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 Defoes 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 islands geographic features in detail as Crusoe goes about his tasks. The novels full title as first published not only gives the islands 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;
Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With an Account how he was at last as strangely deliverd 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 Crusoes travels. The Castaway on a desert island theme has captivated writers ever since, from J.R. Wyss idyllic The Swiss Family Robinson to William Goldings 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.
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. Lewiss Narnia, J.M. Barries Never-Never Land, Frank Baums Oz, Thomas Hardys Wessex, Anne McCaffreys 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 Bunyans 1675 allegory Pilgrims 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 Calvinos 20 Imaginary Cities reflects the citys character and the character of its inhabitants, while Jonathan Swifts islands of Lilliput, Brobdingnag, and Laputa exemplify various
unpleasant aspects of human nature.
Geography can also be used to symolize a specific character or indivdual character trait. Thus in James Thurbers The 13 Clocks, the evil Duke lives in a forbidding castle with many dungeons and twisting corridors -- the castle exemplifies the Dukes warped and malicious nature. Tolkiens 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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