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When I was young, I’d spend hours in the attic, poring over the maps I found behind the yellow-framed covers of my dad’s old National Geographic magazine collection: The Amazon River basin and rainforest, the South Pacific Islands, the classical lands of the Mediterranean, the West Indies, the Far East. These faraway places (and, in some cases, long-ago times) became more real than they were before I spread the poster-sized pullouts on the dusty floorboards.
They didn’t actually become more real, of course, but I gained some understanding of the shape and space and boundaries of places I’d never been and will likely never visit. I’ll never walk in the footsteps of Ernest Shackleton, placing my feet in his outsized footprints like a child walking behind his father in the fresh-fallen snow, but here on paper I can trace his path with my finger, mouth the name of this cape or that glacier, imagine the scope of the horizon. When you can’t scale a mountain ridge, a crease in the map is the next best thing.
It’s the same way with places that don’t actually exist. To this day, my favorite part of a novel is the map in the front of the book. The lines that mark out an inland sea, a winding path through the woods, the secret location of a hidden slave camp, the road that meanders away from town to parts unknown — each of these makes a location more real to me than it was before. It gives shape and space and boundaries to the places of my imagination.
In the right sorts of stories, a map can reinforce the truth of what we find there. It’s a funny thing, that line between what’s true and what’s real, and it’s sometimes difficult to understand. Yet the best of fiction incarnates — it puts flesh on — the truth of who we are, of the nature of the world we live in, of our roles and responsibilities to each other and to our God.
In the same way that the best of fiction incarnates — puts flesh on — the truth, the best of maps incarnate fictional worlds. When I see the borders of the Shire or Glipwood Township or Mossflower Woods or Fern Hollow or Natalia or Narnia, the stories are made more true precisely because the world is made more real.
Mapping makebelieve blurs our distinctions between truth and reality — and in the most pleasurable way. So make the map at the front or back of that novel the most thumbed page in the book. Smudge its lines with popcorn grease. Dogear the corner so it’s easy to find. Frame it and hang it on your wall. Spread it out on the attic floor and trace its paths with your finger. When you can’t find your own way through Mirkwood, a map is the next best thing.