“Birds fly over the rainbow. Why then oh why can’t I?”
– Dorothy in Wizard of Oz, by E.Y. Harburg
Exasperated Aunt Em tells Dorothy to “find yourself a place where you won’t get into any trouble.” Dorothy muses to Toto wondering if there is such a place. “There must be. It’s not a place you can get to by a boat, or a train. It’s far, far away. Behind the moon, beyond the rain…” Cue the music, please.
Such magical places have long existed in our collective imagination, for all kinds of reasons. I recently went looking for information about a place cited in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and got side-tracked when I found it included in a list of fictional places. What fun!
What kind of travel agent would I be if I didn’t also encourage you to think about places that don’t even exist? I would be a practical one, but let’s leave that for another week.
What kind of places are on this list?
There are unique, imagined places which have been used in only one work of fiction. I learned about Patusan, the island locale for the final chapters of Lord Jim. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island qualified (even if he did provide a map). A map of Gulliver’s Travels would be fictional if satirical.
There are places which have been created for comic effect. You might remember Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Pottsylvania, or the mud-filled land of Elbonia which appears occasionally in the Dilbert comic strip.
Sometimes the place is imagined but not attractive, an undesirable future reality. You cannot miss the US geography in Panem, the nation that holds annual Hunger Games. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the center of Gilead struck me as a mirror of Cambridge MA but the politics were radically changed.
Some imaginary geographies serve as the ground for an entire franchise of storytelling. Universal Studios has tried to create J. K. Rowling’s magical world of Harry Potter in Orlando, but it isn’t really Hogwarts. Consider Tolkein’s Middle Earth, with countries like The Shire, Rohan, Lothlórien, and the wasteland Mordor. These were the stages for The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings books, movies and video games. A similar world springs up from the pages of the Game of Thrones novels, TV series, and video games. Do fans know more about the Westeros and Essos and all the intrigue they contain than they do about the “real” world?
Sometimes it can be hard to tell the real from the imagined places. Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon is a fictional village inspired by many small towns of Minnesota, but there really is a Spoon River (as in the poetry anthology). Bali Ha’i, invented by James Michener, was modeled on the off-limits island which he could see from his navy cot in the South Pacific. But Timbuktu really does exist — in central Africa.
A few places seem so durable in our collective mind that some challenge whether they are imagined. El Dorado, the new world city of gold, launched as many ships and cost as many lives as Helen of Troy (Troy did exist). The lost city of Atlantis continues to inspire conjecture and even exploration. The mysterious paradise called Shangri-La (probably conflated with the Buddhist concept of Shambhala) continues to “call us” as does Bali Ha’i. Certainly the marketing possibilities of these places have not been lost. Shangri-La hotel chain and Atlantis resort in Nassau offer you a paradise beyond than your imaginings.
Please let me know if I can send you to any real place on the planet, paradise or otherwise.
Bali Ha’i may call you,
Any night, any day,
In your heart, you’ll hear it call you:
“Come away…Come away.”
Boundaries divide. Travel unites.
13 March 2014