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The secrets of old maps


March 5, 2016

When you think about maps, what do you think of? The street directory, full of boxy squares and faded colours? Google maps, with its ‘you are here’ green arrow?

These are the maps that we use today. Detailed. Precise. Useful.

But they are not the maps that inspired The Mapmaker Chronicles.

Those maps, the antique maps I saw in my head as I wrote about the race to the end of the world, are glorious illustrations full of wild adventure. The earliest maps are short on detail and long on imagination. They show us what our ancestors knew about the world – but, even more so, what they did not.

Vast swathes of empty space are filled with mermaids and sea monsters. Cherubs blow angry winds from the corners. It’s as though the explorers came back with a few squiggles on a page and said ‘well, this is what we’ve got – sort the rest out will you’? and a clever illustrator let his imagination loose.
If you stare at them long enough, you get some idea of how enormous the world must have been to those early sailors. Now, we talk about how ‘small’ the world has become. We can visit any country, at any time, via the internet. Images of Paris, London, New York and Dubai fill our heads to such a degree that when we visit them for the first time, we almost feel as though we’ve already been there.

But, imagine seeing a whale for the first time. A python. An elephant.

Imagine how endless an ocean might feel when you didn’t know if you would ever run into land again. Or worse, that, one day, that ocean might simply cascade off the edge of the world, down into an abyss from which you would never return.

Now imagine how much courage it took to get in a ship and set sail to map the world…

© A.L.Tait, 2015


A.L. Tait is the author of The Mapmaker Chronicles, the epic adventure trilogy about a race to map the world…and a boy who really doesn’t want to go. Because, as A.L. says, ‘When you think long and hard about it, who would?’

You can find more information about the ‘art and science’ of making maps here.