Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Here be dragons: in celebration of illustrated maps

Do you ever wish you hadn't googled something (apart, of course, from anything medical)? - Well, I wish I hadn't googled the phrase "here be dragons"... I have been thinking a lot about maps, illustrated and otherwise, recently - and started thinking about all those maps bearing this phrase. I used to love the image that it conjured up, of medieval cartographers (in my mind they are illuminating - and illuminated - monks, with a proper sense of the absurd), diligently delineating the known world, and then reaching the end of their knowledge and inserting a jaunty dragon. Imagine being so bound up in accurately recording something for posterity and then being forced to go no further. "Here be dragons" in my mind became a symbol for the terror, and the rich mytholgical possibilities, of the unknown: just as the pillars of Hercules at the gates of the Mediterranean bore the injunction non plus ultra, to warn adventurous sailors to go no further - a literal warning that beyond the plillars lay "nothing" itself - so hic sunt dracones served as an exhortation to cast one's mind no further beyond the limits of knowledge.

To me, they made maps more than just a physical geographical guide, but turned them into something which both told a story (and I've always loved a story), and acted as a guide to the limits and navigation of knowledge. They also seemed to confirm the analogy between physical and mental exploration.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when I tried to find some maps bearing this phrase to rekindle my imagination and discovered that it only exists on one map - and that that map is actually a globe (the Hunt Lenox globe - a tiny little sixteenth-century globe that is now in the collection of the New York public library). If you look below, you will see that the dragons appear to live on the south-east Indian sub-continent - and that the coast is pretty well delineated. So much for the limits and possibilties of knowledge - my monks probably just didn't know how to spell Pondicherry....

Nevermind - my love of maps that tell stories remains (mind maps not included - they do not tell a story), as does my fascination with Grayson Perry's map etchings. He doesn't always call them maps, but that is absolutely what they seem to be. They may not be a map of a recognisable place, and they may be full of judgement-laden labels as to population and perversion, but maps they nevertheless are (and I have seen more than my fair share of judgement-laden colonial maps).

He started out with "Map of an Englishman" - a "phrenology" of the island of his mind, surrounded by seas of agoraphobia, delirium, etc. (back to the early seventeenth century, and John Donne: "No man is an island,/ Entire of itself./ Each is a piece of the continent, A part of the main./ If a clod be washed away by the sea,/ Europe is the less./ As well as if a promontory were./ As well as if a manor of thine own/ Or of thine friend's were./ Each man's death diminishes me,/ For I am involved in mankind./ Therefore, send not to know/ For whom the bell tolls,/ It tolls for thee."):

Then came a "Map of Nowhere", with sixteenth-century inspiration from Thomas More's Utopia (though it also reminds me of one of those giant archaic family trees which map out a dynastic lineage all the way back to Jesus - usually via Charlemagne):
"The starting point for this print was Thomas More's Utopia. Utopia is a pun on the Greek ou topos meaning 'no place'. 'I was playing with the idea of there being no Heaven. People are very wedded to the idea of a neat ending: our rational brains would love to tidy up the mess of the world and to have either Armageddon or Heaven at the end of our existence. But life doesn't work like that - it's a continuum."

It is striking how Elizabethan the Map of Nowhere looks - think back to all of those illustrations at the back of school copies of Shakespeare plays, full of the "Elizabethan world view", and the spheres, and chains of being, and the like (the chain of being, incidentally, ran from God to Rocks - via angels and duchesses and squires and yeoman farmers and household servants and tenant farmers and beggars and actors and gypsies and worms and plants; all in that order, with just a few omissions...). The Elizabethans, we are often told, had a strictly hierarchical view of the things, and were obsessed with ordering - and mapping - the world. Given the political and religious turmoil of the age - and, most especially, the exploration of the New World - this seems entirely understandable. They were venturing beyond the non plus ultra, into the land of dragons and America and Protestantism; mapping and charting it as they went must have provided some paltry sense of mastery over the unknown, as well as a means of telling the story of its discovery.

In fact, it is Perry's Map of an Englishman which bears more resemblance to More's Utopia, and looking at Utopia now, it is striking how brain and head-like, More's island is:

There is obviously something metaphorically compelling about islands (think of Robinson Crusoe), and their ability to provide us with a means of self-examination... More's island-map has no dragons; they are instead replaced by such equally mythological concepts as commonality, compassion and equal humanity. In a way, because sixteenth and seventeenth-century thinkers knew the limits to their knowledge, it was natural that maps should include a beyond - and it is in this sense, perhaps, that maps and islands and the like became a credible and logical way to outline a "beyond" in terms of philosophy, morality, or politics. To a certain extent, what Perry is doing is inverting this: we know our world, there is no place for dragons - but try to map out the labels that we use, or the world in which we live, in terms other than those purely physical, and the results are as terrifying and nihilistic as dragons ever were.

This all began with my recent discovery of Grayson Perry's Print for a Politican (details from it are above and below - for the full thing, see the Guardian: here) - which is a thing to be scrutinised, laughed at and admired. Here are some close-ups, the real thing is huge:

I want to reinstitute illustrated maps as an art form beyond just the world of Tolkien, and Agatha Christie and Jilly Cooper novels (superior as they all are): and first I want an illustrated map of Edinburgh: where are the romantics, and the socialists, and the male chauvinist pigs? This is a call to arms, Edinburgh monks, map illuminators, and other artists.

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