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Further up; further, in—

But! Baby steps. Easing back into it and all. —Maybe the business with the maps?


The portal quest fantasy, per Mendlesohn (as opposed to an immersion, or an intrusion, or a liminal, or whatever else, and trust me, we’ll get there), is a didactic idiom: one that takes its necessarily naïve protagonist on a tour of the otherworld with a garrulous guide or guides who brook questions almost as often as interruptions. “Fantasyland is constructed,” she says, and we should be clear, she means Fantasyland is constructed in the portal-quest fantasy,

in part, through the insistence on a received truth. This received truth is embodied in didacticism and elaboration. While much information about the world is culled from what the protagonist can see (with a consequent denial of polysemic interpretation), history or analysis is often provided by the storyteller who is drawn in the role of sage, magician, or guide. While this casting apparently opens up the text, in fact it seeks to close it down further by denying not only reader interpretation, but also that of the hero/protagonist. This may be one reason why the hero in the quest fantasy is more often an actant rather than an actor, provided with attributes rather than character precisely to compensate for the static nature of his role.

Which, okay, and now let’s skip ahead a couple of pages—

This form of fantasy embodies a denial of what history is. In the quest and portal fantasies, history is inarguable, it is “the past.” In making the past “storyable,” the rhetorical demands of the portal-quest fantasy deny the notion of “history as argument” which is pervasive among modern historians. The structure becomes ideological as portal-quest fantasies reconstruct history in the manner of the Scholastics, and recruit cartography to provide a fixed narrative, in a palpable failure to understand the fictive and imaginative nature of the discipline of history.

Flip back a page or two—

Vanity Fair and points down.

Most modern quest fantasies are not intended to be directly allegorical, yet they all seem to be underpinned by an assumption embedded in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678): that a quest is a process, in which the object sought may or may not be a mere token of reward. The real reward is moral growth and/or admission into the kingdom, or redemption (althouh the latter, as in the Celestial City of Pilgrim’s Progress, may also be the object sought). The process of the journey is then shaped by a metaphorized and moral geography—the physical delineation of what Attebery describes as a “sphere of significance” (Tradition 13)—that in the twentieth century mutates into the elaborate and moralized cartography of genre fantasy.

—which paragraph ends neatly enough with—

In any event, the very presence of maps at the front of many fantasies implies that the destination and its meaning are known.

—and, well, yes, okay: I mean, you open just about any wodge of extruded fantasy product these days and yes, there it’ll be, the map, or at least it used to be that way; maybe it’s fallen out of fashion these days? —Doesn’t matter. The ghost of it’s damn well there. There’s always been a map.


And maybe it isn’t too clear, immediately, on the map in Papa Tolkien’s tome, how the process of the journey is laid out, how it is exactly the geography’s metaphorized and moralized. But pull out some more maps, pore over them, look at how the Skull Kingdom’s always behind the Knife Edge Mountains—


—how the Soulsease River flows through Treacher’s Gorge and Defiles Course into the Sunbirth Sea—

The Land.

—and you can start to see it; look more, look further back, scrub away the distractions of mountains and trees and lakes and look just at the map itself—


—and you can start to see the sphere of significance plain and clear, on which then the story of the quest of our hero(es) can be, well, mapped—


—a bildungsroman unspun in space, not time. You will go here, and have this adventure; go there next, and meet this companion; you will face physical hardship in the mountains, then inner turmoil in the deep woods, and if there’s a city, there will almost always be a seige, and a tower, and a coronation. Go and look at Papa Tolkien’s map again, and keep what you know of the story (of story itself, even) in mind (you know the story; the thing about this sort of thing is you’ve yes always already known it), it becomes clear that the destination and its meaning are known, are written there before you, that there was only one way it could ever have ended, once you started in the bucolic upper left; you had to sweep down and down to those snarling mountains in the lower right, and the city of Gondor gleaming there, where you might find your reward. —Didactic, fixed, moralized, metaphorized; cartography has been recruited, yes yes.


Maps were my protonovels. I was reading Tolkien, and it was the maps as much as the text that floated my boat.

David Mitchell

Mendlesohn, and this is important, is describing an effect of the rhetoric of the portal-quest fantasy. And it is a terribly important and I would even say o’erweening effect; she is not wrong to highlight it and draw protective circles about it thrice and thumb its forehead with penitent ash. The didacticism, the storyable past, the moralized geography, the protagonist as actant, the you-must-do-as-you-are-told-to-save-us-all (to reach the Celestial City, to redeem yourself)—this (if I might stuff it all into a singular word) is the supreme weakness of the portal-quest, and because the portal-quest is even now the supreme idiom of fantasy, is even now all of what most of us know of fantasy at all, this effect she’s described must therefore be addressed one way or another by every phantastickal book on the shelf.

But it’s hardly the intent of the naïve protagonist, the travelogue through fantasyland, the expository wizard, the map on the frontispiece. —Nor is it anywhere close to the only effect this furniture, these bits of business, might have on the reader, and the reading.

I’ve embedded images of these books because they offer, in various ways, some of the visual appeal which takes hold of readers of LOTR, The Hobbit and so on; Tolkien was susceptible to the paraphernalia of scholarship, to maps, manuscripts, the annotations which triangulate desire on such artifacts as objects of retrospection to a more heroic time—one constructed as real through the survival of such relics. For a certain sort of reader, scholarship is glamorous because reinforcing l’effet du réel.

Helen DeWitt

The intent (an intent) is to take us readers by the hand and lead us from the world as it is out and away beyond the fields we know, and the simplest, easiest, most direct way to do this is to put fantasyland Out There and lead us through it, dragged along behind a protagonist who doesn’t know much more than we do, who must have stories told to them (and us) about the things they see, and because we are traveling about together in this other world, well, why not a map? That artefact of traveler’s journals ever since travelers began keeping journals. (Did every traveler keep a journal? I mean, all of them? How long ago did they begin, anyway? Were they really journals, or were they more reflections written long after the travels that spawned them? Or, y’know, propaganda, or marketing collateral, or—)

—To insist that history is multivocal, is an argument to be taken up and not a story that is dictated, is, well, is correct; to castigate this simple, brute-force technique for lulling a reader into the fields beyond as not living up to this basic truth of how we know what it is we know is, well, is also correct—but it overlooks the fact that the many and varied voices that carry out this argument of history, these arguments with history, are carried by books upon books within books echoing off books.

Most fantasylands are lucky to get just one.

And this is not an excuse, no. But it is a way out of the supreme weakness hobbling this idiom supreme: there’s absolutely nothing to prevent a writer from taking a protagonist and the reader bobbing along behind through a portal and on a quest that traverses an argued, arguable fantasyland, one where the questions one asks of the garrulous wizards, the interruptions one makes in the stories they try to dictate, are themselves important bildungstones, are themselves crucial steps on the road to the Crystal City of redemption and restoration.

(The trick of course is that the bedrock grammar of fantasy—that’s Clute, we’ll get there, trust me—would set you on a road to redemption and restoration, which irresistably implies that the questions asked will ever have final, true, correct answers; if you aren’t careful, you’ll just end up shifting the mantle of diktat from garrulous wizard to impertinent protagonist. —I never said it would be easy.)

But even if one doesn’t, even if the book one is reading hasn’t come anywhere near this ideal, well: it’s still a book. And the street will always find its own meanings in books. The most univocal, didactic, imperiously railroaded books can’t help but be polysemous; for fuck’s sake, they’re books.

And as for maps—

Recruit them all you like. Metaphorize and moralize until the very tectonic plates groan beneath the weight of your intentional fallacies. Make the road from Here to There through those Fields Beyond as straight and clear a track as you like. The thing about maps is no matter how simple or naïve they are they can’t help but hold more than you put into them. It’s the nature of maps. Even if it’s just the words Here there be Dragonnes. —Even if it’s just blank space surrounding the railroad track you’ve laid! Hell, sometimes blank space is the most evocative of all.

Go back and look at Papa Tolkien’s map again—


—and forget for a moment the too-obvious sweep of narrative laid out before you from Eriador through Gondor to Mordor. Haven’t you always wondered, lying on your stomach, map unfolded carefully carefully from the endpapers and laid out on the carpet before you, haven’t you always wanted to know what the beaches of the Sea of Rhûn were like, this time of year?

So. Yeah. Maps. Or anyway an intemperate discourse spawned by an offhand remark about maps, and their use and, well, misuse.

Baby steps. —It’s a start.

I’m going to leave you with one more map, an ur-map, if you will; the map, really, of fantasyland as she is wrote, or at least as I’m going to be playing with it for a bit, here:

The ur-map.

Of course, a map really benefits from having a key. —It’ll come.

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