not inclined to believe in dwarves or dragons or their lairs, then burnt edges and water stains on the map can help suspend that disbelief.

Isaac Stewart is the local artist who produces Brandon’s maps, and it’s no easy job. He’s not just producing a nine-page atlas of territory that doesn’t exist. He’s producing, in effect, a sample page from each of nine vastly different atlases from nine different time periods. One map might be a street plan reminiscent of Regency London; the next might be a crude battle plan scraped on the back of a fictional crustacean called a “cremling.” Like real maps from the Age of Discovery, some are meant to have been drawn by surveyors who actually saw the territory; others aren’t.*

The achievement of a plausible state is not so easy as it might appear,” wrote Gelett Burgess in 1902. Burgess was a humorist best remembered today for coining the word “blurb” and writing the poem “The Purple Cow,” but he was also an inveterate map geek. “There is nothing so difficult as to create, out of hand, an interesting coast line. Try and invent an irregular shore that shall be convincing, and you will see how much more cleverly Nature works than you.”

A video-game designer who moonlights as a fantasy mapmaker, Isaac probably has as much experience testing Burgess’s dictum as anyone in the world. A century later, coastlines are still hard. “You wind up doing this seizure thing with your hand, and it doesn’t work sometimes,” he tells me. Burgess’s solution was to spill water on his paper, pound it with his fist, and trace the resulting blotch. Isaac has developed his own tricks of the trade.

“It’s funny where I see maps now that I’m looking for them,” he says, pulling out his camera phone to show me his library of “found cartography.” “Ceiling textures. Clouds. Concrete spills in a road, those are good. They flow out in a way you might not expect.” A photo of a rust stain on a wall became an island in Brandon’s Mistborn series. An aerial view of a vast continent turns out to be a worn spot on a folding chair in a church basement. One picture looks remarkably like the Mediterranean, with verdant green hills and peninsulas surrounding a deep blue sea. It turns out to be guacamole stuck to the lid of a plastic tub. In my mind’s eye, I can picture Isaac at his kitchen counter, staring dumbfounded at his miniature discovery—like Balboa seeing the Pacific for the first time on that peak in Darien*—and then running for his camera. “Honey, don’t put that back in the fridge! Don’t put it back in the fridge!



The Southern Islands of the Final Empire . . . and the rust stain that inspired them

Not every fantasy author feels as strongly about maps as Brandon does. Terry Pratchett includes a map page in every paperback of his popular Discworld series of comedy fantasy novels, but the map is always blank. A caption reads, “There are no maps. You can’t map a sense of humor.” It’s true that maps and texts make strange bedfellows sometimes. A map’s goal, after all, is to suggest stability and completeness, while literature is all about suggestion, nuance, not showing everything.

But that tension hasn’t stopped some of my favorite writers from doodling maps of their imaginary settings—and not just in the fantasy ghetto, I’m talking books without half-naked barbarian chicks on the cover here. William Faulkner drew his own maps of Yoknapatawpha County; Thomas Hardy sketched Wessex. Even writers who ostensibly create their worlds as philosophical exercises become inordinately fascinated with jots and tittles of cartography. Thomas More’s Utopia describes the title island in such detail that he’s clearly a closet world-building geek, the only canonized Catholic saint I can think of who was so inclined. The first edition even included an addendum on Utopia’s alphabet and, of course, a detailed map. Yes, an appendix and a map! Epic fantasy readers would be over the moon.

I wonder aloud to Brandon and Isaac if fantasy readers crave immersion as a form of escape because they’re dissatisfied in some way with real life. I guess I’ve wandered a little too close to suggesting that fantasy nerds are all hopeless misfits, and Brandon calls me on it. “Look, I love my life, and I love fantasy. I have no reason to escape my world, but I still like going someplace new. Do people who like to travel hate where they live? When you open a fantasy book and see a map filled with new places, it makes you want to go explore them.”

On the flight home from visiting Brandon in Utah, I stare out the window at the Columbia Basin passing slowly beneath me. As the Cascade foothills loom ahead, I see huge trapezoidal holes in the greenery: what looks like virgin forest from the highway is, from the sky, exposed as a patchwork of ugly clear-cuts. I think about what Brandon said about fantasy readers as explorers. Jonathan Swift and Thomas More included maps in their books centuries ago, but fantastic maps didn’t really catch on as fetish objects until Tolkien’s time, less than a century ago, just as the time of global exploration was wrapping up. The Northwest Passage and the South Pole had fallen by the time The Hobbit was released, and Hillary scaled Everest the same year Tolkien drew the maps for The Fellowship of the Ring. There were, effectively, no blank spaces left on the map. Maps of the Arctic tundra or Darkest Africa didn’t cut it for young adventurers anymore; they had to look elsewhere for new blank spaces to dream about. And so they found Middle-earth, Prydain, Cimmeria, Earthsea, Shannara.

If nothing else, talking to mappers of imaginary worlds has taught me that there’s a greater pleasure in maps than mere wayfinding. Austin Tappan Wright never needed to hike his way across Islandia in real life, but that didn’t stop him—or his readers—from developing a fanatical devotion to maps of the place. If you never open a map until you’re lost, you’re missing out on all the fun. As Robert Harbison once wrote, “Nothing seems crasser to a lover of maps than being interested in them only when you travel, like saving poetry for bus rides.”

Five or six hundred years ago, there was no clear distinction between fantasy maps and “real” ones. As I learned at the antique map fair, medieval mappaemundi regularly depicted fantastic places right alongside real ones: the land of Gog and Magog, from the Book of Revelation, was over by the Caspian Sea somewhere, often surrounded by the wall that, according to legend, Alexander the Great had built to imprison them. The Golden Fleece was drawn near the Black Sea, Noah’s ark was in Turkey, and Lot’s wife was shown still standing alongside the Dead Sea (as a pillar of salt, of course—you’d think she would have dissolved by now). Paradise was always off to the east somewhere, just over the horizon, surrounded by a ring of fire but still firmly rooted on solid ground.* These maps were expressions of religious devotion, not navigational aids.

Have things really changed that much today? When I browse through an atlas, I’m seeing page after page of places that I’ve visited exactly as often as I’ve visited Middle-earth or Narnia: never. Peru, Morocco, Tasmania. Even a road map of my hometown will show me streets that I’ve never driven, parks I’ve never visited. I can imagine those places from the map, but that’s all it is: my imagination. All maps are fantasy maps, in a way.

A flight attendant announces our descent into Seattle. As the plane dips through a layer of high clouds and the islands of Puget Sound come into view, I find it the easiest thing in the world to imagine these mountains and trees rendered in Tolkien’s spidery hand on faded parchment. Or as fractal patches of guacamole on an impossibly blue Tupperware sea.