Once Upon a Cartographer Prompts:

These prompts were written for our contest, which is now closed, but we think that they still have the potential to inspire! 

  • Do you own a fantasy, fabulist or fairy-tale map? I do. I have a map of Lyra’s Oxford from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series on the wall above my desk. Pull out your fairy-tale map, look at it, and write about it.
  • A recipe is like a map–it guides the cook from point a (raw ingredients) to point b (the finished product). Send us a recipe for a dish or pastry inspired by your favorite folk or fairy tale. In the introduction to your recipe, tell us how the recipe and the story are related.
  • In a serpent bridegroom tale collected by Japanese folklorist Keigo Seki, a woman strives to find out the true identity of her mysterious lover, who only visits her at night. She attaches a thread to his clothing and follows it in the daylight. When the woman arrives at the end of the thread, she finds a dead snake–killed by the needle that she thrust into her lover’s clothing. Write an essay about this story, or about the use of thread as a map-making agent, or about how we don’t always know what we will find at the end of a journey.
  • Choose a land form or setting commonly found in folk and fairy tales (for example: castles, mountains, caves, enchanted forests, lakes, oceans, the Arctic, the underworld, and the sky). Write about the land form or setting you have chosen, describing the resonance and function it has in different tales.
  • “Carving Up the Sky,” produced by Bill Rankin for Radical Cartography, compares Ancient Greek, Modern Western and Chinese constellation systems. Write an essay on this graphic, comparing two constellations systems or focusing on just one. The Chinese sky might be particularly interesting. According to Rankin, “The Chinese sky is more like a map: rivers, roads, walls, offices, and various functionaries are set-pieces in a complex bureaucratic wonderland.”
  • Write an essay about a collector or collectors of fairy tales (the Brothers Grimm are probably the best known collectors, but there are lots of others). Describe the places and people they collected folk and fairy tales from. This essay would be really cool as a googledoc or infographic!
  • Write an essay responding to one of the pieces in the Fairy Tale Architecture series, published by Places Journal and curated by Kate Bernheimer and Andrew Bernheimer.
  • In fairy and folk tales, characters often journey “into the woods.” Make an infographic about how the forest functions as a symbol and setting in fairy tales and folklore.
  • Are you familiar with the English folktale “Jack & the Beanstalk”? Well, it turns out that Jack is a trickster character who shows up in multiple stories. In fact, he traveled across the pond with the English and Scots-Irish, and there’s a cycle of Jack Tales set in Appalachia. The Appalachian Jack Tales feature Jack getting in scrapes and playing tricks in the mountains. Map, compare and contrast the way Jack interacts with his physical environment in the English and Appalachian stories.
  • “The Raven” is a German fairy tale about an enchanted raven, some giants, a pile of maps, and a golden castle on a glass mountain. Write us an essay about this obscure but fascinating tale.
  • Pick your favorite fairy-tale character. Using text or image, create a timeline or map of how that character has changed through time and across cultures. For inspiration, read the poem “Goldilocks is a Hoax” by Janani Balasubramanian.
  • Fairy tales are often classified using the Aarne-Thompson system, which “maps” motifs and plot structures. Write an essay about the Aarne-Thompson classification system. Do you think it’s effective? What are its limitations? Are there other methods of “mapping,” grouping and classifying fairy tales that you find interesting?
  • Create a “fairy-tale travel guide” for your town or city. Include locations that have fairy-tale or folklore history, or just spots that give off a “fairy-tale-esque” vibe. Forms this travel guide could take: a written article, a series of photographs, a google map, a video or audio piece … the options are truly limitless!
  • Write an essay about or inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’ “On Exactitude in Science” (a brief, fabulist tale about an empire whose mapmakers produce a map that is the size “of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it”). You can read the story here.
  • Both maps and fairy tales have been used in processes of colonization and subjugation. Maps have demarcated territories and created borders. Fairy tales have modeled behavior considered “appropriate” by those in power, and traditional stories have been modified to reflect their values. Write an essay on the negative aspects of maps and fairy tales. Explore how they are different and how they are similar. Be as critical and bold as you’d like–we want to hear what you have to say.
  • Pick a map of a fantastical land that’s dear to you. Write and submit a set of annotations for that map. Hone in on an aspect of the land that you find particularly interesting: the flora and fauna, or the food, or underlying fairy-tale motifs, for example. Or write personal annotations, telling us what memories each location on the map conjures for you. Feel free to submit your annotations as a simple list of places if fancy digital formatting isn’t your thing. Some place ideas include: Hogwarts, Middle Earth, Earthsea, Nevèrÿon, Lyra’s Oxford, Discworld, and Westeros.
  • Stories from the ATU-510A tale-type (what western English-speakers often refer to as “Cinderella stories”) share a similar plot structure but proffer different magical helpers. In “The Story of the Black Cow,” from the Himalayas, the helper character is, well, a black cow! In “Ye Xian,” a Chinese story, the protagonist is helped by a giant fish with golden scales. And in “Aschenputtel,” collected by the Brothers Grimm, it is a hazel tree and white bird that come to the aid of the titular character. Write or draw a short essay tracing (or “mapping”) the roles and significance of magical helper characters in three different versions of ATU 510A.
  • In her essay “Baba Yaga,” Joy Williams writes, “No one knew what Baba Yaga did when she left her house on her errands and flew through the air in her unlikely vehicle of choice, a mortar and pestle, sweeping clean away with a broom the trail she had made.” Tell us where you think it is that Baba Yaga goes on these journeys. Map your proposal out using words, images or another medium.