Brain Pickings

Legendary Lands: Umberto Eco on the Greatest Maps of Imaginary Places and Why They Appeal to Us

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“Often the object of a desire, when desire is transformed into hope, becomes more real than reality itself.”

Celebrated Italian novelist, philosopher, essayist, literary critic, and list-lover Umberto Eco has had a long fascination with the symbolic and the metaphorical, extending all the way back to his vintage semiotic children’s books. Half a century later, he revisits the mesmerism of the metaphorical and the symbolic in The Book of Legendary Lands (public library) — an illustrated voyage into history’s greatest imaginary places, with all their fanciful inhabitants and odd customs, on scales as large as the mythic continent Atlantis and as small as the fictional location of Sherlock Holmes’s apartment. A dynamic tour guide for the human imagination, Eco sets out to illuminate the central mystery of why such utopias and dystopias appeal to us so powerfully and enduringly, what they reveal about our relationship with reality, and how they bespeak the quintessential human yearning to make sense of the world and find our place in it — after all, maps have always been one of our greatest sensemaking mechanisms for life, which we’ve applied to everything from the cosmos to time to emotional memory.

Eco writes in the introduction:

Legendary lands and places are of various kinds and have only one characteristic in common: whether they depend on ancient legends whose origins are lost in the mists of time or whether they are an effect of a modern invention, they have created flows of belief.

The reality of these illusions is the subject of this book.

Saint-Sever World Map, from the 'Saint-Sever Beatus' (1086), Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France

T and O map, Bartholomaeus Angelicus, 'Le livre des propriétés des choses' (1392)

Tobias Swinden, 'En Enquiry into the Nature and Place of Hell' (1714), London, Taylor

Section of the 'Tabula Peutingeriana' (12th-century copy)

Map of Palmanova, from Franz Hogenberg and Georg Braun, 'Civitates orbis terrarum' (1572–1616), Nuremberg

Eco considers the allure of utopias as a tangible manifesto for the possible:

Often the object of a desire, when desire is transformed into hope, becomes more real than reality itself. Out of a hope in a possible future, many people are prepared to make enormous sacrifices, and maybe even die, led on by prophets, visionaries, charismatic preachers, and spellbinders who fire the minds of their followers with the vision of a future heaven on Earth (or elsewhere).

Anonymous, 'Jain Cosmological Map' (c. 1890), gouache on canvas, Library of Congress

'Ulysses' Journey Was Far from Home' | M.O. MacCarthy, 'Carte du monde d'Homère' (1849), New York Public Library

Map of the world according to Hartmann Schedel, in 'Liber chronicarum' (Nuremberg Chronicle), Nuremberg (1493)

Woodcut map of the island of Utopia on frontispiece of the 1st edition of Thomas More's 'Utopia' (1516), British Library

There is, however, an inevitable dark side to utopias, whose very presupposition of perfect happiness can itself become a burdensome form of oppression. Eco writes:

We would not always want to live in those societies recommended to us by utopias, because they often resemble dictatorships that impose happiness on their citizens at the cost of their freedom. For example, [Thomas] More’s Utopia preaches freedom of speech and thought as well as religious tolerance, but limits them to believers and excludes atheists, who are barred from public office, while it warns that “if someone takes the license to wander far from his own district and is caught without the pass issued by the supreme magistrate … he is severely punished; if he dares to do so a second time, he is condemned to slavery.” Moreover, utopias have the quality, as literary works, of being somewhat repetitive, because in wishing for a perfect society, we always end up by making a copy of the same model.

Illustration for Jules Verne's 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869-1870)

Abraham Ortelius, 'Map of Iceland' (16th century)

Above all, however, Eco sees in the imaginary a counterintuitive assurance of reality — fictional narratives, in a strange way, is the only place where we can become unmoored from our existential discomfort with uncertainty, for in fiction everything is precisely and unambiguously as it was intended:

The possible world of narrative is the only universe in which we can be absolutely certain about something, and it gives us a very strong sense of truth. The credulous believe that El Dorado and Lemuria exist or existed somewhere or other, and skeptics are convinced that they never existed, but we all know that it is undeniably certain that Superman is Clark Kent and that Dr. Watson was never Nero Wolfe’s right-hand man, while it is equally certain that Anna Karenina died under a train and that she never married Prince Charming.

The Book of Legendary Lands is magnificent in its entirety. Complement it with Codex Seraphinianus, history’s most beautiful encyclopedia of imaginary things, and Where You Are, a wonderful case study in cartography as wayfinding for the soul.

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