- Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings by Stefan Ekman
Here Be Dragons is an exceptional study of fantasy literature that pays critical attention to fantasy landscapes and argues that setting-based readings, which Stefan Ekman terms topofocal readings, offer a rich, unexplored area of critical investigation. Ekman’s study is well grounded in fantasy scholarship, and he demonstrates that although setting has been the focus of several studies, it is still an understudied area that typically emphasizes the connections of setting to character and plot rather than focusing on setting as the primary [End Page 133] point of interest. Ekman argues that settings deserve equal critical attention and that fantasy settings in particular are important because of “fantasy’s characteristic ability to create, within its fictive worlds, new rules for how things work” (214). Ekman offers four topofocal approaches—maps, borders and boundaries, nature and culture, realms and rulers—which he demonstrates with extensive close readings of several fantasy texts.
The book is organized around the four approaches, with a chapter devoted to each, and includes an introduction, a conclusion, and an appendix for the methodology of Chapter 2. The individual chapters are meant to be understandable as stand-alone studies, which would make them easy to use in a classroom. The introduction convincingly argues that topofocal readings can illuminate elements of individual texts and fantasy as a genre that are missed in traditional approaches. Ekman’s “What Is Fantasy?” section is noteworthy for its clear and concise synthesis of the most commonly used critical definitions of fantasy as a genre; it would be an excellent selection for undergraduates as an introduction to the genre.
Chapter 2 surveys fantasy maps, a ubiquitous feature of the genre. Ekman clarifies that fantasy maps are not maps in the traditional sense because they do not show real places. Rather, in fantasy, “To create the map means, largely, to create the world of the map” (20). Ekman distinguishes between maps that reflect the fantasy world and those that are artifacts of it, which results in two functions: paratext and doceme. He draws on the work of Niels Winfeld Lund to explain that docemes are part of a document or documentation process that can be “isolated” and analyzed (20). Ekman’s focus on reading maps as part of the world-building process reveals a great deal about the fantasy worlds and the worldviews they contain. The chapter surveys a number of fantasy maps and ends with a thorough close reading of the “Part of the Shire” map in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring (1954). Even though Here Be Dragons includes an appendix outlining Ekman’s methodology in this chapter, the chapter itself could use a more detailed explanation how his sampling was randomly chosen.
Chapter 3 explores divisions between different areas, offering a compelling explanation of how narration dictates the description of landscape. In this chapter Ekman examines borders and polders that separate mundane and otherworldly domains, and Ekman argues that these boundaries are more about connections than divisions. He examines thresholds in works by Steven Brust, Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess, Garth Nix, Tolkien, Robert Holdstock, and Terry Pratchett. The discussion of Nix’s Old Kingdom/Abhorsen series does not mention death as a domain, which is an odd omission given the chapter’s earlier examination of borders that divide the lands of the living from those of [End Page 134] the dead. The attention to Faerie as a realm, however, makes this chapter particularly interesting for those working with fairy lore or contemporary fairy tales that include Faerie as a place as well as fairy tales where quests lead characters into other realms.
Chapter 4 complicates the nature-culture binary, introducing a continuum that accounts for human control of nature and nature reclaiming human structures. Ekman traces the philosophical debate of whether humans are a part of nature or distinct from it, and he posits that fantasy works are able to construct nature and culture outside this duality because the worlds themselves are constructed...