Skip to Main Content

Lady Margaret Hall Library: Storied Maps

This is a previous exhibition, but if you are interested in viewing one of the objects you can make an appointment (email Exhibitions in the library rotate once or twice a year. Have a look at our current exhibitions to see what's on at the moment.

Here & Nowhere

Map of Oxford with table of distances to neighbouring towns.

1 of 4 | Maps of the Past

Most of the maps in this exhibition accompany stories of mythic, fictional or spiritual landscapes, but let’s start where we are: in Oxford. Maps are not the place itself, but always a story of it, and this one tells of an Oxfordshire of the past.

A Direction for the English Traviller is small enough to slip into the ‘traviller’s’ pocket. The title page goes on to explain that readers will be ‘inabled to Coast about all England and Wales’ with the help of this 1643 road atlas. On the page shown here, a map of Oxfordshire squeezes into the corner of a table which can used to look up ‘how farre any Market or noteable Towne in any Shire lyeth from an other,’ measured in miles.

This book was given to LMH Library by Katherine Mary Briggs (1898–1980). A folklorist and alumna of LMH, Briggs contributed several books to our collection, and our rare books room was named the Briggs Room after her.

Mathew Simons, A Direction for the English Traviller: By Which He Shall Be Inabled to Coast About All England and Wales (London, 1643). Briggs Room 912.42 17

Decorated map of 'The Lands of the Mabinogion'.

2 of 4 | Lands of Myth

‘coincidence of place and myth contributes greatly to the enduring mysterious charm of The Mabinogi’ – John K. Bollard

Land in The Mabinogion is almost a character itself. A set of medieval Welsh tales based on even older myths and legends, The Mabinogion was created during a time when the geographical and cultural landscape of Wales was threatened by Norman invasion. Although these stories are magical, the landscapes are recognisably Britain and Ireland, particularly the west coast of Wales (or occasionally Otherworlds, though these are still accessed through real sites). It is not always clear whether real place names mentioned in The Mabinogion were drawn from the stories or if the stories were responses to the places.

Our copy includes Dorothea Braby’s (1909–87) maps of mythic Britain; their specificity reinforces this connection between land and story, place and culture. It is a limited edition English translation from 1948, and was given to us by LMH alumna Cynthia Borough (LMH 1919–22). 

The Mabinogion, trans. by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, ill. by Dorothea Braby (London: Golden Cockerel, 1948). Briggs Room 891.633 4

Map of Utopia.

3 of 4 | A Map of ‘Nowhere’

How do you map nowhere? It’s a problem that has perplexed illustrators of Thomas More’s (1478–1535) Utopia since it was first published in Latin in 1516.

More chose the name ‘Utopia’ for his fictional island. Now used as a generic term for an idealised world, it incorporates the Greek for both ‘good place’ and ‘no place’. Was More suggesting that an ideal place is always impossible?

This paradox – a place that is no place – is reflected in More’s mathematically inconsistent descriptions of the island’s geography: the given measurements do not support each other or the island’s crescent moon shape. While this makes mapping it accurately a problem, it does liberate illustrators to imagine their own vision of the Utopian island.

Thomas More, Utopia, ed. by J. H. Lupton, trans. by Ralph Robynson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1895). Gallery Floor 823.23 1

Close up of characters in foreground of Utopia map.

4 of 4 | ‘Verie like in England’

It has been suggested that the interpretation shown here is deliberately shaped as a skull, with the ship as teeth.  This 1895 copy of Utopia reproduces a woodcut from the 1518 edition, which was Ambrosius Holbein’s (c. 1494–1519) version of the island. It is labelled with the capital city, Amaurote, and the source and mouth of the river Anyder. In the bottom left corner, the character Hythloday describes the island to More, while the other foreground figure may be Peter Giles (1486–1533). Giles was a real person: a friend of More’s who appears as a character in Utopia, blurring the border between the real and fictional worlds.

While Utopia may be an imaginary nowhere-land, it is informed by real places. In marginal annotations usually printed alongside the main text, Utopia’s river Anyder is compared to the Thames: ‘The verie like in England the riuer of Thamys.’ Slightly further down the page, we are told that ‘doeth London agre with Amaurote’: the capitals of Utopia and England share geographical features. These notes may have originally been added by Peter Giles, More himself, or another of their friends, Erasmus (1466–1536). Echoes of the real world emphasise the satirical aspects of the narrative.

Thomas More, Utopia, ed. by J. H. Lupton, trans. by Ralph Robynson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1895). Gallery Floor 823.23 1

Maps of Middle-earth

Map of sites from 'The Lord of the Rings'.

1 of 4 | Fantasy Lands

‘I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit’ – J.R.R. Tolkien

Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are stories of journeys through the geography of Middle-earth. Journeys through invented lands are a popular story structure in fantasy literature, and much of the reader’s experience is in accompanying characters on their quest through the setting. Maps are consequently important to this genre. But as Peter Hunt points out, Middle-earth is ‘a secondary world that borrows heavily from England’ – or at least from a literary, nostalgic idea of England and the history evident in its landscapes. The relationship between real and imaginary landscapes is complicated.

Detailed maps contribute to this: they include place names rooted in real places, and highlight the land as a central theme. Tolkien (1892–1973) sketched several maps of his fantasy version of Earth, which were then rendered for publication by his son Christopher and other illustrators. LMH alumna Barbara Strachey (1912–99) referred to these maps, as well as textual clues, when assembling her Middle-earth atlas, Journeys of Frodo.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1955). Gallery Floor 824.29 32

Manuscript map of Gondor and Ered Nimrais.

2 of 4 | ‘Home is behind, the world ahead’

Barbara Strachey studied History at LMH before working for the BBC. Later in life, she moved to a house in Jericho where she began to write. One item she worked on while living there was this manuscript copy of Journeys of Frodo; its many alterations show us the care she took in tweaking her 51 maps until they were accurate companions to Tolkien’s text. The thick red line tracing the Fellowship’s journey reinforces the importance of journeying in this genre. It is also inflected with Hobbit culture, noting where possible the location of ‘Lunch’.

Our copy of The Lord of the Rings once belonged to Lucy Sutherland (1903–80), who was principal of LMH 1945–1971.

Barbara Strachey, Journeys of Frodo [MS]. Archives

Manuscript map of Hobbiton to Brandywine Bridge.

3 of 4 | Mapping Middle-earth

This folder contains further drafts of Strachey’s maps. She explains her reasoning behind adjustments to Tolkien’s maps and her own drafts: in this one, she shortens a distance based on how far a Hobbit could run in ten minutes. In an earlier draft, she writes of becoming frustrated with calculating the lunar cycle and decides to omit ‘all mention’ of this, but she must have reached a solution as moon phase symbols reappear here and in the published version.

Barbara Strachey, Journeys of Frodo [MS; maps]. Archives

English and Italian versions of maps from 'Journeys of Frodo'.

4 of 4 | I Viaggi di Frodo

It is a creative challenge for a translator to transfer the ‘sense of place’ in a place name from one language to another – particularly when translating someone with Tolkien’s fascination with languages. Strachey’s atlas was popular enough to be translated into several languages, including this Italian version.

In this map, ‘North’, ‘South’ and ‘East Farthing’ have become ‘Decumano Nord’, ‘Sud’ and ‘Est’. Tolkien used ‘Farthing’ in its archaic English sense of a division of land (into quarters); Italian translators of The Lord of the Rings have substituted with the term ‘Decumano’, referencing ancient Roman settlement planning, to create a similar sense of history in the land.

Barbara Strachey, Journeys of Frodo: An Atlas of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981). Gallery Floor 824.291 46

Barbara Strachey, I Viaggi di Frodo: Un Atlante di J.R.R. Tolkien Il Signore degli Anelli, trans. by Francesco Saba Sardi (Milan: Rusconi, 1982). Archives

Through the Inferno

Etched diagram of Dante's ninth circle of Hell.

1 of 5 | Navigating the Inferno

Like many protagonists of medieval stories, Dante the character first loses his way in a dark forest. With Roman poet Virgil’s ghost as his guide, he must navigate his way through Hell. The Inferno’s setting operates as both a geographical place through which the characters journey, and as a moral landscape. Dante’s path is allegorical of spiritual progress.

Readers are invited to join the characters on their journey. Map-like diagrams of Hell make this 1544 edition of Dante Alighieri’s (1265–1321) three-part epic poem the Divina Commedia into an atlas we can hold in our hands, a guide to us as Virgil is to Dante. Possibly engraved by Giovanni Britto (c. 1500–50), these illustrations fall somewhere between maps and sequential art: we see Dante and Virgil (helpfully labelled ‘D’ and ‘V’) progress through ‘frames’ in space and time. These tiny figures make a pilgrimage across the pages.

Dante Alighieri, La Comedia di Dante Aligieri con la Noua Espositione di Alessandro Vellutello, ed. by Alessandro Vellutello, ill. by Giovanni Britto (Venice: Francesco Marcolini, 1544). Briggs Room 851.153 2

Close up of figures in Dante's ninth circle of Hell.

2 of 5 | Navigating the Inferno

The page shown here functions as a pictorial map of Cocytus, the frozen lake that forms the ninth circle of Hell, with measurements given at the bottom. Around the lake’s edge stand giants. At its centre is its source: Lucifer, who became stuck here when he fell from Heaven and formed the lake with his tears. Its different rounds are labelled: Caïna, for traitors to family; Antenora, for traitors to country; Ptolomaea, for traitors to guests; and Judecca, for traitors to masters or benefactors. Their souls are frozen in the lake. The opposite of the map of Utopia, these images present a landscape of suffering.

Dante Alighieri, La Comedia di Dante Aligieri con la Noua Espositione di Alessandro Vellutello, ed. by Alessandro Vellutello, ill. by Giovanni Britto (Venice: Francesco Marcolini, 1544). Briggs Room 851.153 2

Large fold-out map with decorative borders and illustrations of boats. Caption: 'Dante Map by Mary Hensman'.

3 of 5 | Literary Pilgrimages

Hell’s Passage used to be lined with a series of etchings by John Batten (1860–1932) depicting scenes from the Inferno. They were left to LMH by George Musgrave (1855–1932), a translator of the Inferno who had commissioned the illustrations. Musgrave left us his whole Dante collection, including this map.

Mary Hensman’s Dante Map is labelled with places that appear in Dante’s writings or that he visited in his exile. It encourages readers of Dante to make their own, literary pilgrimages. In the attached booklet, Hensman explains that ‘No quotations from the poet are given, as a lover of Dante will not be likely to travel in his land without at least taking the “Commedia” with him.’ An index of places is also included, annotated in pencil by a previous Dante fan.

Mary Hensman, Dante Map (London: David Nutt, 1892). Locked Stack 851.1508 6

Caption: 'Map of Italy to Illustrate Musgrave’s “Inferno”'. Includes details like erupting Mount Etna and camels in neighbouring North Africa.

4 of 5 | Dante's Worlds

In autumn 1913, Edmund Hort New (1871–1931) visited Italy with George Musgrave and his wife, and subsequently produced these images. Along with Batten’s etchings and Hensman’s map, New’s drawings and maps were donated to LMH when Musgrave died.

Edmund Hort New, Map of Italy to Illustrate Musgrave’s “Inferno” (1913). Locked Stack

Caption: 'The Eastern Mediterranean to Illustrate Dante’s “Inferno”'. Includes details like boats and serpent-like creatures.

5 of 5 | Dante's Worlds

These maps, like Hensman’s, represent places from Dante’s life and work. Blending these locations with historical figures, myths and supernatural creatures, they reference religious and classical imagery from Dante’s writing. Dante compares the serpents in the seventh circle of Hell to those in the Libyan Desert, as described by Roman poet Lucan; New exoticises the Libyan Desert in his map by embellishing it with serpent-like monsters. New is mapping these places as Dante might have imagined them. 

Edmund Hort New, The Eastern Mediterranean to Illustrate Dante’s “Inferno” (1913). Locked Stack

Contact the Library

LMH Special Collections are open to visitors by appointment (email during staffed hours, Monday to Friday, 9.30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Lady Margaret Hall Library
Norham Gardens
United Kingdom


Telephone: (01865) 274361

The librarian, Jamie

Jamie Fishwick-Ford

(Librarian, they/them)

Sally Hamer

(Assistant Librarian, she/her)