CAMBRIDGE — If you stop to think about it, maps are very strange things. They guide us. They direct us. We trust them. Yet they’re inherently fictive. The names on them are real enough, but how can some lines on a screen or piece of paper be anything other than the faintest approximation of the locations they’re meant to represent?
Wallace Stevens called one of his most famous poems “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” Maps are lines toward a supreme fiction. Maps of real places are, in execution if not use, as much works of the imagination as maps of fictitious places are.
Of course, in an age of automotive navigation systems, it’s not as if people ever think about maps. Just name your destination, and your car’s GPS or whatever tells you how to get there. A driver is simply a navigation system’s way of getting where the navigation system needs to go. Say this for such systems: Once you’re done with them, at least they don’t require trying to figure out how to fold them up again.
What inspires these thoughts is a thoroughly enchanting show at the Harvard Map Collection that doesn’t so much embrace the inherent fictiveness of maps as dance a tango with it and throw in a wink or two.
Curated by the collection’s Bonnie Burns, “From Academieland to Zelda: Mapping the Fictional and Imaginary” runs at the collection through Nov. 3. The collection is located (an important word when the subject is maps) in Pusey Library, in Harvard Yard.
The 41 maps on display geographically depict places found in TV shows (“The Simpsons,” “Twin Peaks”), TV shows that became movies (”Star Trek” -- and, come to think of it, “Twin Peaks” again), movies (”Star Wars”), video games (”Fortnite,” “Final Fantasy”), fairy tales (“Mother Goose”), children’s literature (the Tintin books, “Katie and the Big Snow”), even actuarial tables and the internet.
Actuarial tables? Well, sort of: A grimly cheerful piece of cartography produced in 1940 by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company shows various awful things that can happen to a person. The idea is to encourage that person to purchase some — wait for it — life insurance.
Related to “Charting Your Course Through Life,” as that map is called, are two about love. One, from the 18th century, takes a rather dour view of matters of the heart. The other, from 1943, is positively giddy at the prospect of romantic possibility. This even extends to its vaguely Hefner-ish title, “A Pictorial Map of Loveland.”
All right, death and love, fine, but … the internet? The Net’s certainly not imaginary, but as a physical location it is. The genius (not too strong a word) of Martin Vargic’s rendering is to show the internet as it might have looked in a 16th-century map of the world. Protocol Ocean is at the top, for example, where the Arctic Ocean is on regular maps. The size of various “geographic” entities reflects their popularity nine years ago. Zoom, TikTok, Spotify, and Netflix would look a whole lot larger now. Internet Explorer would be gone or close to it.
(Speaking of the 16th century, two Mercator globes share the same space as the show, though they’re not part of it. These are marvelous objects, the only matched pair in America. One dates from 1541, of the surface of the Earth; the other, of the heavens, from 1551. They are cartographic landmarks, state of the art for their time, but also — kind of — by our standards — a mite fictive?)
As beguiling as so many of the maps are visually, their contexts and backstories can be even more so. Pauline Baynes worked with both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis on maps for Middle-earth and Narnia. Both are in the show. David Lynch brought his charcoal sketch of Twin Peaks, Wash., to a pitch meeting with ABC executives, trying to sell them on a certain television series. It worked.
Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” series of fantasy novels gets two maps, this despite Pratchett’s long having rejected the idea of a geographic representation. “There are no maps,” he explained. “You can’t map a sense of humor. Anyway, what is a fantasy map but a space beyond which There Be Dragons?” Happily, he eventually came around.
The appeal of the two Oz maps on display is enhanced by learning that they were “Published by The International Wizard of Oz Club by Royal Appointment of Her Gracious Majesty Ozma of Oz MCMLXXV.”
Shapes matter. Talking dragons live on the dragon-shaped island of Pyrrhia, the site of Tui Sutherland’s “Wings of Fire” series. Sometimes the shape of an imaginary place can summon up the real world. The shape of Vvardenfell, from the “Elder Scrolls” game series, is a bit like that of France. In outline, Westeros, from “Game of Thrones,” recalls Britain. Who needs a Red Wedding when you can have a Red Brexit?
Sizes matter, too. The map on display for “The Princess Bride” is no bigger than the size of the paperback book containing it. There are two maps of Hyrule, from the “Legend of Zelda” video-game series. The one made by Matthew Cogswell is 60 inches by 50 inches.
On the fictive/real front, the map from “Lyra’s Oxford,” by Philip Pullman and John Lawrence, stands out. Derived from Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” novels, it shows an actual, GPS-recognizable place, Oxford, except that this version isn’t quite that place. As the legend on the map says, “Oxford by Train, River and Zeppelin.”
Any good map is as much about the text that’s part of it: legends, insets, labels, even driving distances (let’s hear it for AAA maps). That can be true of exhibitions, too; and “From Academieland to Zelda” is that rare show where what you read is as much of a treat as what you see.
A map of the island of Sodor, where the Thomas the Tank Engine stories take place, is introduced: “really, who hasn’t wondered what the home island of Thomas and his friends is like? How far is Sir Topham Hatt making them chug every day? Are they being paid? We have questions.”
They also have answers — and instructions. “Look at the maps. They are fun.” Would that all exhibition wall texts were so sensible, succinct, and incontrovertible.
Note: Although the Harvard Map Collection is open only by appointment, the space where “From Academieland to Zelda” is on display is open to the public Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
FROM ACADEMIELAND TO ZELDA: Mapping the Fictional and Imaginary
At Harvard Map Collection, Pusey Library, Harvard Yard, Cambridge, through Nov. 3. 617-495-2417. library.harvard.edu/libraries/harvard-map-collection
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.