Saturday, December 3, 2016

REVIEW: Stefan Ekman's Here Be Dragons

Just finished Stefan Ekman's Here Be Dragon: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings. Without beating around the bush, this is a truly innovative book with an insightful approach, and it took a perspective I'm not instinctively attracted to -- i.e., a non-human-centric ecocritical approach -- and managed to produce some valid insights within popular fantasy literature.***  Indeed, unlike some other recent books on popular fantasy, Ekman's insights didn't make it sound as if he hated fantasy literature -- always a positive! All in all, quite a book book.

(***As a teenager, I loved maps and songs in fantasy novels. Over the maps in particular I would study for hours -- the one I remember being most fascinated by was the map for David Eddings's Belgariad. Now, I tend to skip both the maps and the songs in fantasy songs. Older and wiser? Who's to say?)

Anyway, here's an annotation interspersed with commentary. Enjoy!

Ekman, Stefan. Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2013. Print.

Rather than argue for a topofocal (or placed-focused) definition of fantasy, Ekman argues for topofocal readings of fantasy (2)—he’s skeptical of “the assumption that characters are more important than setting and people more important than place” (214). Basically working as an ecocritic, someone whose literary analysis focuses on the intersection between literature and the physical environment, his “object of study” here are fantasy text that falls close to LOTR in the fantasy “fuzzy” set. As an ecocritic, Ekman’s also a fan of the “stewardship” theory of LOTR.
The second chapter works with maps-- although I thought the fourth chapter about cities and the "nature-culture" sliding scale most theoretically interesting, I think most readers will find this section about maps the most useful. Ekman distinguishes between
  • maps as paratextual
  • maps as docemes,a clear part of an overall document or documenting process. 

Thinking of fantasy maps as docemes puts a stronger emphasis on the relations between text and map—like the treasure map in Treasure Island or Thror’s map. Ekman thinks “fantasy maps can be fruitfully interpreted as both paratexts and docemes” (22). 

Standard features of fantasy maps: most maps depict a secondary world or part of it, rather than a city (5%) or building or building complexes (2%). Fantasy “maps largely follow the modern convention of placing north at the top” (25) so tend not to reflect alien forms of mapmaking. Unmappable portions on maps, like a circumfluent world-ocean, are relatively uncommon. Only 1/3 of maps in the sample clearly set in northern or southern hemispheres, the former being more common. Very few have anything to say about projection. Common topographical elements include mountains, coastlines, and rivers; less common are distinctions between villages, towns, and cities. Inns and rest stops almost non-existent. Also, much fewer political maps than topographical maps. Intriguingly, the signs used for mountains and hills (hill signs) “offer a useful litmus test in relating the fictional map to maps of actual historical periods” (39); medieval and Renaissance signs tend to dominate, pursuing “a pre-Enlightenment aesthetic” (41).

“Fantasy, especially high fantasy, offers a chance to break with the conventions of the actual world and invent new rules for mapmaking (or return to previous ones), but such inventiveness is actually very rare” (42).

But what makes this section really good is that Ekman produces a pretty good reading of Tolkien's Shire based only on the map of that place -- really, I hadn't ever considered analyzing maps quite like this before. Because the Shire map does not admit the presence of anything outside of it, Ekman says it suggests “the insular mentality of the Shire hobbits” (44). It’s also both a fictional map in a fiction Red Book and an actual doceme in LOTR. Roads also dominate in the map, emphasizing the Shire’s accessibility, and that it’s also a “landscape tamed” (47)—in general, Ekman credits Tolkien for privileging tamed nature over feral nature. “The control of the landscape is particularly apparent in the division of the land into four administrative areas: the north, east, west, and south farthings” (47). Also, by cutting out elements that could be dated (like cut-down trees), “the map’s tense is not just the present, but a constant present” (49). Map features also tend to run to the modern rather than the medieval. Tolkien’s other maps offer different stories, though: “according to the larger map, Middle-earth is a wilder, older place, and the map is much more explicitly made to serve the story” (55).

The following chapters then borrow Lubomir Dole┼żel’s notion of domains, which are things “in which contrary modal conditions reign” (9). Chapter 3 does geographically-divided worlds, Chapter 4 does nature–culture divided worlds, and Chapter 5 does myth–mundanity divisions. I particularly liked the fourth chapter. Ekman looks at cities, human creations that seem to exist -- depending on the author's viewpoint -- on the slide scale between nature and culture. Tolkien emphasizes tame nature over culture as well as feral nature in Minas Tirith. Charle de Lint's Newford has little bubbles of wild nature disrupting the "hegemonic" culture of Newford, whereas China Mieville completely deconstructs the nature-culture binary.

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