Topographic Romance

A topographic romance is a fictional adventure story with a real-world setting, usually a story of pursuit, in which the terrain is so carefully evoked and prominent as almost to be a character in its own right. The setting is a place one could actually go to, and there retrace the steps of the characters.

Examples include Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and such fantasy novels as Richard Adams’s Watership Down and The Plague Dogs, and Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. The last-named is an especially good example of a topographic romance because one can follow the action of the story on a British Ordnance Survey map (Macclesfield and Alderley Edge, 1:25 000). In fact, the development of the topographic romance may owe something to the impingement on writers’ imaginations of detailed mapping of the British Isles and other areas. The development of the topographic romance parallels the vogue for travel books. However, the writing of topographic romances probably owes much to a common variety of daydream, in which someone walking or driving through a region imagines what would happen if he or she had to take cover suddenly to elude pursuers, etc. Topographic romances provide imaginative refreshment for many readers who are usually confined indoors, in offices, cars, etc.

At the fringes of the topographic romance are the abundant stories imagined by the author and reader as occurring in the real world, and having a strong flavor of locale, without that locale being real or specifically identifiable. Stories by Geoffrey Household, such as "Rogue Male", could be examples. Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, set on a very "realistic" but imaginary island, could be another example.

Some works of science fiction or fantasy might also be regarded as "imaginary-world topographic romances," but only if exceptional emphasis is placed on consistency as well as visualization of the landscapes. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings would qualify as a supreme example. Such imaginary-world topographic romances will typically be presented to readers complete with maps, and would invite attention such as is evidence in the books Journeys of Frodo or An Atlas of Middle-earth. It seems that to describe routine fantasy quests and science fiction stories as imaginary world topographic romances is to stretch the term so much as to compromise its usefulness. These stories should, instead, be called cartographic romances [q.v.].

Noted fantasy writers wrote about their real-world travels, e.g. William Morris’s superb Icelandic Journals, Algernon Blackwood’s journalism about canoeing on the Danube or camping in Canada, and C. S. Lewis’s accounts of walking tours in his letters.

The term “topographic romance” was coined by Dale Nelson. Nelson believed, at one time, that the term was found in a 1947 New Directions-published Stevenson study by David Daiches. Nelson publicly announced his own apparent responsibility for the term on a thread at the Mythopoeic Society discussion list on 9 November 2012 (moc.spuorgoohay|coshtym#moc.spuorgoohay|coshtym). "'A Scream About Landscape': Topographic Romance and Cartographic Romance — Alan Garner vs. [[J. R. R. Tolkien]]" by Nelson appears in Mythprint 50:2 (Whole #367, Summer 2013), pp. 4-6.