We get a thrill whenever we come across descriptions of the wonders of maps in the world of literature. It all started for us with the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who in The Hound of the Baskervilles has Sherlock Holmes describing the transporting power of a map, and even referring to Stanfords by name as his chosen source of cartographic inspiration.
Here, then, are a collection of the best quotes that we’ve compiled over the years – and you can be sure we’ll be adding more whenever we make a new discovery – or add your own in the comments field at the bottom of the page…
James M Barrie
Prominent among the curses of civilisation is the map that folds up “convenient for the pocket.” There are men who can do almost everything except shut a map. It is calculated that the energy wasted yearly in denouncing these maps to their face would build the Eiffel Tower in thirteen weeks.
Shutting a Map in An Auld Licht Manse and Other Sketches, page 113 (1893). Taken from Cartophilia (1980).
‘My plan was to make a sweep westwards in the direction of Malaga and approach the Alpujarra from the further side. There too, in the Axarquía, I would find villages perched above the sea, and perhaps one of them would prove suitable for my purpose. But I had not taken in the problems offered by the map. The only one available was the Mapa Provincial, a small, luridly coloured sheet, about the size of a handkerchief, and intended chiefly as a reference chart for officials. It marked the villages, though not always in the right positions, but it left out the mountains and gave a purely schematic picture of the rivers and streams. I need not speak of the roads, because few of them had been built at this time, and most of my travelling would be done on mule tracks.’
South From Granada chapter: The Alpujarra (1957).
‘I returned to England and waited for winter to go. I spent an absurd amount of time shopping for things for the trip – a travel alarm clock, a Swiss Army knife, a bright green and yellow rucksack, which my wife assured me would be just the thing if I decided to do any gay camping – and spent a day crawling around the attic searching for my beloved Kummerly and Frey maps. I bought nearly the whole European set in 1972 and it was one of the few intelligent investments of my younger years. What am I saying? It was the intelligent investment of my younger years.
‘Printed in Switzerland, with all the obsessive precision and expense that that implies, each Kummerly and Frey map covered one or two countries within its smart blue and yellow folders. Unfolded, they were vast and crisp and beautifully printed on quality paper. Best of all, the explanatory notes were in German and French only, which gave them a exotic ring that appealed to me in 1972 and appeals to me still. There is just something inherently more earnest and worldly about a traveler who carries maps with titles like ‘Jugoslawien 1:1 Mio’ and ‘Schwarzwald 1:250,000′. It tells the world, Don’t fuck with me. I’m a guy who knows his maps.’
‘I went over to the stone bench that had been thoughtfully conveyed to this lofty summit for the benefit of weary chaps like me – it really is extraordinary how often you encounter some kindly gesture like this in Britain – and took out my Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 map of Purbeck. As a rule, I am not terribly comfortable with any map that doesn’t have a You-Are-Here arrow on it somewhere, but the Ordnance Survey maps are in a league of their own. Coming from a country where mapmakers tend to exclude any landscape feature smaller than, say, Pike’s Peak, I am constantly impressed by the richness of detail on the OS 1:25,000 series. They include every wrinkle and divot of the landscape, every barn, milestone, wind pump and tumulus. They distinguish between sand pits and gravel pits and between power lines strung from pylons and power lines strung from poles. This one even included the stone seat on which I sat now. It astounds me to be able to look at a map and know to the square metre where my buttocks are deployed.’
Notes from a Small Island (1992).
‘I saw then in my Dream, that they went on in this their solitary ground, till they came to a place at which a man is apt to lose his way. Now tho’ when it was light, their Guide could well enough tell how to miss those ways that led wrong, yet in the dark he was put to a stand; but he had in his Pocket a Map of all ways leading to or from the Cœlestial City; wherefore he struck a Light (for he never goes also without his Tinder-box) and takes a view of his Book or Map, which bids him be careful in that place to turn to the right – hand way. And had he not here been careful to look in his Map, they had all in probability been smothered in the Mud, for just a little before them, and that at the end of the cleanest way too, was a Pit, none knows how deep, full of nothing but Mud, there made on purpose to destroy the Pilgrims in.’
‘Then thought I with myself, who that goeth on Pilgrimage but would have one of these Maps about him, that he may look when he is at a stand, which is the way he must take?’
The Pilgrim’s Progress, paras.722-723 (1678) from The Harvard Classics.
‘He had brought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.
“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!
Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank”
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best—
A perfect and absolute blank!”‘
The Hunting of the Snark, Fit the Second (1876).
Miguel de Cervantes
‘Journey all over the universe in a map, without the expense and fatigue of traveling, without suffering the inconveniences of heat, cold, hunger, and thirst.’
Don Quixote, part 3, chapter 6 (1605-15).
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
‘There is a delightful freshness about you, Watson, which makes it a pleasure to exercise any small powers which I possess at your expense…..
Where do you think that I have been?’
‘A fixture also.’
‘On the contrary, I have been to Devonshire’
‘Exactly. My body has remained in this armchair; and has, I regret to observe, consumed in my absence two large pots of coffee and an incredible amount of tobacco. After you left I sent down to Stanford’s for the Ordnance map of this portion of the moor, and my spirit hovered over it all day. I flatter myself that I could find my way about.’
‘A large scale map, I presume?’
‘Very large.’ He unrolled one section and held it over his knee. ‘Here you have the particular district which concerns us. That is, Baskerville Hall in the middle.’
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902).
‘Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look like that) I would put my finger on it and say, “When I grow up I will go there”.’
Heart of Darkness (1902).
‘In the leading machine the Head of the Air Force was sitting beside the pilot. He had a world atlas on his knees and he kept staring first at the atlas, then at the ground below, trying to figure out where they were going. Frantically he turned the pages of the atlas.
“Where the devil are we going?” he cried.
“I haven’t the foggiest idea” the pilot answered. “The Queen’s orders were to follow the giant and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
The pilot was a young Air Force officer with a bushy moustache. He was very proud of his moustache. He was also quite fearless and he loved adventure. He thought this was a super adventure. “It’s fun going to new places,” he said.
“New places!” shouted the Head of the Air Force. “What the blazes d’you mean new places?”
“This place we’re flying over now isn’t in the atlas, is it?” the pilot said, grinning.
“You’re darn right it isn’t in the atlas!” cried the Head of the Air Force. “We’ve flown clear off the last page!”
“I expect that old giant knows where he’s going”, the young pilot said.
“He’s leading us to disaster!” cried the Head of the Air Force. He was shaking with fear. In the seat behind him sat the Head of the Army who was even more terrified.
“You don’t mean to tell me we’ve gone right out of the atlas?” he cried, leaning forward to look.
“That’s exactly what I am telling you!” cried the Air Force man. “Look for yourself. Here’s the very last map in the whole flaming atlas! We went off that over an hour ago!” He turned the page. As in all atlases, there were two completely blank pages at the very end. “So now we must be somewhere here,” he said, putting a finger on one of the blank pages.
“Where’s here?” cried the Head of the Army.
The young pilot was still grinning broadly. He said to them, “That’s why they always put two blank pages at the back of the atlas. They’re for new countries. You’re meant to fill them in yourself.”‘
The BFG, pages 161-163 (1982).
‘There is a great deal of unmapped country within us which would have to be taken into account in an explanation of our gusts and storms.’
Daniel Deronda, bk.3, ch.24 (1876).
J R Farrell
‘Picture a map of India as big as a tennis court with two or three hedgehogs crawling over it…each hedgehog might represent one of the dust storms which, during the summer, wander aimlessly here and there over the Indian plains, whirling countless tons of dust into the atmosphere as they go…until the monsoon rolls in and squashes them flat.’
The Siege of Krishnapur (1973).
‘Cleomenes, however, was on the throne when Aristagoras of Miletus came to Sparta. According to the Spartan account, Aristagoras brought to the interview a map of the world engraved on bronze, showing all the seas and rivers, and opened the conversation in the following way: “I hope, Cleomenes, that you will not be too much surprised at my anxiety to visit you. The circumstances are these. The Ionians should have become slaves in place of free men is a bitter shame and grief not only to us, but to the rest of Greece, and especially to you, who are the leaders of the Greek world. We beg you, therefore, in the name of the gods of Greece, to save from slavery your Ionian kinsmen. It will be an easy task, for these foreigners have little taste for war, and you are the finest soldiers in the world. The Persian weapons are bow and short spears; they fight in trousers and turbans – that will show you how easy they are to beat! Moreover, the inhabitants of that continent are richer than all the rest of the world put together – they have everything, gold, silver, bronze, elaborately embroidered clothes and beasts of burden and slaves. All this you may have if you wish. I will show you the relative positions of the various nations.’
‘Here Aristagoras produced the map he had brought with him.
‘Look’, he continued, pointing to it, ‘next to the Ionians here are the Lydians – theirs is a fine country, rich in money. Then come the Phrygians, farther east, richest in cattle and crops of all the nations we know. And here, adjoining them are the Cappadocians – Syrians, we Greeks call them; and next to them the Cilicians, with their territory extending to the coast – see, here’s the island of Cyprus – who pay annual tribute to the Persian king of five hundred talents.’
‘Now, the Armenians – they, too, have cattle in abundance; and next to them, here, the Matieni. Again farther east, lies Cissia: you can see the Choaspes marked, with Susa on its banks, where the Great King lives, and keeps his treasure. Why, if you take Susa, you need not hesitate to compete with Zeus himself for riches. You should suspend your wars over a scrap of land – and poor land at that – with your rivals the Messenians and Arcadians and Argives, who have nothing whatever in the nature of gold or silver which is worth fighting and dying for, when you are offered the chance of an easy conquest of the whole land of Asia. Is there really any choice between the two?’
The Histories (c450-420 BC).
Joshua 18, 3-9
‘(3) So Joshua said to the Israelites: “How long will you wait before you begin to take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, has given you? (4) Appoint three men from each tribe. I will send them out to make a survey of the land and to write a description of it, according to the inheritance of each. Then they will return to me. (5) You are to divide the land into seven parts. Judah is to remain in its territory on the south and the house of Joseph in its territory on the north. (6) After you have written descriptions of the seven parts of the land, bring them here to me and I will cast lots for you in the presence of the LORD our God. (7) The Levites, however, do not get a portion among you, because the priestly service of the LORD is their inheritance. And Gad, Reuben and the half-tribe of Manasseh have already received their inheritance on the east side of the Jordan. Moses the servant of the LORD gave it to them.” (8) As the men started on their way to map out the land, Joshua instructed them, “Go and make a survey of the land and write a description of it. Then return to me, and I will cast lots for you here at Shiloh in the presence of the LORD.” (9) So the men left and went through the land. They wrote its description on a scroll, town by town, in seven parts, and returned to Joshua in the camp at Shiloh.’
The Book of Joshua.
‘Nor would I have it thought presumption that a person of very mean and humble station should venture to discourse and lay down rules concerning the government of Princes. For as those who make maps of countries place themselves low down in the plains to study the character of mountains and elevated lands, and place themselves high up on the mountains to get a better view of the plains, so in like manner to understand the People a man should be a Prince, and to have a clear notion of Princes he should belong to the People.’
The Prince, Dedication to the Magnificent Lorenzo Di Piero De’ Medici, paragraph 3 (circa 1513).
‘I also took a candle, nine Michelin maps and two Touring Club Italiano maps for Italy…I also started off with some excellent green Michelin regional guide books…’
Wimbledon to Italy by Bicycle (1971), A Traveller’s Life.
‘He missed browsing in Stanfords, the map shop on Long Acre, and was overjoyed when he discovered their website. Maps began to arrive, along with guidebooks to places Martin had never visited. Inspired, he ordered everything Stanfords offered on Amsterdam, and covered his bedroom walls with maps of that city.’
Her Fearful Symmetry, page 47.
‘As geographers, Sosius, crowd into the edges of their maps parts of the world which they do not know about, adding notes in the margin to the effect that beyond this lies nothing but sandy deserts full of wild beasts, and unapproachable bogs.’
Life of Theseus (circa 75 AD).
‘Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: The neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.’
Statements at Presentation of In Your Hands: A Guide for Community Action for the Tenth Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1958).
‘I cannot help thinking that on discussions of this kind, a great deal of misapprehension arises from the popular use of maps on a small scale. As with such maps you are able to put a thumb on India and a finger on Russia, some persons at once think that the political situation is alarming and that India must be looked into. If the noble lord would use a larger map – say one on the scale of the Ordnance map of England – he would find that the distance between Russia and British India is not to be measured by the finger and thumb, but by a rule.’
Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, New Edition, page 413.
Twelfth Night, Act 3 Scene 4 (circa 1600).
‘Come, here’s the map. Shall we divide our right,
According to our threefold order ta’en?
‘The Archdeacon hath divided it
Into three limits very equally.
England from Trent and Severn hitherto
By south and east is to my part assigned;
All westward-Wales beyond the Severn shore
And all the fertile land within that bound-
To Owain and Glyndwr; (to hotspur) and, dear coz, to you
The remnant northward lying off from Trent.
And our indentures tripartite are draw,
Which, being sealed interchangeabley-
A business that this might execute-
Tomorrow, cousin Percy, you and I
And my good lord of Worcester will set forth
To meet your father and the Scottish power,
As is appointed us, at Shrewsbury.
My father, Glyndwr, is not ready yet,
Nor shall we need his help these fourteen days.
Within that space you may be drawn together
Your tenants, friends, and neighbouring gentlemen.’
Henry IV, Act 3 Scene 1 (circa 1597).
Robert Louis Stevenson
‘The bundle was sewn together, and the doctor had to get out his instrument-case, and cut the stitches with his medical scissors. It contained two things – a book and a sealed paper…. The paper had been sealed in several places with a thimble by way of seal; the very thimble, perhaps, that I had found in the captain’s pocket. The doctor opened the seals with great care, and there fell out the map of an island, with latitude and longitude, soundings, names of hills, and bays and inlets, and every particular that would be needed to bring a ship to a safe anchorage upon its shores. It was about nine miles long and five across, shaped, you might say, like a fat dragon standing up, and had two fine land-locked harbours, and a hill in the center part marked ‘The Spy-glass’. There were several additions of a later date; but, above all, three crosses of red ink – two on the north part of the island, one in the south-west, and beside this last, in the same red ink, and in a small, neat hand, very different from the captain’s tottery characters, these words: “Bulk of treasure here”.’
Treasure Island (1881).
‘Having some time at my disposal when in London, I had visited the British Museum, and made search among the books and maps in the library regarding Transylvania; it had struck me that some foreknowledge of the country could hardly fail to have some importance in dealing with a noble of that country. I find that the district he named is in the extreme east of the country, just on the borders of three states, Transylvania, Moldavia, and Bukovina, in the midst of the Carpathian mountains; one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe. I was not able to light on any map or work giving the exact location of Castle Dracula, as there are no maps of this country as yet to compare with our own Ordnance Survey maps; but I found that Bistritz, the post town named by Count Dracula, is a fairly well-known place. I shall enter here some of my notes, as they may refresh my memory when I talk over my travels with Mina.’
Dracula, Chapter One: Jonathan Harker’s Journal (1897).
Henry David Thoreau
‘Though the words Canada East on the map stretch over many rivers and lakes and unexplored wildernesses, the actual Canada, which might be the colored portion of the map, is but a little clearing on the banks of the river, which one of those syllables would more than cover.’
Canada East and Lower Canada were early 19th-century political designations including most of what is now the Province of Quebec.
A Yankee in Canada (1853), in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, vol. 5, page 40 (1906).
The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1895).
Discover more quotes from travel writing and other literature, and add your finds in the comments field below!