The Uncertain Geography of Fairyland, By Jocelyn Koehler
Editor's note: Occasionally, EC has guest posts from authors, and that's what we have today. Jocelyn's investigation into the "unmappable" nature of fairyland really grabbed my attention. She's right! Her book, End to End, came out this month.
As a longtime reader of fantasy, the first thing I look for in a book is the map. You know, the one at the front that shows everything the reader ought to know: the royal city, the protagonist's little village, the forbidden mountain ranges and the dividing seas. The map is one of the clearest indications that you are about to read a fantasy novel.
As I grew older, I started to read and write more fairy tales. However, a problem arose. Whether it was the Grimms’ dark forest, or Perrault’s more extravagant twilights, or even the dreamy world of MacDonald’s Phantastes, one thing became obvious. There is no way to pin down Fairyland. True fairylands are mutable by nature, and as such, unmappable. In a fairy tale, a wish can make a mountain grow. A curse can hide a kingdom inside a raindrop. And everywhere, there is The Forest. Not a forest, not many forests. When you go into the woods, it’s always the same wood, and you find all the tales waiting for you there. Shakespeare knew how to use forests; in As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Forest is where reality takes a back seat to love and other magics.
That isn’t to say people don’t try to map these mythical places. There’s a beautiful Anciente Mappe of Fairyland (find the link below), but you will see that lovely as it is, such a map won’t get you safely to the next town. More modern fantasy worlds share this quality of changeability too. Think no further than Hogwarts. As any reader knows, Hogwarts features hidden towers, shifting stairs, and rooms that only exist if you have need of them. Even within the book, there’s the always-active Marauders Map. What’s a wanderer to do?
When publishing my own collection of fairy tale retellings, End to End, I had to decide whether to include a map. It was a difficult choice. The terrain is integral to the tales. In one, a gateway in a forest opens into a strange floating world, giving a twist to the usual telling of Tam Lin. The "floating world" (or ukiyo) becomes literal, and the protagonist must find her way through a waterbound city where reflections and reality often switch places. In my version of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, to reach the kingdom underground one must make a mental journey as much as a physical one. To keep a sense of continuity, the mysterious underground place is yet another floating world of darkness and water. And in the final story, the heroine's part of world is severed from the rest of world by magic, leaving the inhabitants to fend for themselves. That isolation and uncertainty shapes the heroine's personality. In each case, the geography of the story matters, but it’s also true that the geography can’t be trusted.
Ultimately, I chose not to make a map to my world, because I thought it presumptuous to offer a guide to a place that even the residents can’t be sure of. From night to night, it will shift, leaving the unwary stranded. What is the point of mapping such a place? It's meant to be explored and discovered by each reader.
Of course, real world maps can be shifty as well. Think that every street you see on a map is one you can walk down? Think again. Paper streets are cartographic traps to keep others from stealing all the hard work of the original mapmaker. They are lies, existing only on the rendering. Try to go there in real life, and you’ll find nothing. It is only because most of the real world stays the same from day to day that we feel secure in our maps. Mapping is an act of confidence, a statement that what you see is what you get. Fairy tales refute this notion at every step. A bear turns into a prince. A pumpkins turns into a coach (and back again). If we readers accept these mutations, why should we expect to rely on a map of fairyland? In these stories, all the streets are made of paper.
And that’s why readers still want to walk down them.
Click on source links below:
An Anciente Mappe of Fairyland
More about End to End
More about paper streets
Bio: Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Some of her creative fiction has appeared in places like Crossed Genres, Actionman Magazine, and BURST. Her longer fiction is published by Hammer & Birch. Her latest book is End to End, available May 21, 2013 everywhere ebooks are sold.
To learn more about Jocelyn, click on links below: