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A Palimpsest of Maps: When the Eye Uncovers the World Beneath

Perhaps what is inexpressible (what I find mysterious and am not able to express) is the background against which whatever I could express has its meaning.

— Ludwig Wittgenstein

Maps preceding a work of fiction lay out a world, one that literally unfolds as the covers are parted and the ink-stained pages imply a kind of destiny. Often times, the map is the first thing the reader sees inside of the book, forcing her to actually pull apart that world, since the cover is often stiff, or needs a bit of tenderness, if that book is timeworn. Fingers touch the map. Whether it’s historical fiction or a work of Fantasy, the map(s) provide the reader’s eyes with a place to dance — not unlike the unique shape of a poem — where words are intertwined with symbols, mountains become upside-down V’s and rivers are marked by turbulent ~’s. Something else seems to lie beneath that map, beyond the veil, a hidden meaning far more magical than the words of the pages that follow, but only magical because of those words. A map can express the mysterious more through what it implies than what it directly signifies. We see a map and have real world experience through maps of cities we live in, in places we’ve never been, but know they exist. The fantastical map is like the place across the ocean that we dream of visiting. Perhaps a map of Antarctica is no more real to someone like myself than a map of Middle Earth. In fact, I know far more about Middle Earth than Antarctica, more about the nature of Smaug than the polar bear.

A curious analogy could be based on the fact that even the hugest telescope has to have an eye-piece no larger than the human eye.

— Ludwig Wittgenstein

A hand-drawn map is marked by its blank spaces as much as the markings upon it. Rather than a cognitive alphabet in the creator’s head, there is a blank page, space as daunting and inspiring as the sky. Whatever ‘stylus’ is used to carve out the hidden world beneath that blankness might begin to move on its own — like an Ouija planchette should — as the hand holds on and the eyes follow. An entire mountain range might be hidden by the palm of the drawing hand, until that snaking river is carved in its passage and the hand moves, only to reveal a tributary coming from the base of that formerly hidden mountain. Something lurks in those peaks, a creature who always faces the East and looks down on that newly uncovered river system, since those waters flow to the churn of the sea even farther to the East, the place where game is plentiful, the turbulent realm where an eternal storm makes sea-travel impossible… Line by line, the stylus in the hand of the one who watches etches away at the imagined world, a world that existed long before that blank page was ever placed upon the table, a latent story that was waiting, waiting until a meagre pair of eyes would look down and see a fragment of its infinitude. A whole world lies in a glance, even if that world will never be fully realized, not by the writer/mapmaker. All of the readers will evoke their own versions of that world, with their own backstories, side-missions and alternate endings. If all of those readers were taken as attributes of the Nature of that world, then that world is realized. There lies the beauty and the curse of it, like ingredients for the Spell, scattered across the universe and never able to coalesce into a certain kind of magic.

The light work sheds is a beautiful light, which, however, only shines with real beauty if it is illuminated by yet another light.

— Ludwig Wittgenstein

And yet… If the collective readership were able to somehow intertwine their many worlds into a singular one, wouldn’t that bind the gift of their own imagined world? There is a certain responsibility of the reader to engage with the words of what she chooses to read, to dedicate her time and energy towards. There is no greater gift than that of time, since love is committing time to another, a calling, the same. The gift to the reader is that the world she creates is hers. She might find companionship in others who share a love for that particular world, but nobody will ever know ‘her’ Middle Earth the way she does. When she looks at the map, the etchings that reveal the once hidden palimpsest do point to a destiny, one that belongs to her, a destiny that reveals more blank pages, with other worlds waiting to be seen, line by line.

Hayden Moore

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