Mappa.Mundi Magazine
Stephanie Faul is director of public relations for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. A long-time writer and editor, she has been a frequent contributor to on-line and old-line media.

Locus is a series about words about places and how language, culture and society have created and used these words down through the ages.

» Previous Issues

Links Relating
to this edition

» Daniel Defoe Biography

» A first edition of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe at the University of Miami Libraries

» Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe on-line at

» The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss on-line. Converted to electronic format by Michael K. Johnson

» Biography of Sir William Golding at the Nobel Foundation

» The World of J.R.R. Tolkien with maps of Middle Earth

» Minibibliography of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

» Anne McCaffrey's Homepage

» The Unofficial Ursula K. Le Guin Page

» Bio of J. M. Barrie and links located on the town of Kirriemuir Scotland, the birthplace of Sir J.M. Barrie.

» The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum on-line at Kansas Collection Books

» The International Wizard of Oz Club

» Thomas Hardy's Lifeline

» Thomas Hardy's Wessex Place Names

» The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan on-line

» On-line concordance of Pilgrim's Progress

» Howard Phillips Lovecraft

» Italo Calvino: links and information

» Thurber's World (and Welcome To it)!: links relating to James Thurber

» Excerpts from The 13 Clocks by James Thurber
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Dictionary of Imaginary Places
Dictionary of
Imaginary Places

by Alberto Manguel,
Gianni Guadalupi

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By Stephanie Faul, Locus Archives »

Thomas Hardy's map drawing of Wessex
Thomas Hardy's
map drawing of Wessex
provided by
The Dorset County Museum

Imaginary Places

      Good writing, as many a literature professor has observed, conveys a strong sense of place. While characters and their actions may drive the plot, the action works better if everything happens in a recognizable, or at least easily imaginable, landscape. This landscape may be a real one, or the writer may just make it up.

      An example of pure invention occurs in Daniel Defoe’s 1719 book Robinson Crusoe. Widely identified as the first modern English novel, this book describes for much of its length the relationship between a man and a place — an imaginary island. Crusoe spends a large part of the book in solitary activities such as building a stockade, hunting for goats, farming, and so forth. Defoe describes the island’s geographic features in detail as Crusoe goes about his tasks. The novel’s full title as first published not only gives the island’s precise location, but also throws in a good bit of the plot: The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Boosted by a No-Brainer Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With an Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates. Written By Himself. Robinson Crusoe was such a success that Defoe immediately wrote a sequel that same year, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, which featured a frontispiece map of the world marked with Crusoe’s travels. The “Castaway on a desert island” theme has captivated writers ever since, from J.R. Wyss’ idyllic The Swiss Family Robinson to William Golding’s dystopic society of teenagers in Lord of the Flies.

      Descriptions of nonexistent places are routine in literature, but only a few authors have taken the fantasy to the point of charting their imaginary lands. J.R.R. Tolkien, like his friends C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, wrote allegorical novels about the struggle between good and evil. Unlike Lewis or Williams, Tolkien took pen to paper and created detailed maps of “Middle-Earth.” Though Tolkien modeled his maps on medieval cartography, complete with little bumps to show mountains and place names in carefully lettered uncials, his maps show a very modern sensibility of projection and form, though they lack a scale.

Monkey on the Wing

      Other creators of imaginary landscapes have had maps made for them by commercial artists and devoted fans. Illustrators have prepared precisely detailed and (one supposes) accurate maps of such non-existent lands as C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, J.M. Barrie’s Never-Never Land, Frank Baum’s Oz, Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, Earthsea from the imagination of Ursula K. LeGuin, and innumerable other imaginary worlds.

      For literary purposes, an imaginary landscape is much more versatile than a real one because geography can be specifically created to reveal information about the characters and plot. In some cases this is a deliberately transparent attempt at moral instruction, as with John Bunyan’s 1675 allegory Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan describes how Christian, his hero, journeys from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City by way of the Slough of Despond and the temptations of Vanity Fair. But usually the attempt is less instructive and more entertaining. In the 20th century H.P. Lovecraft created Arkham, an eerie Massachusetts town with shadowy streets and disturbingly pitched roofs, rife with a hidden evil that lurks at the edges of consciousness. The geography of each of Italo Calvino’s 20 “Imaginary Cities” reflects the city’s character and the character of its inhabitants, while Jonathan Swift’s islands of Lilliput, Brobdingnag, and Laputa exemplify various unpleasant aspects of human nature.

A Courage-Lacking Lion

      Geography can also be used to symolize a specific character or indivdual character trait. Thus in James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks, the evil Duke lives in a forbidding castle with many dungeons and twisting corridors -- the castle exemplifies the Duke’s warped and malicious nature. Tolkien’s antisocial dragon Smaug inhabits a solitary mountain surrounded by impenetrable forest, a geographic expression of his personality. Especially in fairy-tales, characters require appropriate backgrounds, even though in theory it is equally possible for an evil duke to live in a double-wide house trailer just outside of Tampa or for a fierce dragon to crouch under a high-rise in midtown Manhattan.

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