Maps and views blog

Cartographic perspectives from our Map Librarians

10 February 2015

Off the Map: Alice and the Gleaming Spires

By the way, the British Library and Gamecity's third annual Off the Map competition is now underway.

For those of you unfamiliar with the competition, the plan is to get a load of hyper- talented student video game design and digital art teams to create video games based on British Library maps, sounds and texts. This year’s theme coincides with the Library’s free Autumn 2015 exhibition: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

1929EnglishLiteraturedetRand McNally, A Pictorial Chart of English Literature, Chicago, 1929. [detail, with Alice, Hare and Mad Hatter visible in Daresbury, Dodgson's birthplace]. British Library Maps 1080.(78.). Included in this publication.

Now, maps don’t appear too prominently in Lewis Carroll’s novels. In fact, I can’t recall a single map in any of the literally ones of Lewis Carroll novels I’ve read, but that doesn’t really matter since the Alice novels use a variety of settings which feature prominently in maps: underground, and the garden, being two of the choices to recreate in videogame form.

Places are essential to fiction. Every ‘make-believe’ place, even Wonderland, has its basis in reality. Or maybe it is a coincidence that The Shire in J.R Tolkien’s Middle Earth happens to accord with the part of rural Yorkshire where he holidayed, or –with the coming of heavy industry in the final book - the Black Country where he lived. I think not.

It is, admittedly, difficult to see anything of North Eastern shipbuilding coal mining Sunderland, a place Carroll visited on numerous occasions, in his work. But it is certainly easier to glimpse something of Oxford and the quiet Christ Church Meadow – away from the bustling high street. This is of course where Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and vice versa), whilst a student then maths lecturer at Christ Church, befriended Alice, the daughter of the Dean of that college.  

Dodgson (Carroll) or Carroll (Dodgson) later told how he had made up the story whilst rowing three young girls on the River Isis (this is what people from Oxford call the River Thames). The story is set on the riverbank in Christ Church Meadow, an idyllic area of fields right next to the college and Oxford town centre. It is from there that Alice falls asleep falls down the rabbit warren – and there the fun begins.

David_Loggan_-_Oxonia_Illustrata,_1675_-_Christ_Church_College_(BL_128.h.10).tifDavid Loggan, Collegium Aegis Christi. From Oxonia Illustrata. Oxford, 1675. Engraving. British Library 128.h.10 [from the King's Topographical Collection - support its preservation here].

Oxford is therefore an important choice as our third place. One of our assets is this engraving of Christ Church College by the artist David Loggan, published in 1675. The Meadow is visible to the right of the college, which is strangely separated from its surroundings, in a peculiarly M.C. Escher-ish way. But look also at the complex series of buildings, with gates, doors into walled secluded gardens, secret, tucked away, private and unexpected. This is the place where digital videogame stories can begin.

Sign up to Off the Map here, and keep in touch with the progress of Off the Map, here and here.

Tom Harper