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“Harbours That Please Me Like Sonnets”: On the Pleasures of Literary Maps

By Julie Larios

Let me tell you about a small map I have framed and hanging in my house. It’s from a book published in 1778; across the top of the map, in an elegant hand, it reads “Road from Dublin to Clonegall and Carnew.” Specifically, it shows the portion of the road from Rathdrum to Clonegall, with features of the countryside added in by the cartographer. There are small hand-drawn houses indicating modest structures, occasionally with the names of families living in those homes. “Ballybeg” says one, and next to it, “The Reverend Mr. Symes.” The map shows a larger structure called Whaley Abbey, and it indicates open fields as well as trees and hills, allowing me to understand that portions of the road are forested or steep. I’ve often stared at my little map — it measures only five by eight inches — and wondered about the families whose names appear on it, because maps, almost by default, create stories. They make us ask ourselves, “To whom was that small bit of earth important? How did they come to live there, and when and why? Were they happy? Was someone’s heart broken? Were they cruel to each other? Did they gossip? Do their ghosts linger?”

What a powerful enticement to storytelling a map is! The minute you have a map — a believable, visible setting with place names and landmarks — you have someone’s story, and probably many stories, because that’s what place does. Place engages the senses and anchors characters to their world. In fiction, maps created before the story is written can help authors trace their stories’ proper narrative arcs. Robert Louis Stevenson, in an essay first published in The Idler in 1894, reflected on this after drawing one of the most famous maps ever to grace a novel:

On one of these occasions, I made the map of an island; it was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully coloured; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance ‘Treasure Island.’…As I paused upon my map…the future character of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods;…on these few square inches of a flat projection. The next thing I knew I had some papers before me and was writing out a list of chapters.

Harbours that pleased me like sonnets.” Right there, Stevenson puts his finger on the magic of fictional maps for the eventual reader. They are all possibility, mystery, and riddle. They make an impression, and they postpone meaning for further reading, just as poetry does. They are the rabbit hole, and we are their Alice. Ironically, a map’s ostensible purpose is to make the way clear, but a fictional map plays a children’s game with readers; it gives us a compass to find our way and then sets us spinning around and around under its spell.

Tolkien understood this, too. How many children have gotten goose bumps looking at his maps of Middle-Earth? Some people might say these maps “decorate” the pages of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. But they are more than merely decorative: they invite us in to what Tolkien once called a “different stage of imagination.” Even Tolkien’s calligraphy on the maps teases us toward this effort to decipher meaning — all those strange pointed letters, the blunt-syllabled Anglo-Saxon riddle they suggest. “Here of old was Thrain / King under the Mountain,” says one map, which also includes the eerie notation “In Esgaroth upon the Long Lake dwell Men.”

Of course, not all fictional maps spring entirely from the imagination. A. A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood — a.k.a. 100 Aker Wood, populated by Winnie-the-Pooh and friends — is based on Ashdown Forest in East Sussex County, England. Once you know that, you can turn back to Ernest Shepard’s endpaper map and imagine the ghosts of the ancient Romans and Saxons who once crossed the landscape of East Sussex running amok through the Hundred Acre Wood as Pooh hums his hums and Piglet dashes about. For me, when an imagined setting is based on a real landscape, it simply adds to the Lewis Carroll effect. I tumble further into the riddle; the setting becomes a palimpsest, with people from various times tracing their way across the map simultaneously.

The same happens to me when I re-read Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows and think about the peaceful river world of Ratty and Mole, Badger’s Wild Wood, and the open road favored by Toad. Some researchers say that Lerryn, Cornwall, is the basis for that setting; others claim it is the River Pang, a small chalk stream in Berkshire. But would it surprise me to find Toad Hall on my little map of the road from Dublin to Clonegall? It would not. Grahame created a believable world (let’s not bring up Chapter 7 and those Gates of Dawn), and believable worlds can be mapped. We can feel the north, south, east, and west of them; we understand over which tree and behind which hill the sun sets for those characters, as did Ernest Shepard, the original illustrator, and Michael Foreman, whose endpaper maps for Harcourt’s 2002 edition of the book are so delicious. With a map of the Wild Wood in hand, we do become “Wayfarers All,” as Chapter 9 in Grahame’s book would have us believe.

If you set out like an explorer to find maps in books, you’ll find them. Landscape-as-character exerts an especially strong pull on some writers, and when that’s true, maps are never far behind. Deborah Wiles’s novel Each Little Bird That Sings includes a map of Snowberger’s Funeral Home and its surroundings. Fictional maps appeal to adults, too. Look at Faulkner’s famous map of the imaginary Yoknapatawpha County, in which he set his books, and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, with Sinning’s Hardware Store and Hern’s Grocery sitting right where they belong, on Main Street just north of Buckeye and just south of the train tracks. Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff includes a map of a town named after a fistfight, with the cemetery clearly marked. These writers know how to give their characters a place to stand, anchoring them “more deeply within their circumstances,” as Jane Smiley recommends in her book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.

Several years ago, I read Kate Simon’s wonderful coming-of-age story, Bronx Primitive. I found myself so taken with the Italian neighborhood she described that I began to make a map on the flyleaf — I drew in Arthur Avenue, Belmont, La Fontaine, Tremont. I put an X where the movie theater was; I put in the five-and-dime out past Third Avenue; I added the El’s service barns on Monterey, northeast of the hat factory that was up the block and around the corner from the candy store on 178th. I had never been to the Bronx, but I looked on a real map and found those streets. There they were — Tremont, La Fontaine, Arthur Avenue. I know that a map is just two-dimensional. The map isn’t the story. It’s what the map did to my imagination that was important. Did it have the same psychological effect on Kate Simon? I feel sure it did. The naming of those streets brought the Bronx to life for both of us — first for her as she wrote, then for me as I read — by re-creating a neighborhood in time, down to the tree on 179th Street and the public library on Washington. When I read this book, I felt like I was on a voyage, charting an undiscovered continent: the South Bronx in the 1920s and 1930s.

I ask my writing students at Vermont College of Fine Arts to think long and hard about the setting they develop in their books for children. Kids want to be explorers, too. They don’t always want to identify with a familiar character in a familiar world. Books, says Fran Lebowitz, should be doors, not mirrors. So I ask my students to think of offering the setting of their stories to young readers as a gift that opens doors. By doing so, they turn their readers into explorers, and what child doesn’t want to explore? For an urban preschooler, the endpaper map of Lois Lenski’s The Little Farm is exotic — the barn, the pond, the pasture, the stable, the chicken coop. I wasn’t much older than third grade when I began to read a series called “The World of…” I didn’t really care whose name came after those first three words — Columbus, Lincoln, Washington, Marco Polo, Caesar, it was all the same to me — as long as I got to explore their worlds. We explore, and we come to know the unknown.

If it’s true, as Leo Tolstoy said, that all great literature is based on one of two plots (a stranger comes to town, or a hero goes on a journey), then writers and readers must ask themselves, “What is central to both of those plots?” The answer is setting. One involves a going away from, and the other involves a coming to. As an adult, I lean toward stories about the stranger who comes to town and upsets the applecart. But as a child, I wanted to go along as the hero set out for other worlds. As a teenager, I wanted to go with John Ridd into the valley of the Doones in Richard Doddridge Blackmore’s Lorna Doone. I remember longing for a map as I read that book — I desperately wanted Doone Valley to be real, or to be made to seem real by a map; I wanted to see exactly where the small rivulet of water flowed between two stones, marking the passage into the secret hideaway of the Doone family. I willingly suspended my disbelief as I read, because the author had given me a place to stand alongside the characters. Vladimir Nabokov, whose disbelief was less willingly suspended, mapped a house plan of Mansfield Park as he read Jane Austen’s novel. He was testing the story and needed to verify a view of the garden outside a particular window — and he found it just as Austen said it was.

Kent C. Ryden, in Mapping the Invisible Landscape, says that “much of the fascination of maps lies in the fact that they are simultaneously distillations of experience and invitations to experience.” This would explain why so many writers are drawn to maps, since writers are in the process of both distilling their own memories and inviting readers to experience them. My idea of heaven is a place where I can lie on a rug in front of a slow-burning fire and gaze at a map on the endpapers of a good book. I think Robert Louis Stevenson would concur.

I am told there are people who do not care for maps, and find it hard to believe. The names, the shapes of the woodlands, the courses of the roads and rivers, the prehistoric footsteps of man still distinctly traceable up hill and down dale, the mills and the ruins, the ponds and the ferries, perhaps the Standing Stone or the Druidic Circle on the heath; here is an inexhaustible fund of interest for any man with eyes to see or two-pence-worth of imagination to understand with!

Poet Julie Larios’s latest book for children is Imaginary Menagerie (Harcourt), illustrated by Julie Paschkis. She teaches on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts in their M.F.A. Writing for Children program and co-writes the Jacket Knack blog (a look at children’s book covers) with author Carol Brendler.


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  1. […] case that’s not enough map-love for you, make sure to check out this gorgeous post from the Horn Book by Julie Larios. One point I especially enjoyed: “I ask my writing […]

  2. […] I love maps. I published an essay in the Horn Book about maps in children’s books (“Harbours That Please Me Like Sonnets: On the Pleasure of Literary Maps “) and I led a workshop at Vermont College of Fine Arts about making maps to reflect the […]

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