Great Works: Map of Britain (c.1250), Matthrew Paris
Chronicle of England, entitled 'Cronica facta sub compendio'

British Library, London

Very like an island...? All maps before a certain date are free. There are no uniform or standard plans. They are simply possibilities. True, some of them are trying to make documentary surveys. Some are fixed to myths and formulae. But they are limited. And beyond that, there is another realm of likeness. A piece of ground can't help become a shape. An island in particular is a piece of drawing. Its coastline makes a defining contour, which can naturally create beasts. Islands breed fantasies.

Take this pair of British islands. One is a map of Great Britain, about 1250, and drawn by Matthew Paris. He was a Benedictine monk, an artist in illuminated manuscripts, based in St Albans' Abbey. The other island is also Great Britain. It comes from a Chronicle of England, at the coronation of Henri IV in 1399, made for a map of Totius Britanniae Tabula Chorographica. The cartographer is anonymous.

What connects these two maps? Both of them are to us recognisably British. Their likenesses may seem a little remote, but they have clearly the anatomies that we still know and name, and they share identities between themselves and between many more modern maps. On the other hand, their different imageries are equally impressive.

Look at these two forms. Ancient or modern maps, it is normally possible to see Great Britain as a body with a head. But here there is a visible contrast. One of them shows the head up; the other one shows the head down. More than that, the Matthew Paris map suggests Scotland as a head with an open mouth. And seeing that, its whole body is like a creature. Its contour has jagged edges like vertebrae all round its coastline. It could be a primitive fish, a whale.

Meanwhile, the coronation map is clearly upside down, and the head itself is much less conspicuous. In fact, it doesn't register as a body at all. This map has coastline with a soft outline – curvaceous, looping, billowy. There is no hint of creature now. It is a puffy cloud.

Or at least, you can see this, if you wish. This whale, this cloud, are only fictions, and fictions seen only by ourselves, not by their original makers, who would not even acknowledge these figures. But for us these acts of shaping can generate inspirations. After all, we can look for images in thrown ink patterns. We can read pictures in nature's forms. Leonardo is famous for suggesting scenes in chance stains on walls. Blobs and silhouettes and bingo!

The only difference is that maps can appear both as designs and as accidental formations. They pull us towards and away, tempting us to geography and to association. Or perhaps we are strongly bound to found likenesses. These two islands propose wild and opposing inventions. One swims in the sea. One floats in the sky.

Follow further lines of fiction. There are books that have images, which echo those likenesses. There is an island that is a whale. There is an island that floats. There is a cloud that is a whale. Milton's Paradise Lost shows a vision of Satan. His monstrous body is compared to the gigantic whale, so big that fishermen believe that it is a land...

"that sea-beast

Leviathan, which God of all his works

Created hugest that swim th' .........  ocean-stream.

Him, haply slumbering on the Norway oam,

The pilot of some small night-foundered ......... skiff,

Deeming some island, oft, as seamen tell,

With fixed anchor in his scaly rind,

Moors by his side under the lee, while night

Invests the sea, and wished morn delays."

An island is a whale. And Milton's comparison between Satan and whale is also inspired by medieval images. The whale's mouth is often pictured as the mouth of hell.

Or take the political fantasy in Swift's Gulliver's Travels. The Kingdom of Laputa is "The Floating or Flying Island". Now, it is not itself a floating cloud. On the contrary, its description and its map show it as exactly circular. It hovers in the air though a magnetic lodestone: "it is in the power of the monarch to raise the island about the region of the clouds and vapours..." And it is principally a war machine, designed to bring down power upon the subject cities beneath it. The Kingdom of Laputa, in fact, is an anti-cloud-island. It rains down destruction.

Or you can see these two islands, one cloud, one whale – and what connects them is in Hamlet, in the teasing-maddening dialogue between Hamlet and Polonius.

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel? Polonius: By th' Mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed. Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel. Polonius: It is backed like a weasel. Hamlet: Or like a whale. Polonius: Very like a whale.

These similarities can become a relay of echoes. Whale is island. Island is cloud. Cloud is whale. Of course, there is no authority or genealogy in these parallels. There are no intended likenesses in this map or that map. There are no links betweens maps and these later books, or among these three books themselves. They come together entirely by luck. But these early maps are treasure trove. Imagined coastlines become new lands, new worlds. Old Great Britains are discoveries. Very like an island...?

Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home