Here Be Dragons: On Literary Cartography

By Jonathan Russell ClarkOctober 20, 2015

Plotted: A Literary Atlas by Andrew DeGraff

THE EPONYMOUS 12-year-old narrator of Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is a prodigy of cartography. He makes maps of everything, from your basic maps of the geography of his native Montana to odd ones charting the trajectory of his sister’s corn-shucking or tracing the angles of his father’s arm while he drinks whiskey. “Something about measuring the distance between here and there cast off the mystery of what lay between,” T.S. remembers,

and since I was a child with limited empirical evidence, the unknown of what might just lie between here and there could be terrifying. I, like most children, had never been there. I had barely even been here.

T.S.’s description of map-making could easily be a description of art-making: another process of grappling with what we know (here) and what we don’t (there). “The number one rule of cartographia,” T.S. tells us, “was that if you could not observe a phenomenon, you were not allowed to depict it on your parchment.” Think of the old adage “write what you know,” and the artist’s perpetual fear of getting things wrong, of looking foolish, of not doing justice to the world we hope to make.

“A novel is a tricky thing to map,” T.S. says elsewhere in the novel. He harbors a desire to map out Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, which presents him with unique difficulties:

At times the invented landscape provided me shelter from the burdens of having to chart the real world in its entirety. But this escapism was always tempered by a certain emptiness: I knew I was deceiving myself through a work of fiction. Perhaps balancing the joys of escapism with the awareness of deception was the whole point of why we read novels, but I was never able to successfully manage this simultaneous suspension of the real and the fictive. Maybe you just needed to be an adult in order to perform this high-wire act of believing and not-believing at the same time.

Moby-Dick, of course, is a phenomenon T.S. has both observed and not observed. He has read the book, but has not directly experienced any of the events depicted in its pages. According to his own rules, T.S. shouldn’t be able to make this map. And yet, what is there to the phenomenon of Moby-Dick that he hasn’t seen?

Realist fiction tricks us into believing in such a thing as “off-page,” a literary equivalent to “off-screen” or “off-stage.” But even major events that aren’t included in a novel are still communicated with the exact same tools as the “on-page” events. If I were watching a play and the most important narrative moment wasn’t depicted on stage, I might feel more than a little disappointed, even annoyed. But fiction does this kind of thing all the time: major plot points are conveyed through expository dialogue, or a brief summary, or in the invisible space between chapters. The difference between an occurrence “off-stage” or “off-screen” as opposed to “off-page” lies in the fact that theater and film are visual mediums, in which anything we don’t see is lessened in its effect. But in a novel, every single piece of information is expressed the same way — through words — so that, even if something “happens” off-page, it still happens, fundamentally, to us.


Here’s another way of thinking about T.S. Spivet’s problem: What parts of a novel do we see, and what parts do we only think we see?

In the graphic designer Peter Mendelsund’s remarkable 2014 book, What We See When We Read, he asks the reader to consider the geography of To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. Almost the entire novel takes place in the Ramsays’ summerhouse in the Hebrides, and throughout we’re given numerous descriptions of its many facets. Yet when we are asked to explicitly describe the house, we find we are unable; or we might say, like Mendelsund, that we merely see “a shutter here, a dormer there.” We can’t really see the house; instead, what we get is a functional approximation of the house, a crude mental map that helps us get around. “Our maps of fictional settings, like our maps of real settings, perform a function,” Mendelsund writes:

A map that guides us to a wedding reception is not a picture — a picture of what the wedding reception will look like — but rather, it is a set of guidelines. And our mental maps of the Ramsay house are no different — they govern the actions of its occupants.

So, depending on what a given scene requires in terms of action, our mental image of its geography will morph to accommodate anything that happens within it. Our inner maps, then, constantly shift and change as the narrative plays out. If there is a shootout in a novel that takes place in a warehouse, I might imagine it empty, but if suddenly one of the gunmen notices a machine in the center of the room with a giant conveyor belt running out of it, my mind will have no difficulty plunking down a giant machine smack dab in the middle of everything. Then, if the gunman, a bit later, thinks the machine resembles a Rube Goldberg concoction, my mental image will quickly accommodate this development, too. Thus, by the time a single scene is over, I may easily have imagined five or six different locations.

This “mapping” extends to the appearances of characters, as well. So when I picture, for instance, Fyodor and Alyosha Karamozov, I imagine Fyodor, the father, as the bigger, more imposing figure; but what I don’t include, unless Dostoevsky prompts me to do so, are actual traits attributed to these characters. Again, here’s Mendelsund:

Even if an author excels at physical description, we are left with shambling concoctions of stray body parts and random detail (authors can’t tell us everything). We fill in gaps. We shade them in. We gloss them over. We elide.

By way of example, Mendelsund asks his reader to describe Anna Karenina. “Perhaps,” he writes, “you’d mention her beauty. If you were reading closely you’d mention her ‘thick lashes,’ her weight, or maybe even her downy little mustache (yes — it’s there).” Yes, we have those details, but, “what,” he asks, “does Anna look like?” Our intimacy with the features of our beloved characters is, ultimately, an illusion. When we actually try to imagine a fictional character in our mind, we don’t see anything “so fixed … so choate.”

Medieval cartographers, when they reached uncharted territory, would write “Here be dragons” in the space corresponding to the unexplored regions. The idea was to warn users of the maps’ geographical limitations: beyond this point, you’re on your own. Prose fiction, then, is full of dragons. It guides us through an imaginary world, helping us get from here to there, but it can never cover everything for us. In even the most detailed and comprehensive novel, past a certain point we’re on our own.

In order to read a novel, our minds must perform cognitive tasks beyond our everyday experience. This is what makes reading fiction so rewarding: by interpreting and approximating a text mentally, we’re engaging in a kind of creative work ourselves. Authors may give us the instructions, but we create the map, and when we arrive at the area marked “Here be dragons,” we’re ready to discover what’s there.


Andrew DeGraff’s Plotted: A Literary Atlas is T.S. Spivet’s dream come true: a book of maps based on great works of literature. In vividly colored drawings on glossy pages, DeGraff traces the geographies of easily rendered classics like The Odyssey and Around the World in Eighty Days alongside more challenging targets like A Wrinkle in Time and Waiting for Godot. For a book lover, it’s loads of fun, but it also offers some interesting insights into the way our inner perceptions of fiction are influenced more by our interpretations of the text than by what the author actually tells us is there.

Take, for instance, his map of Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne. Verne’s 1873 novel, DeGraff writes,

forced Victorian readers to reimagine what … geography meant. He took a world that still seemed enormous, with plains that stretched for days and seas that took months to cross, and made a convincing case that humans already had the technology to make the world a much smaller place.

In DeGraff’s cartographical rendering of the book, a vivisection of a globe floats bowl-like in the air. The top layer compresses the numerous landmarks of Phileas Fogg’s adventure, from London on the first day to Bombay on the 18th to Salt Lake City on the 64th and back to the point of origin. But the most striking element is the bottom half of the divided globe, which is made of steel beams and looks like an unfinished building. One could interpret this as a stage (the stage of Fogg’s miraculous performance); it also hints at the fabricated, stage-managed nature of fiction itself. DeGraff notes that the real pleasure of Around the World in Eighty Days derives from Fogg’s “passionate chase of a technocratic dream,” and he’s right. But we also take pleasure in Verne’s dream, his elaborately designed and constructed fantasy, his invention of a world that seemed unbelievable until millions of people started living in it.

Even more fascinating are the maps derived from books set on other planets, other dimensions, or imaginary earth locales. His map of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (a favorite of mine from childhood) obviously can’t employ ordinary cartography since the characters travel through space and time via a mysterious device called a tesseract.

To solve the problem, DeGraff creates a multidimensional map in which the lines tracing the characters’ journeys look like the craziest Mario Kart level of all time. On the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, there is a hilarious, and accurate, map of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In it, Vladimir and Estragon are represented by two anthropomorphized speech bubbles with arrows signifying Pozzo and Lucky circling around them; the rest is a blackish orange, with suggestive white shapes on the other side, just popping into frame, to hint at the world going on just beyond these two hapless men.

But my favorite of the bunch is of Jorge Luis Borges’s story “The Library of Babel,” which describes an endless library comprised of “an indefinite, perhaps infinite, number of hexagonal galleries, with enormous ventilation shafts in the middle, encircled by very low railings.” The Library contains all possible books ever written, and is so full of knowledge that it is actually quite useless to its patrons. DeGraff first presents a wide view of the Library from above, so it looks like a detail of a mechanical beehive. Then, in a close-up, we can spot people in the galleries, wandering around, looking for answers. This second map takes on Escher-like qualities, something I think Borges would have appreciated. “The Library of Babel,” like much of Borges’s fiction, lies just outside of human understanding, because humans can’t comprehend notions of infinity. DeGraff’s map captures that ineffable spirit, somehow, in that most rational of human inventions: a map.

DeGraff’s book, like Larsen’s and Mendelsund’s, raises the question of the way we tenuously hold fictional universes in our minds. Absent anything concretely visual to latch onto, we create messy, complex maps to maintain a grip on the disorienting profusion of information coming at us. If we could transcribe these mental representations, they would probably look less like DeGraff’s thorough, well-executed images and more like those medieval maps, with small pockets of knowledge surrounded by huge swaths of emptiness.

In literature, as in life, we can’t see everything. We can’t keep track of all the details, nor can we truly envision specific geographies, even ones we’ve visited before. And since fiction deceives us in so many ways, we can’t even know for sure whether the novel or the author has provided us with the necessary details or if we’ve invented them.

In Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, the great historian uses a cartographic metaphor to describe the limits of his work:

As geographers … crowd into the edges of their maps parts of the world which they do not know about, adding notes in the margin to the effect, that beyond this lies nothing but sandy deserts full of wild beasts, unapproachable bogs, Scythian ice, or a frozen sea, so, in this work of mine, in which I have compared the lives of the greatest men with one another, after passing through those periods which probable reasoning can reach to and real history find a footing in, I might very well say of those that are farther off, beyond this there is nothing but prodigies and fictions, the only inhabitants are the poets and inventors of fables; there is no credit, or certainty any farther.

For Plutarch, fiction was what was off the map, a land beyond the reach of historians with their “credit” and “certainty,” where the only “inhabitants are the poets and inventors of fables.” But, as DeGraff and others have shown, we can’t help charting that space, too, however imperfectly. Here’s another way to put it: maps describe places where people have already been in order to show others how to get there. Fiction is made of maps to places no one has ever seen, and when we all arrive at our destinations, none of us end up in the same place.


Jonathan Russell Clark is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub, and his work has also appeared in Tin HouseThe Georgia ReviewThe Millions, The Rumpus, and Thrasher Magazine, among others.

LARB Contributor

Jonathan Russell Clark is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub, and his work has also appeared in Tin HouseThe Georgia ReviewThe Millions, The Rumpus, and Thrasher Magazine, among others. He currently lives in North Carolina.


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