Maps, Dragons, and Navigating a Way Out of Here

  • 2021-22
Joker with the face of a map

My abiding memory of Geography lessons at school was the moment that the teacher asked us to open a clean double-page and lay flat our exercise books, while he inked and spread a roller over the fresh pages, leaving a slightly smeary impression of a dark map on the white paper.

The Mercator map effectively flattens the globe – imagine the segments of a chocolate orange laid out, and you get the idea. It enlarges and distorts some land-masses at the top of the globe, such as Canada or Greenland, while less generously representing territories at the equator. You can see the effect here, applied to the United States. 

Map of America

It was Mercator who came up with the idea of setting squares of regional maps and overlapping them in one long ongoing work, giving it the name ‘Atlas’.

I used to love looking through heavy, hard-backed atlases. They revealed the names of places that seemed impossibly distant and that I could only dream of visiting one day. For me, the experience of scrolling through digital maps, while much easier, will never have quite the same magic or appeal.

As a hobby, my father went through a phase of producing old maps etched on copper plates. I’m not sure how he did it, but for many years one of these stood above the fireplace in our family home, complete with wind roses, and areas of the globe labelled scarily  ‘terra incognita’.

The legend ‘Here be Dragons’ was mysteriously written on maps to mean dangerous or unexplored territories, in imitation of the medieval practice of illustrating the uncharted areas of maps with dragons and sea monsters.

I’ve always been attracted by maps more for their beauty rather than their accuracy. The more useful and practical maps were always stuffed into the side pockets of my parents’ car, a little rumpled from frequent use. Like the car, they were devices for getting from A to B, rather than yielding the treasures of the atlas at home.

Map of dragons

Maps, of course, are about representing places scaled to a convenient size.

One of my favourite short stories by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, entitled The Exactitude of Science, talks of an ancient map that survives only in ragged and crumbling fragments, but which has the scale 1:1, and once covered the whole surface of the earth.

Of course, it is not only surface area that is represented by maps; it is also political power.

Map Divina Commedia

It is no accident that early maps had Jerusalem at their centre, including those illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy, which reflected the dominance of Christian belief. 

Nor is it an accident that the meridian at zero degrees longitude on modern maps passes through London (Greenwich, to be exact), reflecting the power of the British Empire at the time such measurements were introduced.

Blue has long operated as the universal colour used when depicting seas and oceans, but it is also revealing to discover which colours are regularly used to represent certain countries.

World Map Upside Down

Again, from childhood, I was used to seeing Great Britain and the British Empire represented as pink. It has been commented that this pastel colour benignly illustrates the blood that was shed in achieving an empire upon which the sun never set.

Of course, while we always think of the world map being organised in terms of north and south, these are just arbitrary labels. The earth does not have a top or a bottom in that sense. There is no up or down in space. It’s just a conventional way of regarding the globe.

In fact, maps could just as well be represented the other way round. And if they were, it really would change the way we think about the way the world is organised, and transform our perception of the power relations between countries and land-masses.


You can tell the history of the world through cartography, from the way national boundaries are constantly re-drawn, and from the frequency with which countries are renamed. Depending where you are in the world, Israel, Macedonia and Tibet for instance might not even appear on some maps, given the territorial disputes that surround them.

You can, in fact, map almost anything these days, including celestial star charts, fun satirical maps,  and more recently maps of our DNA. You can even map the human body. Each of these has its own unique appeal and fascination. 

All such maps are available everywhere on smartphones, along with other amazing digital resources such as GPS, Google Maps, and Google Earth apps.

Paris Metro Map

I have a long-standing admiration and affection, however, for the analogue London Underground map. In this iconic map, the basic geographical structure is respected but the Tube lines (and the River Thames) are simplified to clarify the relationships between stations. Near the centre of the map, stations are spaced out more than near the edges of the map.

Madame Bovary Map

And I still relish looking at old mappa mundi, and share with the writer Joseph Conrad the attraction to the remote blank spaces on early Admiralty maps, as well of course as treasure maps such as this from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

I also love the moment in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, when the heroine Emma, bored with life in the provinces, goes walking dreamily along the streets of Paris with her fingertips on a map.

We all have maps in our heads of places that mean something to us and that will never appear on a rectangular grid of plotted coordinates. Perhaps in the end it is these inner maps that matter more, the uncharted maps of the human head or heart. 

Which takes me to another story by Borges. One day:

‘a man determines upon the task of portraying the world. As the years pass, he peoples a space with pictures of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, dwellings, instruments, stars, horses and people. Shortly before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his own face.’

Map of Jesus Christ

Which in turn reminds me of Claude Mellan’s incredible Sudarium of Saint Veronica (1649), in which remarkably the artist engraves the image of Christ’s face with a continuous single line. It’s an astonishing piece of work, almost miraculous in its intricacy of composition.

It would be nice to project a map of the future. Imagine a map from which we can navigate a way out of Covid, moving beyond the yellow, orange and red zones, towards the bluer end of the spectrum, representing health.

This would also seem like a miracle.

This map, I would put on my wall. 

Chris Greenhalgh
Principal & CEO

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