Getting Lost in the Magic of Maps: Three Stories

We often think of maps as utilitarian tools that help us get from A to B without too many detours. For many a cartophile, however, they’re at once a beautiful object, an inspiration for storytelling and adventure, and the product of incredible craft and care. Here are three stories from the Discover archives exploring the power of maps.

Adrian Daub, “Here at the End of All Things”

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In his recent Longreads essay, Adrian Daub weaves together the history of fantasy maps — the kind you encounter in Lord of the Rings and the Song of Ice and Fire series — with the personal story of growing up as a map-obsessed Dungeons & Dragons geek in 1980s Germany.

They were all around us growing up, stitched into the texture of adolescence: a basic feature of nerd interior design imported to Western Europe from America. I remember a boy a little older than me whose room occupied the attic of his parents’ home, a typical half-timbered southern-German house tastefully updated in a cool, vaguely Scandinavian style. He covered one of the sloped walls with maps he collected from the various Advanced Dungeons & Dragons boxed sets that were released in the early 1990s.

I would visit and stare in awe — first at four massive posters depicting the world of Forgotten Realms, a standard issue Tolkien pastiche, then at additional maps completing the planet of Abeir-Toril: first came vast steppes to the east, a continent of Mayan-style temples and deep jungles to the west, then the calligraphic maps of a far-eastern setting. On my next visit he had been forced to shift the entire tapestry up towards the gable, as another boxed set had added an Arabian Nights-inspired continent to the south. Each box he’d ordered from faraway America added another facet to our knowledge of this invented world, arriving like an explorer at home port.

Maggie Messitt, “North 20°54, West 156°14”

Bending Genre, a site focusing on the art of narrative nonfiction, has been in archive mode for a couple of years now. This 2014 essay by Maggie Messitt — about the subtle connections between place, memory, and the maps that anchor both — is still as fresh and as moving as when it was first published.


Maps are memory.


Google Maps now allows me to time travel. Some mornings, when I’m homesick, I make my way back to 2007. I look for my Land Rover parked outside of the little cottage on Lerato where I once lived, my forever home in South Africa. With one click, I am married again, waking up beside the dam, drinking coffee on the porch while the dogs run their noses, tracking the previous night’s movement—zebra, warthog, hyena, impala and leopard. And there are giraffe drinking on the opposite side of the dam.

Other times, in the middle of the night, I rewind my way through Maui, where my aunt went missing. I drive Hana Highway and peer down roads that lead to the Pacific, and up toward Haleakala. But Google hasn’t travelled down these roads. I am desperate to do a grid search, replicating 2010 when investigators walked side-by-side, three-feet-apart, scanning for her body. I zoom out and from the sky look for signs of a tent or a blue hammock in the trees, but everything is simply too dense. Untraceable. Unknown. Unmarked on the map.


Maps help us search.

tabula rogeriana
A modern copy of the Tabula Rogeriana, upside-down with North oriented up. (Via Wikipedia, public domain).

Paul Sturtevant, “A Wonder of the Multicultural Medieval World: The Tabula Rogeriana”

In the popular imagination, the medieval era is stagnant, archaic, and literally and figuratively “dark.” This couldn’t be farther from the truth, as the writers at The Public Medievalist show time and again. Case in point: Paul Sturtevant’s lively account of a 12th-century cartographic masterpiece by a Spanish-Muslim refugee at the Sicilian court of Roger II.

Setting to work, al-Idrisi consulted all the books and travel reports he could find, synthesizing knowledge from Arabic, Latin and Classical sources on the subject. He extensively interviewed the travelers and traders who came to the island about the places they had come from and the places they had seen.

Al-Idrisi’s work fundamentally reveals the amount of cooperation and collaboration between people of different faiths, colors, and cultures present even in the twelfth century. Al-Idrisi reported the stories of people who had been to China, and which city produced the best silks (apparently, Quanzhou). He reported a tantalizing tale of a group of Muslim explorers who, blown vastly off-course, may have found themselves in the Americas, and who struggled to return (though from their confused reports they could have been several other places in the Atlantic). He met Norse traders who told him of the Northern Island colonies (Iceland or Greenland), and Africans who helped him map both the east and west coasts of that continent.

And though his maps were flat, he was very well aware that the Earth was a sphere, and calculated its circumference to within 10% of its real size.

Read more about maps and place in the Discover archive.