On Sleigh’s Anciente Mappe of Fairyland and True Places

Bernard Sleigh, An Anciente Mappe of Fairyland : Newly Discovered and Set Forth, 1918.

On Sleigh’s Anciente Mappe of Fairyland and True Places

Katherine Peters teaches world literature and writing as adjunct faculty in the English Department at University of Southern Maine. She writes nature essays and is currently at work on a novel with elements of the fantastical.

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“Welcome to Fairyland,” writes English artist Bernard Sleigh in his 1918 Guidebook to An Anciente Mappe of Fairyland, Newly Put Forth and Discovered⁠1 – a six-foot long scroll mysterious as time.⁠2 Sleigh dedicates the map to his two children, for whom it was first begun on a rainy summer holiday, and to “all children old and young seeking passage through the hidden Gates of Ivory and Pearl” (4) to this sacred place. For every child, he tells us, has a key to a room in their heart where they will find this map – part window, part chart of sound and sense.

On it unfurls an archipelago guarded by a wild sea, crisscrossed with a clay-red path: craggy mountaintops, deep Elvin forests, fairytale castles peopled with the monstrous and the fair. “Pictured with ancient legends”; writ with “curious letters”. Luminous with “amber and scarlet, lapis blues and strange greens” (7). Dawn its meridian; enigma its scale: In Fairyland, you’ll travel 500 miles for every thought.

Find it here: this room, this map. Stand before it. Open it.

Step over its threshold unto soft sands; gaze out at sea and sky. Hear the “voiceless” pulse of fairy music.

But beware, O’ Traveler! Sleigh warns each of us “seeking passage through the hidden Gates of Ivory and Pearl”.

Here Homeric reference meets Revelations: the Ancient Greek words for Ivory and Horn (the original stuff of Gate Two) are soundmates of Deception and Truth; the Gate of Horn Sleigh amends with the radiant material of the pearly door to Paradise – no future heaven but a place in the present arising from a state of being.3, 4 ⁠

On Sleigh’s map the illusory Gate of Ivory will strand you in Night’s Labyrinth and leave you lost,⁠5 only a few entries will guide you true, a rare path to a place you wish to be found.⁠6 Consider docking at Honeymouth Cove or an extended reverie in Dreamland Harbour. Keep compass. Find the right guide. Follow the red thread…7

Luckily, when my World Literature students and I first met the Anciente Mappe we had the right guide. Libby Bischof: Director of the Osher Map Library, Professor of History, Master Storyteller (perhaps even Spell-Caster). The Library is like something you might find on the map itself – in fact, perhaps it has already appeared, as is the way with Anciente Mappes, writ in magick ink in some hidden corner: a great tower perched like a fireproof Alexandria at the edge of the Sea. In it a treasure trove of ancient scrolls: a blueprint of the Shield of Achilles, charts of the far north emblazoned with sea dragons; cosmic cartographies and starry night surveys; cosmogonies of the heart; expansive plans for the Unknown – documents that shaped the world for good and ill. The library has a magnetism when it comes to maps and map lovers. Maps are donated by anonymous benefactors, even showing up mysteriously on the doorstep. Fittingly, the Anciente Mappe arrived (surely by Owl in the night) just before our class visit and Libby had it unrolled for us like a portal or pensieve, like the Mirror of Galadriel.

My students were drawn to the map like moths to a bright thing, crowding ’round it, poring over it, exclaiming. They were transported. Every class since has reacted much the same way – mesmerized by the map, inevitably lost – and found – in front of it, as I have been.

In our visits to the Library, I ask my students to consider how perspective, intention, representation and “knowledge” are related. I give them two assignments. In the first, we look at old maps of exploration and colonization in their historical context: western maps of the cosmos, charts of the Arctic, surveys of as-yet “undiscovered” countries. With the benefit of hindsight, we learn to ask: Who made this map and why was it made? How was it used and to what effect? We learn to see: What is erroneous or deceptive. What still holds true. 

Many of the maps, once held as irrefutable “truth”, seem like pure fantasy now, and often in the worst sense, something out of Sleigh’s Labyrinth of Night: distortions and falsifications of reality used to fortify dominating views, displace and erase marginalized perspectives, and justify actions that support the “progress” of some at the dire expense of others. Such maps made it easier to own and control land, ecosystems, and people as “territory,” “resources,” and “slaves.” 

Reading these maps from a different perspective (compass adjusted by degree of time), my students glean a very different knowledge. They witness where interior and exterior places meet: reading the intentions of the mapmakers, discerning fallacies and misrepresentations, perceiving truth more clearly in the false lines.

 In the light of the past, they understand the maps of our present, however advanced, to be relative, human. Subject to change over time. They learn to understand a map as a living thing. As something that should evolve.8 As a conversation between map-maker, map-reader, and that which is being mapped. They learn that knowledge is only important and can only be used well if we understand what is most meaningful. ⁠

That is to say, they follow the thread of truth that helps us navigate any map and perceive what matters (even if it’s not on the map9): the indomitable human spirit that refuses falsification and oppression; the will to live, love and flourish; the wish to connect with and understand our world and each other. They find what we might call sacred ground. In their travels and arrivals, my students give me great hope for our future cartographers.

In the second assignment, I ask them to look at mythologizing maps – maps of fiction, fantasy and myth. We do this in preparation for them to make their own maps, to mythologize a story deeply meaningful to them, even as we consider the same questions. 

This is where Sleigh and his map come in. 

Who was he? Why did he make this map? What did it mean?

A muralist and stained-glass artist working at the turn of the 20th century, Sleigh was active in the proto-Modernist Arts and Crafts Movement, a creative coalition responding to a perceived crisis of capitalist industrialism and mechanical mass-production by advocating for social and economic reform through individual creators. Sleigh conceptualized the Anciente Mappe in the years leading up to and during the First World War, beginning the first draft for his children in 1910 and refining it through its publication in 1918.

Some have suggested the popular map represented a longing for lost innocence, and that it offered an escape from the horrors of war for both mapmaker and map-readers alike.⁠10 I wonder if it also served as a means of processing and healing from trauma, signaling an important function of fantasy maps. On them one can safely express fear, fury, despair and search for their antidote. If we can locate the ills of the world on a map, surely we can navigate away from them going forward. Little wonder Sleigh presents us with the Gates of Ivory and Pearl: If Deception and Truth make the sole difference between where we go and what we find when we get there, it seems possible to find compass. Still, reading the Mappe from our current position – facing an ongoing pandemic, surreal politics, wars waged by major nuclear powers, daily news of unthinkable violence and extreme environmental disruption – the truth, a clear path to health, safety and peace, remains elusive.

The Anciente Mappe perhaps realizes its central purpose as an act of creation and imagination. With it, Sleigh envisions a better world, where truth, joy and peace align…and so should we. 

“I believe in Fairies” Sleigh writes in 1920, “for these days we are quickly learning how little we know of any other world than our own. It is no more difficult than for me to believe that a wild rose, or a daisy, has…a spirit”.⁠11 In his 1918 Guidebook, he introduces the point: Believing is Seeing. To one, “trees and stones, rocks and rippling streams”; to another, a place seething with beauty and magic, with – the luminous figures of myth and story – “green haired dryads”, “shining glades” and “shaggy centaurs”; shimmering with music, with wild siren song and the “sea-call of the mermaids – a-hoei-a! A-hoei-a-a!” (11-12) 

While Sleigh would found a Fairy Investigation Society in 1927 (notably, still in operation today, Walt Disney on its membership roll), we might all agree that fantasy maps are engaged in the serious work of truth-finding. 

To look at our old maps alongside our new world conceptions reveals that our position is relative and there is far more to the world than we know at present, far more possible than we ever imagined. Where some see prairie, others perceive an ecosystem – physical or emotional – dynamic as a range of mountains. Today we see the forest and the trees, connected as they are by nature’s fiber optic network of mycorrhizae. Put on a pair of dragonfly glasses and perceive a rainbow of color beyond your wildest dreams. 

The Anciente Mappe and its fellows ask us to look closer and see more clearly, to believe in the impossible, to find meaning and value in perspectives other than our own and, through them, perceive our infinite horizons right here at home where we can safely navigate away from the shadows and into the light.

They remind us of our creative capacity, of our tremendous agency and personal power as part of the Earth ourselves: our ability to co-create the world in which we wish to live by becoming the change we hope to see. They help us distinguish the true from the false – perceive our Gate of Horn or Pearl, find compass if we’ve lost it, travel the path that will lead us where we wish to be: to a place of infinite value, dynamic, alive and growing.

When they stand before Osher maps, my students inevitably look for what is most meaningful to them. They are drawn to what speaks to them: of childhood memories, places important to them, favorite books – to something that reminds them of what they love. Each follows Sleigh’s red thread out of the maze and inward to a place, known to no one else, treasured by and sacred to them. The first thing they wish to do is share it. And its meaning and value only increases as it is shared. 

When standing before the Anciente Mappe, heart open, I am reminded of two concepts. 

The first is that, according to certain East Asian mythical traditions, we are born with a red thread connecting us, finger to thumb, to all whom we will love in our lives.⁠12 Every movement sends a shiver along that unbreakable network. It is perhaps our best guide, when we treat it with truth and care, out of any maze we find ourselves in.

Second, I spent some time trying to find my way out of Sleigh’s Labyrinth of Night after docking at the wrong station and discovered, to my dismay, that when I travelled to the ends of the earth, to the place I thought might lead to those shining fields, I was met with our map’s anomaly: “Here is Deathe!” (writ in pencil and therefore surely negotiable). I am put in mind of Shakespeare’s “Undiscovered Country”, euphemism for the Underworld, but a concept – misremembering it as I did as the “Undiscoverable Country” – that dawns on me as key to our present.⁠13 

For an “undiscoverable” place is a living one – a true place – where nothing can be taken or owned without destroying the very thing that makes it worth having. Such a place, infinite in worth, can only be gifted.

When my students followed their red thread and mapped a story meaningful to them, I found myself on sacred ground: one crafted Dionysus’ twitter page in an effort to spark a political revolution; another composed a saxophonist sound-map of Gilgamesh like a latter-day Orpheus, the unearthly music ringing in caverns beyond this world. One created a powerful cosmogony of war trauma and what in his experience lives beyond language to find hope and meaning in a suffering world. Another mapped safe spaces on campus to process an attack – library, cafe, classroom, dorm, all bearing names that, like a protective spell, transformed them and transported her. One wrote a love letter he planned to share – someday – with the one he loves. Another charted a path for himself – and for us all – from the Desert of Devaluation to the Land of Infinite Worth.14  

Their maps call us out of the dark. They condemn the false, the violent and illusory, seek to heal the broken and the ill. They lift out what is full of goodness and grace. They share their vision for the world they wish to be in.

And so I invite you, O’ Reader. Enter this place. Look closely. Find your red thread. Follow it outward – and inward – to a place most sacred and true…

To see the map in detail: https://oshermaps.org/map/56598.0001

1  Hereafter referred to as Fairyland or the Anciente Mappe.

Sleigh, Bernard. Guidebook to the Map of Fairyland. Adelphi, London, Sidgwick & Jackson, LTD, 1920. Electronic. Accessed June & July 2022.

The Guidebook can be read here in its entirety: https://www.loc.gov/resource/g9930.ct007576/?r=-0.186,-0.122,0.926,0.483,0

2  St. Augustine perceives time to be a measure of change, suggesting “there can be no time without creation”. He conceptualizes time as a rolled scroll. (Book 11, Chap 30)

Saint Augustine. The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Project Gutenberg. Trans. By E.B. Pusey (Edward Bouverie). June 2002. E-book. Accessed July 2022. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3296/3296-h/3296-h.htm

3  Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. by Robert Fagles. First Edition. Penguin, 1996. Print. 

“Ah my friend,” seasoned Penelope dissented,/ “dreams are hard to unravel, wayward, drifting things—/ […] Two gates there are for our evanescent dreams,/ one is made of ivory, the other made of horn./ Those that pass through the ivory cleanly carved/ are will-o’-the-wisps, their message bears no fruit./ The dreams that pass through the gates of polished horn/ are fraught with truth, for the dreamer who can see them.” (Book 19, Lines 630-639)

Later references to the Gates can be found in the writings of Socrates, Plato, Virgil, Spenser, Pope, E.M. Forster, A.A. Milne, T.S. Eliot, H.P. Lovecraft, Le Guin, Robert Holdstock, W.H. Auden, Heaney, and others.

Odyssey translator Arthur T. Murray explains that English translation could not capture the Ancient Greek wordplay between “Ivory” (ἐλέφας) and “Deceive” or “bring no fulfillment” (ἐλεφαίρομαι); “Horn” (κέρας) and “Fulfill” or “come true” (κραίνω) (269). 

Homer: The Odyssey, II. Trans. Arthur T. Murray. The Loeb Classical Library. First printed 1919. Second Edition. Harvard University Press, January 1, 1995. Print.

4  King James Bible Online. Featuring the Standard King James Bible, Cambridge University Press, 1900; and the Original Edition, 1611. Revelations. 21:19-21. E-Book. 2022. Accessed June & July 2022. https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Revelation-21-21/

“And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, a chalcedony; the fourth, an emerald […] the eleventh, a jacinth; the twelfth, an amethyst.

And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass.

And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.”

The passage envisions a paradise through metaphor in which the place itself is treasure and there is no center of power outside of being. The passage is commonly interpreted as representing “Heaven” as a state of grace reachable in life (or the vanishing point where life and death meet).

In secular terms the pearl yet seems to me a metaphor and model for forgiveness. The humble grain of sand caught in our proverbial shoe revealed, over a lifetime of the ablutionary movements it tasks us with, to be of immeasurable worth.

Blake says it best:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wildflower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage
A Dove house fill’d with Doves & Pigeons
Shudders Hell thr’ all its regions
A dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State


We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro’ the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day

Blake, William. “Auguries of Innocence”. 1803/1863. The Poetry Foundation. E-Book. Accessed July 2022.

5  You might find yourself wandering the Weird Wood or mired in the muck on Nightmare Point; following the circular logic of the willow-the-wisp or avoiding the banks of Blackadder Lake only to wind up stranded in the Valley of Dragons. Still, even in the Labyrinth of Night all is not lost! While here, take the time to find Rapunzel a ladder or lend Hansel and Gretel a compass. Weave a Wishing Cap from the Faerie Flock or take your Seven League Boots for repair. Enjoy a spell in Witch Wood or a nap in the Valley of Sleep.

6  Adjust your compass to approximately 1 degree “West of the Moon” and sail the Sea of Dreams to Asgard, for example, or head “East of the Sun” to relax by Peace Pool; clamber up the Romantic slopes of Avalon in search of one of the Wishing Wells (Direction: “North of Nowhere”) or stroll “South of Sirius” down cobbled Nursery Rhyme Lane for breakfast with Miss Muffet. Sing with Manie Bluebirds! Seek out Merlin in the Magic Forest of Lyonesse for a transfiguration spell or try your strength at Excalibur while paying homage to King Arthur’s Court. Are your stars crossed? No trouble! Sail to the moon for repair and polish a few lamps while there.

But take heed! Not all is as it seems even in the Fields of Day! Beware the Wilde Swan, the Laidley Worm and the Hydra. Try not to ruffle any feathers when you visit Mother Carey and her Chickens. That Sacred Vervain, key to Sleigh’s spell for clear vision? It grows in Oberon’s backyard – use it wisely. Don’t tarry long in Valhalla or you might remain there indefinitely… And if you see the Golden Fleece, best to let it lie and remember: All that is gold does not glitter!

7  In his Guidebook, Sleigh notably provides both a list of cited literature (13-14) and, in his colophon, a spell (15-16) “so your eyes be opened” to distinguish the true from the false.

8  Evolve both in its Darwinian sense, as an adaptation in relation to the environment in order to survive and flourish, as well as in its fruitfully erroneous sense, as change implying ethical growth. While the idea has been appropriated in the past and twisted into an ethnocentric and racist argument for Western “progress” and justification for colonization of indigenous peoples, we might return to the concept and lift out its universal potential. It asks us to differentiate between change that serves some at the expense of others (i.e. “survival of the ‘fittest’”), and change that—helping us connect and understand, deepening our compassion and our care—creates a better world for everyone.

9  “It’s not down on any map; true places never are,” writes Herman Melville. One supposes he spoke metaphorically; Melville, after all, spent most of his life at sea following—what else?—a map. The quote has taken on a poetic life of its own since publication. But to look at this phrase in context furthers the point. Melville refers here to the home of Native Islander Queequeg—a place beyond the reach of the language and stereotypes with which he attempts to capture the character.

Moby Dick, 1851. Chapter 12, Lines 1-7.

10  See Lauren Chen and Philippa Gregory (“A Historical Map”) and Tim Bryars and Tom Harper (A History, “A Historical Map”) on Sleigh.

Hester, Jessica Lee. “For Sale: A Historical Map of the Imagination.” Atlas Obscura. Website. March 18, 2019. Accessed June & July 2022. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/fantasy-map-bernard-sleigh

Bryars, Tim and Tom Harper. A History of the Twentieth Century in 100 Maps. First Edition. University of Chicago Press, October 22, 2014. Print.

11  “I believe in Faeries. It is very natural and not a bit foolish; for in these days we are quickly learning how little we know of any other world than our own. It is no more difficult for me to believe that a wild rose, or a daisy, has personality, consciousness of life—a spirit, in short, than that a human being has.”

Sleigh, Bernard. “The Faery Calendar”. Engraved in Wood by Ivy A. Ellis. Heath Cranton, 1920. Print.

Fairy Investigation Society Website: http://www.fairyist.com/fairy-investigation-society/

Bernard Sleigh founded the Society with friend Capt. Sir Quintin Craufurd in 1927; the occult group had roots in Spiritualism. The first mention of the society appears in Sleigh’s 1926 novel, The Gates of the Horn Being Sundry Records from the Proceedings of the Society for the Investigation of Faery Fact & Fallacy.

12  It is sometimes referred to as “The Red Thread of Fate” or “The Red Thread of Marriage”. The tradition originates in early Chinese folklore in which we are connected finger to thumb, but variations link us finger-to-finger or, in certain Japanese versions, ankle-to-ankle. In some stories the thread connects two soulmates, those destined to love one another beyond the end of time. In others, it connects all—lovers, family, friends, strangers—whom you are fated to cross paths with and be forever linked to in your life.

13  Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1, Lines 84-96.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Arranged for Royal Princess’s Theatre. London, Bradbury and Evans. January 10, 1859. E-book. Accessed July 2022. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/27761/27761-h/27761-h.htm

14  There are too many Storymaps to list here, each deeply meaningful, powerful and affecting, but all of them gave me great hope—for their cartographers and for the world they map.