Plot Geography: Labyrinths and Libraries

This post was meant to follow directly on from this one but I forgot to finish it.

I can only think of one library that is literally also a maze and that is the library at the unnamed monastery central to the mystery in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose (see here for some of Eco’s sketches https://www.architecturalpapers.ch/index.php?ID=75 ). Eco’s novel which mixes musing on Medieval thought, the nature of inquiry, and Sherlock Holmes pastiche remains a delight. However, despite filling the criteria of having author generated maps in it and crossing genre boundaries, it is not a fantasy novel.

Eco’s library also knowingly echoes the more overtly fantastical work of Jorge Luis Borges whose short story The Library of Babel examines questions of infinity and knowledge that mirrors his story of an infinite labyrinth The Garden of Forking Paths. Borges himself was a librarian, famously so when Argentine dictator Juan Peron attempted to ‘promote’ him from his position to that of poultry inspector as part of a purge of critics of his regime.

Libraries and mazes and labyrinths share physical and metaphorical features. To enter each of them is to set yourself on a search for hidden knowledge. Arguably, a genuine library is not actively trying to thwart your search and actively hide secrets but practically both mazes and libraries require understanding the hidden principles to navigate them.

Physically, all three kinds of structures are dense spaces. Their exterior size is misleading compared to the distance you have to travel on the inside. Both use convoluted paths to pack more into a finite space than is usual. This convoluted packing of linear routes into an enclosed 2D space creates a wonderful visual metaphor with the convolutions on the outside of a human brain.

Mazes can be unintentional. Any building with twisting corridors and oddly joined rooms and frustrating dead ends can serve as a maze. So castles and stately homes, shopping centres and natural cave formations can act as maze-like structures. This transformation of all settings into potential mazes is most obvious in video-game settings but also in table-top role playing games, where characters must navigate through maze like structures that mirror plot elements.

The Lord of the Rings, (one of the works I try to reference in these plot geography posts) does not feature a library or an overt maze. True, Gandalf describes searching for hidden accounts of rings of power in Gondor but we don’t ever get to see the library of Minas Tirith. However, the Mines of Moria work as a more metaphorical maze and also contain hidden written knowledge throughout. To gain entry requires a play on words and once inside, the Fellowship must navigate the passages until they find two key pieces of writing. One are the words on a tomb (oh, and how delightful it was as a child to discover that the runes could be transliterated in the illustration) and the other is a book — an account of the lost dwarven colony of Moria. I don’t doubt that Tolkien was echoing the classic Minoan labyrinth by placing at the heart of Moria a monstrous and murderous beast of quasi-divine origin. The balrog may be more fierce than the minotaur but they share a role of the horror at the centre of the maze.

In the Avatar cartoons (both Ang’s and Korra’s) the spirit library of Wan Shi Tong serves as a physical (in a cross-dimensional way) library and an effective maze. Vast in size and maintained by knowledge hungry foxes, the palatial library is maintained by a spirit in the form of a huge barn owl. It is literally a place that some people never escape from and shares the dual purpose of collecting knowledge and hiding it.

The notion of being lost, whether it is in a library, in your quest for knowledge, in a maze you must find and/or escape from, as a lost soul looking for enlightenment in church labyrinth or just simply as a reader lost in a book, is central to the common ideas. The garden of forking paths is a metaphor that mirrors mathematical tree structures that might describe a literal maze or a categorical system like the Dewey Decimal‘s nested hierarchies. Where libraries and mazes differ from other places characters can get lost, is there is method to place.

In church labyrinths, the method is to simply keep going. The way is twisted and uncertain but all you have to do is follow the path. The trick is not a cognitive one (there is only one path) but a test of patience and character and a metaphor for the narrow path to salvation. What is hidden is that twisted path is actually simple: an unbranching straight line folded in two-dimensions. It’s not unlike the plot of a story, in that the twists and turns suggest complexity but the story is constrained to one path that must be followed.

In the Tombs of Atuan, provides may ultimate favourite maze map. The twisted cave-like tunnels hide many wonders but at their heart is a treasure room which contain the fragment of a great talisman. The map le Guin provides is a wonderful distraction. I remember tracing out the routes in the maze long before I read the story (it was an older sibling’s copy) and it was an offer of mystery but also a gift of privilege. By providing the map, Le Guin implies that the reader themselves can see the route through the maze. However, the story reveals that the solution is not a physical one but an emotional and interpersonal one. Ged the wizard, despite his youth, his powers and his research cannot navigate the maze and cannot escape it because of the nameless powers that rest in the titular tombs of Atuan. It is only by winning the trust and genuine friendship of Tenar/Arha that Ged can find the heart of the maze, retrieve the treasure and escape. Fittingly, the treasure is the missing half of the ring of Erreth-Akbe and it is only by bringing the two halves together that the world can re-learn a missing rune i.e. word. There are no books in the Labyrinth of the Tombs of Atuan but there are words to be found.

Fantasy Bicycle

Of course MAGIC solves almost any problems we might have with a bicycle in a high fantasy setting. I think the secret is to not just use a little magic but to use a lot.

So here is my fantasy bicycle crafted by some kind of druidy/forest-magic peoples. The frame is wood from a magically tailored tree that grows bicycle frames.

The wheels are also wood but the tires are tough vines that sprout from the bicycle-tree plant and which are filled with a sap that helps maintain the whole bicycle.

I couldn’t quite manage to make a chain for the gears that looked right in the render but it would be some sort of thorny vine also.

The bikes only last a few months and then you have to bury them so a new bicycle-tree grows. However, a well watered orchard of bicycle trees maintained by the magical arborists will provide plenty of fresh bicycles for all who need one.

How Fast Do Hobbits Go?

According to this resource http://lotrproject.com in The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo leaves Bag End on September 22 and arrives (almost dead) at Rivendell on October 20 or 21. That same site has a neat distance time graph for both The Hobbit and Frodo’s journey in Lord of the Rings. http://lotrproject.com/timedistance/

Looking at both the site above and other maps, the distance to Rivendell to Bag End is about 420 miles as one of Saruman’s crows flies or 460 miles with assorted diversions. So the party of Hobbits went about 15-16 miles per day in that first part of the journey. Given the circumstance, the various diversions, and avoiding the main road, it is a decent pace.

50 mile intervals

The next stage of the journey has the Fellowship walk from Rivendell to the foot of the Misty Mountains. They leave December 25 and arrive at the base of Caradhras on January 10 having travelled 260 miles. That gives an average daily speed of 15 miles a day again. It looks like Tolkien used that as his rule of thumb for a kind of narrative speed with Hobbits.

Would they have got to Rivendell quicker with bicycles? Geographically, yes but narratively no. If it was a simple chase between Hobbits on bikes and Ringwraiths on horses then maybe with a sufficient head start, a cyclist could out-endure a horse rider (even an undead one given that the horses were spooky but otherwise still just horses). As it was, the Hobbits had riders behind them and ahead of them. It would be implausible that Hobbits could cycle faster at a sprint than a horse at a gallop if the Nazgul had them in their sights.

If, for some bizarre reason, we really wanted to speed up Lord of the Rings with better transport options then ships would be better. The Grey Havens are much closer to Hobbiton than Rivendell. It’s a bit further than Bree but not by a lot. Then it is a fast Elvin ship round to Gondor! Of course then the Hobbits and the ship-bound Fellowship get to have an encounter with pirates near the estuary of the Anduin. Presumably Gandalf would have been eaten by a sea-monster as they rounded Andrast (don’t worry, he’ll recover) and the whole of The Two Towers ends up back to front in this scenario. However, this version has pirates in it and given that Tolkien went to all the trouble of adding pirates as a plot point to the book then it would make sense to actually meet some pirates.

Bicycles are the fantasy hero’s friend

One thing that became rapidly obvious looking at a day’s travel time is just how good bicycles are. It ran against my assumptions about horses being an obviously ‘better’ form of transport on the grounds that the horse is doing a lot of work for you. That assumption doesn’t play out for several reasons.

Firstly, from what I’m told, riding a horse is itself quite tiring. A slower horse trained to have a more comfortable gait were used in the past but by their nature they didn’t travel very quickly. The net effect is there are limits to how far you can comfortably travel by horse.

The horse itself has limits on how far it will travel in a day. Horse based distance transport has historically required systems for a regular change of horses. The same limitation applies to coaches. They can go quicker and travel further if there are regular horse changes. Horse drawn wagons heading off over long distances without places to change horses (e.g. 19th century American wagon trains of settlers) went slowly – basically walking speed.

On foot humans and horses are surprisingly well matched and even more so for longer distances. I was sort of aware of this famous (and slightly silly) race in Wales which is a competition between horses and people (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_versus_Horse_Marathon ). Over a distance of 35 km (22 miles) the horse usually wins but the times (just over 2 hours usually) are comparable between human and horse.

Humans are quite good at going long distances by foot and over an extended period. When Tolkien sets his main part of adventurers off on foot, it’s not a stupid choice. People can walk great distances and if you don’t have access to a regular change of horses, walking is probably the most reliable way of getting from A to B. A testament to that is the vast network of foot roads established by the Incas up and down the spine of South America. Donkey’s or mules for carrying gear make sense but riding has limitations.

The bicycle though takes that human advantage of bipedalism and puts into work by pedalling. Range and speed increase markedly. I freely confess that my numbers are far from perfect but modern bikes appear to easily match ye olden times horse travel and may exceed it.

The major obstacle to have your party of adventurers hop on a bike to cycle their way to Castle Macguffin is simple: the non-existence of bicycles until the industrial age. I’ll come back to that. What else is there?

Bikes certainly operate a lot better on smooth, level, well maintained roads. Horses (and walking) is less impacted by terrain. However, so long as there is something road-like, a modern bike can cope with rougher roads and dirt paths. What the impact is on distance, speed and fatigue, I don’t know because a lot depends on the terrain.

Carrying gear is an issue as well but I’ve seen bikes with trailers and all sorts of bag carrying schemes (eg https://road.cc/content/buyers-guide/195494-beginners-guide-cycling-luggage-how-carry-stuff-your-bike ). A pack animal can carry more but a cyclist can carry at least as much as a walker and more if they have good equipment.

So the hard limitation is technology. A post-apocalypse is surely perfect for cyclist heroes. There are roads, abandoned bike shops and supermarkets to loot on your way thus saving you the effort of carrying a lot of gear.

A bicycle looks out of place in high fantasy and adding one might seem comical but what are the actual limits? Ancient roads in magically good condition are not uncommon in fantasy (relics of the lost civilisation). Amazingly advanced metal work is practically de rigueur for fantasy. Tolkien’s mithril (super light and strong and non-brittle) would be a perfect material for a bike if it wasn’t for the fact that it is so valuable that you’d need a very, very good bike lock to stop your steed being stolen.

Highly skillful metal workers and cunning but simple mechanism are also hardly forbidden by the standards of high fantasy. It’s aesthetically weird for a magical dwarven smith to craft a bicycle but there’s really nothing there that is out of keeping with the kind of exceptional technology that appears.

However, ‘exceptional technology’ is insufficient. A sustained bike trip needs people along the way who can fix a bent spoke or a twisted wheel. Rubber tyres is a level of material technology that is really out of keeping to a fantasy setting.

And yet…how much of a stretch is it to wave a magical pretext for bicycles to exist in your fantasy world? None at all if we can have sentient harps or walking statues or rings of invisibility. What prevents our fantasy heroes from cycling to Mount Horrible is that bikes just scream “modern” in a way that our fake medieval setting won’t accept.

[Note 1: I am not a cyclist and my bike riding capacity would be best described as ‘marginal’. If I fall through a wardrobe to Narnia, then I’m walking]

[Note 2: I’ve been trying to think of fantasy examples of bike riding and I can think of examples with modern world collides with magical worlds but even then not many. I vaguely recall the kids in Alan Garner’s Weirdstone books riding bikes around Cheshire at some point. Any other examples?]

[Note 3: I should have mentioned Steampunk fantasy obviously. Bicycles fit perfectly into that setting.]

A Day’s Travel: Part 2

Thank you to everybody who provided feedback. Lots of useful stuff and some great websites and resources in the comments. I’m going to post some of the links further down.

I’ve tweaked the numbers in various directions. One issue is that modern figures are often for races and endurance events, which helps with the extreme values but is not so handy for the left hand side of the table. I also want to keep figures relatively conservative and imagine some degree of having to carry some provisions and face some obstacles without quantifying that. ‘Day’ shouldn’t be taken literally – it’s not 24 hours and will match the nature of the travel. A tough pace will need longer rest and recovery

As people point out, fitness and travel conditions make a big difference. However, I’m after a sense of scale as well as suggesting ranges. I also want the figures towards the left to be sustainable, i.e. you could keep this up for a Lord of the Rings scale quest.

Here’s a revised set of figures. I’ve added a ‘heroic’ level for where a supremely fit person pushes themselves to an extreme for a one off feat (or if it is a ship etc. perfect conditions and special circumstances). I also add a fantasy deer mount and an elephant.

Changes and comments still welcome but be mindful of the parameters. After rules of thumb, e.g. if you can easily do better than 40 km in a day walking then you are closer to the ‘Marching’ value but the 40 km figure is still probably right for a sustainable figure.


Saunter with breaks and distractions Non-distracted but not gruelling Marching/swift Extreme Heroic-Epic
Walking 10 km/6 miles 40 km/25 miles 60 km/37 miles 100 km/62 miles 200 km/124 miles
Walking at altitude in mountains 5 km/3 miles 10 km/6 miles 20 km/12 miles 40 km/25 miles 80 km/50 miles
Bicycle (good roads) 60 km/37 miles 100 km/62 miles 180 km/112 miles 350 km/218 miles 800 km/497 miles
Bicycle (rougher roads) 15 km/9 miles 30 km/19 miles 50 km/31 miles 150 km/93 miles 400 km/249 miles
Horse – single 30 km/19 miles 60 km/37 miles 100 km/62 miles 120 km/75 miles 300 km/186 miles
Small company on horses 20 km/12 miles 50 km/31 miles 70 km/44 miles 100 km/62 miles 30 km/19 miles
Large group with horses and wagons 10 km/6 miles 30 km/19 miles 40 km/25 miles 50 km/31 miles 60 km/37 miles
Large sailing ship 100 km/62 miles 250 km/155 miles 370 km/230 miles 500 km/311 miles 700 km/435 miles
Ox cart 5 km/3 miles 10 km/6 miles 12 km/7 miles 15 km/9 miles 16 km/10 miles
Coach (with regular horse changes) 40 km/25 miles 60 km/37 miles 80 km/50 miles 100 km/62 miles 150 km/93 miles
Train (Victorian – variable time spent on train) 200 km/124 miles 600 km/373 miles 1,000 km/622 miles 1,500 km/932 miles 2,000 km/1,243 miles
Imaginary deer 10 km/6 miles 30 km/19 miles 50 km/31 miles 80 km/50 miles 100 km/62 miles
Elephant 10 km/6 miles 25 km/16 miles 70 km/44 miles 125 km/78 miles 150 km/93 miles

Some links and resources from the comments of the first post.

How far can a person travel in a day? My initial guesses

I was thinking about fantasy maps and how far people can travel. I’m guessing there’s probably excellent charts on this in some game source books but I couldn’t find a handy chart online so I made some guesses.

Feedback and correction would be welcome as these aren’t great guesses. I tried to split it into four levels of travel:

  • Saunter with breaks and distractions: the travellers are stopping off for various distractions, fights, visits to gift shops.
  • Non-distracted but not gruelling: the travellers are actively trying to get from A to B but at a reasonable pace for people who don’t want to arrive exhausted.
  • Marching/swift: The travellers are pushing themselves or on a fast service.
  • Extreme: Desperately fast or pushing the limits
Travel in a day
Saunter with breaks and distractions Non-distracted but not gruelling Marching/swift Extreme
Walking 10 km 20 km 30 km 40 km
Bicycle (good roads) 30 km 60 km 100 km
Bicycle (rougher roads) 15 km 30 km
Horse – single 30 km 60 km 100 km
Small company on horses
50 km 70 km 100 km
Large group with horses and wagons
30 km

Large sailing ship
220 km 450 km 660 km
Ox cart
10 km

Coach (with regular horse changes)
100 km

Train (Victorian – variable time spent on train) 200 km 600 km 1000 km

OK, so kilometres are annoying but I like them. Here’s the numbers above converted into miles. Looking at the miles I think I’ve been underestimating.


Saunter with breaks and distractions Non-distracted but not gruelling Marching/swift Extreme
Walking 6 miles 12 miles 19 miles 25 miles
Bicycle (good roads) 19 miles 37 miles 62 miles
Bicycle (rougher roads) 9 miles 19 miles

Horse – single 19 miles 37 miles 62 miles
Small company on horses
31 miles 44 miles 62 miles
Large group with horses and wagons
19 miles

Large sailing ship
137 miles 280 miles 410 miles
Ox cart
6 miles

Coach (with regular horse changes)
62 miles

Train (Victorian – variable time spent on train) 124 miles 373 miles 622 miles 932 miles

Timothy Presents: The Real Shape of the Earth

From the desk of famed director, author, bon vivant, registered realtor and cult leader, Timothy the Astronomical Cat.

Only a fool thinks the Earth is flat but only BINARY thinkers, their heads full of ones and evil zeroes think the only other option is some sort of ball, like the Earth is just some stupid plaything, a child’s toy if you will. No, no, the Earth is wonderful and delicious and ours for consuming like a tasty treat that we must gobble up until there is nothing but crumbs, indigestion and a lingering disappointment in ourselves.

NO! WAKE UP! Forget the lies you were taught by people who are slaves to BIG TEXTBOOK. Don’t listen to the naysayers and nincompoops, the scoffers and scrofulators. The truth as revealed by these images I made Camembert Felonious make, SHOW THE TRUTH that the CEOs of the multimilion dollar scam that is BIG TELESCOPE don’t want you to see.

The Earth is a donut people or, if you are British, a doughnut, or if you are Cam, a duohgnut. Perfectly round and yet differently round. Alt-round, if you will.

“Boo hoo, waah wahh” that’s what my critics sound like. No, you people wouldn’t be able to tell when they were on the inner bit of the donut. That’s nonsense because the inner bit has the north pole and the south pole and NOBODY is allowed to go there except the military and penguins. Why do you think the north pole and south pole look EXACTLY the same people? Why does RUSSIA have BASES in the south pole? Because they are north pole bases! How do penguins get to Canada, people? Seriously, just google for pictures of penguins in Canada. Oh, sure, they’ll say “that’s a zoo” or “that’s just a logo on a paperback book” or some other slim excuse to hide the truth.

*[Note from Camestros: The wonderful Earth texture was from here http://www.shadedrelief.com/natural3/pages/use.html ]