First published in 1993 by the University of Iowa Press, the importance of Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place by Kent C. Ryden cannot be understated. Alongside The Last Laugh by Raymond Moody, it is one of the few books that has fundamentally changed my perception of the study of folklore and ghost stories. Over the years, I’ve had a number of scattered thoughts on the subject that this book suddenly arranged into a clear picture. Just like that, a light bulb turned on and put everything into perspective. The idea that folklore is fundamental to how we understand and experience the places in which we live is simple, but often overlooked. The author, Kent Ryden, holds a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University. He was awarded the American Studies Association’s Ralph Henry Gabriel Dissertation Prize in 1991 for an earlier version of the book.
Mapping the Invisible Landscape is divided into five essays. The first, “Of Maps and Minds: The Invisible Landscape,” the second, “Folklore and the Sense of Place,” and the fifth, “The Essay of Place: Themes in the Cartography of the Invisible Landscape,” are the three most important. The remaining two essays are just detailed examples of the theories developed elsewhere in the book using history, geography, and literature. If Mapping the Invisible Landscape has a flaw, it’s that it tends to get bogged down in rich, detailed descriptions that start to meander away from the central theme. Though interesting, the third and fourth essays can be skipped in their entirety without taking anything away from the book.
Ryden’s fundamental insight is that places hold meaning for us, and that folklore is an important vehicle for expressing that meaning. Maps only convey a limited amount of information about a place. Physical geography is limited to a stark, black and white description of the landscape and says nothing about the wealth of human experience there. Ryden calls this collection of stories, recollections, feelings, and history the “Invisible Landscape.” It is the meaning we impose on the physical world, a meaning that is exclusive to human experience.
As people inhabit the land, they develop a sense of place. “Places” are not found on maps. They are fusions of experience, landscape, and location, bound up with time and memory. People form sentimental attachments to places. In “Folklore and the Sense of Place,” Ryden explains how folklore is often the vehicle with which we express our sense of place. “Folk narrative is a vital and powerful means by which knowledge of the invisible landscape is communicated, expressed, and maintained,” he writes. “In fact, the sense of place—the sense of dwelling in the invisible landscape—is in large part a creation of folklore and is expressed most eloquently through folklore. It is through traditional narratives, both personal and communal, that the human meanings with which the landscape is imbued are given form, perpetuated, and shared; the meaning of a place for the people who live there is best captured by the stories that they tell about it.”
What this suggests is that folklore is a critical part of how people form an emotional attachment to a particular place, a place they come to call “home.” It is why, when I move to a new area, I learn as much as I can about local legends. It helps me gain a better appreciation for the local people and culture. “Stories–and folklore in general–are inextricably linked with landscapes, overlying them snugly, bound to them and coloring them like paint on a barn wall,” Ryden writes. “They are a central means by which people organize their physical surroundings.” Place names, particularly folk names, reveal a great deal about the meaning of a place for the people who live there. They may commemorate an historic event, a well-known resident, or unique feature. Names like “the Devil’s Punchbowl” or “Dead Man’s Trail” immediately invoke feelings, stories, and memories in the minds of local residents.
Mapping the Invisible Landscape is a must-read for anyone interested in folklore and ghost stories. Understanding the ideas and concepts expressed in this book is fundamental to understanding folklore’s relationship to human experience, and why it is so important to our culture. Piece by piece and insight by insight, Kent C. Ryden builds a solid case for the intimate connection between folklore and geography. Unfortunately, the book’s academic tone has limited its popular appeal, but I hope someday it will become more widely circulated among the general public.