My search for examples of maps being used as a fantasy fiction trope brought me to the works of James A. Owen, namely, his Imaginarium Geographica series of young-adult novels, six volumes and counting. This series takes multiple myths, fairy stories and more conventional works of fiction, from many different eras and traditions, and tosses them together in a mythic bouillabaise. Its setting is the “Archipelago of Dreams,” where every imaginary place — “Ouroboros, Schlaraffenland and Poictesme, Lilliput and Mongo and Islandia and Thule, Pellucidar and Prydain”1 — can be found.
It sounds very meta, but it doesn’t succeed at all, at least not for me. I’m afraid I couldn’t manage past the second volume.
So many different characters and writers are thrown together that the whole fails to cohere. There are no characters who do not turn out to be some famous writer or well-known character. Not only does this make character development all but impossible, the plot becomes one surprise reveal after the other: mystery character X will end up being anyone from Mordred to H. G. Wells. At the end of the first volume, the three protagonists — Jack, John and Charles — turn out to be C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams, but, like many of the other allusions and reveals, it’s unnecessary: with all the breathless hugger-mugger that takes place they could have been anyone else without a single change in the text.
Now in a crowded jumble of every myth and fantasy trope, character and writer prior to the 20th century, there is bound to be some reference to maps. And there is: the three protagonists are designated the keeper of the Imaginarium Geographica, an atlas that serves as a key to the entire archipelago. The phrase “Here, There Be Dragons” is used by John as a Rosetta Stone to unlock the various languages used on the map. In the first novel — also titled Here, There Be Dragons — they’re up against the Winter King, who, when he conquers a land, its map becomes shrouded in shadow. “He thumbed through several pages until he came to one of the vanished maps. It was a yellow-tinged sheet of parchment, like many of the others, but taking the place of the illuminations and notations were several large, indistinct smudges, as if the drawings had been hastily rubbed out.”2
But in the end, the Imaginarium, along with the Cartographer the protagonists visit more than once, is just one trope among many competing for the reader’s attention. It’s as though Owen is trying to juggle a dozen balls while performing as a one-man band on a high wire, desperately trying to maintain the attention of an audience who can’t sit still for more than a few minutes.
- James A. Owen, Here, There Be Dragons (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), p. 21.
- Owen, Here, There Be Dragons, p. 112.