Maps and Imagination


Maps in the belfry

Maps are fascinating. I remember spending so much time as a child designing imaginary maps, mazes or floor plans, folding and unfolding maps, scrutinising globes, seeing continents in a crumbling ceiling, memorising fictional maps in books, and trying to create some out of my favorite fictional places when they didn’t exist. I clearly remember trying to map the family house of some children comic books and being very disappointed when I noticed I couldn’t manage it, because the author didn’t have a clear map in his head and there were some discrepancies in the panels – the kitchen was sometimes on the left and sometimes on the right…

I still am interested in maps, mazes and architecture, and I know some of my co-workers in computer science share my interest. It can also be a Special Interest for some people with Aspergers.

How real is a map?

Are maps trying to depict real data “real” too?

World maps accuracy has sure changed over the years. Without satellites, with limited access to parts of Earth or navigation instruments, drawing a world map was not the easiest task. For instance, this Greek map from 500 BC might seem completely inaccurate to most of us:

But even now, 2D world maps are necessarily distorted in one way or another, since Earth is more or less a globe, and you can’t “peel” it smoothly:

When representing it in 2D, you must choose! See those two world maps:

Map 1
Map 2

The first one, a Mercator projection, cannot represent the North and South poles, whereas Map 2, an equirectangular projection, distorts sizes a lot. A political, cultural statement can also be made through some choices. The first one is centered around Europe and Africa, while the second one is centered around America. Those maps can really influence us since our early childhood. I know some people who were thrilled to make a Japan – US West Coast flight because it was an impossible journey in Map 1.

Representing the world with North at the top is also a convention. Medieval Muslim maps, as well as the Fra Mauro Map, were South-Up. In Australia, such maps might also be used as a political statement.

The Fra Mauro map, 1450 (circa)

I’ve also noticed that while French maps tend to stick to the North-Up orientation, in Japan a lot of local orientation maps in the streets are oriented so that what you are facing is always up on the map. For more data about a history of maps, see this article and this one.

Even when we think modern maps, like city maps, are as accurate as they could, it might not be that true. Some cartographers might add false data or fake streets to their maps, to catch copyright violators!

Can maps be art?

While there are a lot of different ways to map places, some styles and designs are stuck in our collective mind, and some tongue-in-cheek pastiches can be made. London and Paris underground maps are well-recognised and can be distorted in design and art projects.

Some London maps are also pretty stunning, and can be artworks.

Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London UK edition covers include elements from a map drawn by artist Stephen Walter. His drawing The Island is a psychogeographical, intricate map of London as an island.

Maps as artworks are not necessarily intricate drawings on paper or digital format, they can also be happenings and body art. Chinese artist Qin Ga had a map of China tatooed on his back, and had a tatoo artist update it along the journey.
Qin Ga, ‘Site 22: Mao Zedong Temple,’ 2005

Mapping the fiction

A lot of fictional worlds and places are mapped too.

The most obvious example might be video games, where maps, often beautiful, are helping the players grasp the world and marvel at its size, while allowing them to better navigate it. See the beautiful clickable map in Mass Effect 2:

Books are also good examples. A lot of fantasy books, where the characters live in places unknown to us, provide the readers with maps. Tolkien was a world-builder, and his Middle Earth map might be one of the best known Fantasy maps:

So is CS Lewis’s Narnia’s one, drawn by Pauline Baynes. Even Neil Gaiman had a poster of the Narnia map in his room!

Some mystery books also provide maps or floor plans so the readers can try to solve the mystery too.
Map of the coach in Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, 1934
Floor plan in The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux, 1908

Some fictional maps are meta-fictional maps, objects, features of their own in works of fiction, and not only maps for the reader/player/viewer.

An example is the archetypal Treasure map in pirate books, movies, games and other fiction. While there are some real life examples, the archetypal one with the cross marking the spot was popularized by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1883 Treasure Island.


Another famous meta fictional map is the Marauder’s map in the Harry Potter world, by J. K. Rowling. This map is magical and allows to see every hidden corner of Hogwarts castle, but also to follow the location of everyone inside. This is a brilliant map lots of people might like to possess in the real world.
I solemnly swear that I am up to no good…

Click for a real life Marauder’s map

Allegorical geography

Talking about Sci-Fi and Fantasy, I also like allegorical maps, and Ward Shelley drew a beautiful map of the History of Science-fiction: school-book example of Allegorical geography, the Map of Tendre is a map centered around love, according to the Précieuses of French 17th century.

The possibilities are endless, but let this one conclude this love letter to maps!

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