The Taming of the World: A Report from the Edges

From a young age, I’ve been a voracious reader. I read science. I read history. I read fantasy and science fiction. Given these genres, I also became an enthusiastic viewer of maps. Particularly in fantasy, maps served as frontispieces highlighting the tall cities, ominous bogs, or mysterious islands central to the plot. These landmarks should have captivated me, and they did; however, what interested me more was the nondescript repetition of trees or hills that filled the gaps between important places. The edges. It was like the cartographer had stopped for a sandwich and never quite gotten around to asking the locals what was over on those moors. Or maybe got knocked out by bandits and woke up on the other side of the forest and, well, do I really want to go back and see what’s in there? Nah, probably not safe. Here be dragons. Here be edges.

What wonders hid or skittered beneath the forest fastness on Tolkien’s map of Wilderland? What lived in the shade of those dark spots just south of the River Running?

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What hidden creeks or dry rocky outcroppings dotted the archipelago on LeGuin’s Earthsea map?

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What chatty animals dwelt under the yellow and green checkered woodland on Baynes’ Narnia map?

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Or lived and farmed the land along the River Moss north and west of Redwall Abbey?

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Overall, I would have rather sailed the unmarked river than explore the fire mountain of Salamandastron. I would have rather rambled along the largely un-described river valleys south of Hobbiton than visit Minas Tirith. Even today, the unlabeled forests southwest of Bald Mountain on this map of the excellent Witcher 3 do more for me than massive, beautifully realized Novigrad to the north.

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Edges were, and are, interesting. But why?

An Ode to Edges

In part, the edges were often those areas that most resembled the places I knew well. I had never seen a mountain, never seen an abbey, never beheld a thousand islands scattered over the ocean like sea-glass on the sand. But I had seen the dappled play of sunlight on the muddy river in summer. I had played in the sea of tiger lilies that filled the woodland floor south of my house. I had seen the big old stones from ancient watermills half-buried in a hundred years of forest growth. These ordinary, mundane places were the sites where I invented kingdoms and myths. I grew up with a deeply felt certainty that an army of run-of-the-mill tree symbols promised adventures greater than did all the cities and magical realms.

But if I could imagine adventures in these ordinary edge places, the inverse was also true. The edges were doorways to the fantastic. The tales of Bilbo, Ged, or Martin the Warrior were sacrosanct, and I never felt like I could project myself into those stories without departing from the narrative the author intended. I didn’t want to be the forgotten fifteenth member of Thorin’s Company. I didn’t want to be Ged’s unmentioned BFF. However, I could imagine that I were a curious local in one of those edge spaces, glimpsing Thorin’s Company ascending into the Misty Mountains. I could imagine bumping into Ged on a nondescript street in Havnor. And so I loved maps because they were filled with edges that let me imagine myself into stories.

The World Without Maps or Edges

Of course, Pratchett’s world turns all of this upside down. As Anne has occasionally reminded me, Pratchett gave us a way to think about maps right in beginning, with The Colour of Magic:

“You can’t map a sense of humor. Anyway, what is a fantasy map but a space beyond which There Be Dragons? On the Discworld we know that There Be Dragons Everywhere. They might not all have scales and forked tongues, but they Be Here all right, grinning and jostling and trying to sell you souvenirs.”

—Terry Pratchett, The Colour of Magic

So no maps. No blank spaces. We have already gone beyond the edge of the map, but somehow the beyond ends up being right here in our own familiar places. Both Thief of Time and Troll Bridge dig into this concept, exploring the way that the wildest, most lawless beings end up circumscribed within a mundane world:

“Death looked down at the world. Timelessness had reached the Rim now, and was expanding into the universe at the speed of light. The Discworld was a sculpture in crystal.

Not an apocalypse. There had always been plenty of those—small apocalypses, not the full shilling at all, fake apocalypses: apocryphal apocalypses. Most of them had been back in the old days, when the world as in ‘end of the world’ was often objectively no wider than a few villages and a clearing in the forest.

And those little worlds had ended. But there had always been somewhere else. There had been the horizon, to start with. The fleeing refugees would find that the world was bigger than they’d thought. A few villages in a clearing? Hah, how could they have been so stupid! Now they knew it was a whole island! Of course, there was that horizon again…

The world had run out of horizons.”

—Terry Pratchett, Thief of Time

Small apocalypses use up the world, always pushing the edge of the unknown back. But Pratchett calls these apocalypses false, and that seems like a clue to understanding his world.

I’ve talked about this tendency before. Whereas many fiction writers invite us to mourn for the decline of magic, Pratchett resists that reading (even though this is pretty much what happens between our introduction to the world in The Colour of Magic and—unless things really get weird in the three hundred pages after Raising Steam—our farewell in The Shepherd’s Crown). Yet I don’t feel disappointed, at least up through Thief of Time.

By Pratchett’s own statement, we started this journey already beyond the edge of the known world. While traveling further beyond with Rincewind, we discovered that what’s out there is pretty much the same as what’s here. That’s a very Pratchettian ideal, that people everywhere are basically the same—same good, same bad, same indifferent—and whatever their cultural and racial differences you can expect similar from them. Here Be Dragons is just a way of dressing up I Don’t Know. Meanwhile, under speculatively drawn forests and in noncommittally sketched hills, people get on with their lives.

“When the first explorers from the warm lands around the Circle Sea travelled into the chilly hinterland they filled in the blank spaces on their maps by grabbing the nearest native, pointing at some distant landmark, speaking very clearly in a loud voice, and writing down whatever the bemused man told them. Thus were immortalised in generations of atlases such geographical oddities as Just A Mountain, I Don’t Know, What? and, of course, Your Finger You Fool.”

—Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic

The story of Discworld writ large is all about the clash of known with unknown, civilized with uncivilized (that is, from the point of view of the “civilized”). It’s about the tension between reconciling with, and resisting, change and assimilation. How do you reconcile magic with the clacks? How much resilience to change do you need to show if you’re a dwarf in the big city, far from home and tradition? In another writer’s hands, this could seem uncomfortably like colonization, and at times it sort of does. But it’s clear that Pratchett is well aware of this, as these tensions become the morally ambiguous backbone of stories like The Fifth Elephant, Thud!, Snuff, and Raising Steam.

Chaos and Castles

In its own way, Thief of Time is rife with the tension between reconciliation and resistance. All kinds of things cross over the edge from the wild and supernatural into the tame and ordinary. Pratchett observes that Chaos is “Kaos with his hair combed and a tie on,” which in turn becomes Ronnie Soak, milk man. Godlike anthropomorphic personifications like War now have families. The child of Time is either a thief or a clock-maker. The heir to the House of Death is a schoolteacher. A cosmic being falls in love with chocolate. And in the wider context these characters subsist in a world in which magic-slinging, throat-cutting wizards would now rather stay at home, thank you, while clacks send messages flickering across the lands. This should be disappointing. Do we really want to find that the fantastic has become ordinary? Do we really want the whole world to be mapped?

But in Pratchett’s hands, it doesn’t feel disappointing. At the end of Thief of Time, Ronnie becomes Chaos again, and he tells Death that he’ll be keeping the milk round even though he’ll be rejoins Death, War, and the others as one of the Five Horsemen. This is the funny thing about Pratchett. Because the world at every level is mostly just the same humdrum, inane game, it ultimately collapses together with relative ease and not too much loss. More often than not, Discworld (especially later on) is really about whittling down puzzle pieces just enough for them to fit together. Everyone loses a little, but no one loses all. Everyone gains the benefit of the whole. The final trajectory of this world is toward reconciliation.

This is why the Discworld doesn’t need maps. It doesn’t have edges. And when we do get maps, they’re either pretty disposable (see featured image) or often just serve to send us further into the already-sketched world, not further out:

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I don’t care if I get to see the big castle at center right, but I’d love to explore those woods in the middle, in between the little hamlets. In the final picture, the wild world and the settled world are the same place.

To a guy who was once a kid who built imaginary castles in the lilies under the weedy trees in the twilight in the summer, this seems about right.


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