Reviews 2016

Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings

Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings. Stefan Ekman. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2013. 296 pages. £22.00 (paperback).

Despite the immense variety that characterizes the genre of fantasy, there appears to be some general consensus on several of its aspects, particularly the significance of settings and maps. However, while their importance is widely cited, both fantasy settings and maps remain surprisingly understudied. It is precisely this "discrepancy between proclaimed significance and lack of scholarship" (216) that fuels Stefan Ekman’s 2013 monograph Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings, aimed at filling a prominent gap in existing research and testing the validity of popular claims about fantasy maps and settings.

In this stimulating and reader-friendly study, Ekman – a freelance lecturer on fantasy, role-playing games and manga who also teaches at the Creative Writing Program at Lund University – provides a topofocal (place-focused) reading of numerous fantasy novels published in English from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s. To ensure reader familiarity, the author expands each individual discussion to include J.R.R. Tolkien’s genre-defining The Lord of the Rings (henceforth, LOTR). The book also presents the results of Ekman’s research on the appearance of maps in fantasy, based on a survey of 200 fantasy novels and short story collections, selected from the inventory list of Sweden’s leading SF and fantasy retailer, SF-Bokhandeln. The discussion is divided into six chapters, each focused on a different aspect of fantasy settings/maps and employing a different viewpoint. Although the author states that the individual chapters are independent of each other and can therefore be read in any order, the way they are organized enables the discussion to progress from the general (setting and maps) to the specific (individual elements/features of space).

In addition to stating the aims and methods of the research, the first, introductory chapter includes informative discussions on the definition of the fantasy genre and space-related terms (world, domain, realm, land, landscape). Chapter Two opens with an overview of the scarce literature on fantasy maps and discussions on the relationship between texts and maps, as well as the questionable applicability of the term "map" to representations of imaginary spaces. The chapter is dedicated to presenting and interpreting the surprising results of Ekman’s survey of fantasy maps, which reveals that maps are "not the compulsory ingredients they are widely held to be" (22). However, the unexpected scarcity of maps does not diminish their importance as they not only illustrate fantasy worlds but also play a key role in their creation and interpretation. The maps featured in Ekman’s corpus are then studied in terms of their subject, orientation, surround elements, hemisphere, and topographical elements (especially hills). The results of each analysis are quantified and presented in tables, and their implications for the wider understanding and study of fantasy are discussed in the main text. The chapter also includes close readings of two fantasy maps: LOTR’s "A Part of the Shire" and "The West of Middle-earth."

In Chapter Three, Ekman addresses the lack of consensus on the definitions and use of basic space-related terms, while explaining his own terminological preferences. The main part of the chapter is dedicated to an examination of polders, as described in LOTR, Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood cycle and Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids. The remainder of the chapter explores different types of borders: between the living and the dead (Steven Brust’s Dragaera novels), the mundane world and Faerie (Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess’s Stardust) and magic and technology (Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series). Chapter Four tackles the problematic division between nature and culture by analysing four fantasy cities: Tolkien’s Minas Tirith, Charles de Lint’s Newford, China Miéville’s New Crobuzon and Patricia McKillip’s Ombria. Although positive sentiments tend to be on the side of nature, none of the analysed texts unequivocally equates nature with good and culture with evil.

By exploring the almost symbiotic bond between ruler and land, Chapter Five expands the discussion of setting to include characters. The analysis, inevitably set against the backdrop of the Fisher King myth, encompasses Tim Powers’s Last Call, Lisa Goldstein’s Tourists, Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Power That Preserves, Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, and LOTR. The figure of the Dark Lord and his accompanying landscapes of evil/evil landscapes garner special attention. The brief concluding chapter, entitled "Some Final Thoughts," summarizes the book’s findings, reinstates the importance of studying fantasy settings (any fantasy work, the author claims, "would benefit from an exploration of its many environments" (219) and provides guidelines for future research. The book closes with two appendices dedicated to different aspects of the map survey (methodology and novels included in the sample), notes, index and bibliography.

Ekman’s study has much to recommend it: accessible language, clear argumentation, undeniable enthusiasm for the subject matter and most of all, a fresh and original perspective on the fantasy genre. That being said, there are some problems, which, while not diminishing the overall appeal and usefulness of the study, do bring into question the validity and wider applicability of some of its claims. The largest problem in this respect is the randomly selected corpus of texts, as well as the large margin of error created by the small map sample. Furthermore, the book would benefit from more discussions of the observations stemming from analyses of individual novels in the wider context of the fantasy genre.

Despite these problems, Ekman successfully accomplishes his stated aim of drawing attention to an area of fantasy literature, which, despite its recognized importance, remains surprisingly overlooked. He identifies numerous "blind spots" in existing research, thus carving out ample space and providing much-needed stimulus for future studies in this vibrant area. The clear and accessible style of writing coupled with a popular theme will surely help this book find its way to a more general audience.

Nada Kujundžić
University of Turku, Finland
University of Zagreb, Croatia
Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies, University of Alberta, Canada