Wednesday, 15 August 2007

An Atlas of Imaginary Worlds 3: Islands and Archiepelagos

I am sitting here waiting for the Tolkien Police to turn up, but so far they have not shown. I guess they will come without warning, I will simply turn up one day and find that my blog has gone. To some degree they are working against the long-term interests of the Tolkien estate as now the impact of the movies is beginning to wane, sales of all things Tolkien will only be sustained by geeks and a rising generation of geeks, and these prosper in an environment of community and discussion and what I call 'train spottery', i.e. like train spotters, discussing the minutiae of their world. Choking them off will damage interest in Tolkien's works; as I have shown over the last couple of days, there are more than enough other worlds to become interested in.


Maybe I can escape the Tolkien lawyers by moving my blog into German. I have found the most comprehensive website for maps of places which do not exist, it is in German, though some of the maps on it are in French and English; there is also some text about the mission of the site available in English too. Check out: http://www.fantasy-atlas.org/ The contents are 'Inhalt' and they are listed by the authors of the books, so simply look by their surname. The navigation on the site is rather awkward as, if you open a map, certainly on my machine, there is no 'Back' and so you have to close the map and it dumps you back to the front page of the website rather than returning you to 'Inhalt'. There are things you will not find elsewhere such as a South Pole ('Sudpol') view of Arrakis. Looking through German authors there does seem to be this Northern Europe - North America focus (I will title this the NENA focus to save me having to write it out each time) still with big forests and icy wastelands at the top. Another site that has a range of maps from fantasy novels, though it does not seem to have been updated since 2005 is: http://thegraveyard.org/daelstorm/maps.php


Another website of interest which does not carry maps, but has articles about fantasy worlds is: http://www.strangewords.com/archive/contents.html It looks like it has stopped being updated and not all the pages work any longer, which is why I direct you to the archive as there are interesting articles about fantasy worlds and the themes they encompass and what they say about our own world. From the start of science fiction with people like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, a lot of the writing though superficially looking forward to the future of sideways into alternate places actually addresses a lot of contemporary issues, notably about power politics, the dangers and benefits of technology as well as personal crises and increasingly issues like sexuality and its relationship to society. On the Strange Worlds site it discusses how the genre handled things like Nazism and the Vietnam War.


Anyway, I am now ranging well off the point of what today's blog was to be about, though I always think it is worthwhile highlighting others on the internet doing interesting and useful things, especially if they are at potential risk from the 'Black Riders', the internet censors. People forget we are part of a 'web' and that the references back and forth across it are what make it stronger. We have little power in the face of multinational corporations and governments, but what power we can glean comes from knitting a community in cyberspace. It is a place for free speech and it is better to have a hundred people around you freely saying things you disagree with (you can always 'Back' away) than for the whole edifice to be brought down by censorship.


With that off my chest, I turn to the focus of today's maps. As noted, yesterday, much of the emphasis in fantasy from the 1910s onwards up to the 1960s and even today, has been worlds with huge continents and sweeping plains that allow epic stories. However, a couple of excellent authors looked for something different and this, I feel is reflected in the worlds they created. The first in Michael Moorcock (born 1939) who really defies categorisation as his more than 70 novels cover so many genres. In addition, characters from different series of his books start popping up in other worlds that he creates. He developed the concept of the 'multiverse' a common point of discussion of numerous parallel worlds. In his 'Nomad of the Time Streams' trilogy: 'The Warlord of the Air' (1971), 'The Land Leviathan' (1974) and 'The Steel Tsar' (1981) he explores a whole host of 'what if?' worlds. The book which made him famous, 'Behold the Man' (1969) most radically envisages that the man who was crucified at Golgotha in 33 AD was not Jesus the son of Joseph from Nazareth because he was a mentally retarded youth who cleaned the carpenter's workshop, but rather a Jewish American time-traveller from our times. This clearly questions the divinity of Christ (something not all Christians believe in) and what makes a religion whether it is God or belief.


Many of Moorcock's books also feature different manifestations of the 'Eternal Champion'. The most developed of these is Elric of Melniboné. He appears in 'Stormbringer' (1965; revised 1977), 'The Sleeping Sorceress' (1971; also known as 'The Vanishing Tower'), 'Elric of Melniboné' (1972), 'The Sailor on the Seas of Fate' (1976), 'The Weird of the White Wolf' (1977), 'The Bane of the Black Sword' (1977), 'Fortress of the Pearl' (1989), 'Revenge of the Rose' (1991), 'The Dreamthief's Daughter' (2001), 'The Skrayling Tree' (2003), 'The White Wolf's Son' (2005). Elric was intentionally the opposite of muscle-bound heroes like Conan. He was weak, anaemic, an albino and dependent on medicines and then a life-draining sword, to sustain him. He works in a world with Law and Chaos rather than Good and Evil (if you equate Law with good, remember regimes like that of the Soviet Union were very 'Lawful' in the strict way they ran their society and hippies can be seen as 'Chaotic' though not evil). He kills the love of his life, he betrays the Empire of which he was emperor, he makes pacts with demons and becomes weaker as the books progress. Clearly Moorcock was seeking to subvert the established fantasy conventions, though he continues to operate in an environment of magic, epic battles, castles and dragons.


So to the map. Elric lives in the world of the Young Kingdoms (though regularly goes into other dimensions and alternate worlds). As you can see, this is another with a North and South continent (well in fact two northern continents) with sea in the middle, and you can compare this with Pern and Glorantha. Melniboné is an island as is its main rivals Pan Tang (I think the Young Kingdoms must be the only imaginary land to provide the name of a pop group, I know there is music associated with 'The Lord of the Rings' but the Tygers of Pan Tang - a heavy metal group formed in 1978 whose music is still available to buy and download, they do still seem to be recording). This means that battles are more likely to be seaborne. Elric does wander the world, but is more likely to go into alien dimensions than the epic rides across open plains. One noticeable thing about this map, drawn by William Church is the styling. It manages to combine clarity with a sense of the exotic. Many maps of imaginary places are either mundane or difficult to read, this is neither and really marks it out in this category:

The other author who broke conventions in writing fantasy, possibly because she was a woman, is Ursula Le Guin (born 1929) with her Earthsea tetralogy (quintology): 'A Wizard of Earthsea' (1968), 'The Tombs of Atuan' (1972), 'The Farthest Shore' (1974), 'Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea' (1990), 'The Other Wind' (2001) and the world of Earthsea has featured in many of her short stories from 1964 onwards. The books feature magic and much is around the School of Magic on the Island of Roke, which, I feel must have had at least some influence on J.K. Rowling's Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter cycle. However, despite the fantasy elements a lot of the focus is on human behaviour and relationships rather than epic battles of the old tradition. Again, this more human focus may be reflected in the world of Earthsea which is very fragmented into numerous islands. Le Guin has produced scores of novels, short stories and poetry collections and has done translations and non-fiction too. This is Earthsea or Hain as its inhabitants call it:

Now, just one little oddity to add in, that I stumbled across when making up this 'Atlas' which in fact is far from comprehensive and only scratches the surface of some of the better known fantasy worlds. This is Mongo as featured in the Flash Gordon series. This started as a comic strip series by Alex Raymond (1909-1956) in 1934 (it ran until 1993 and in some forms to 2003), 5 years after the successful Buck Rogers was launched (this ran to 1967). It also spawned movie serials in 1936, shown on British television as late as the 1980s. There was a movie in 1980 with Max von Sydow, Topol, Brian Blessed, Richard O'Brien and Timothy Dalton all over-acting to the hilt. There have been innumerable radio shows and novels and this year there are plans for a new 22-part television series. Mongo was a planet which moved around and threatend Earth when it came into our solar system. Its technology was more advanced than ours but it had a societal structure that seems to have been based on Imperial China, hence its ruler, the cruel Emperor Ming the Merciless (the real Ming dynasty ruled China 1368-1644). Some aspects and some of the costumes however seem to reflect the 19th century Central European flavour of Ruritania. The planet had different areas: sea, forest, desert, etc. and different species suited to the various realms, such as the Hawkmen and Lizardmen. I came across this map of the planet, which shows that islands in an imaginary world do not mean a more human perspective as Flash Gordon has all the muscle-bound, epic nature of a Conan, it is just it gives him a chance to work in a range of different environments.

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