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In this setting, Santa and all his elves live in a village centered on the North Pole. This town is basically a Christmas-themed Hidden Elf Village. Obviously, Santa leaves every year to deliver presents to the children of the world, but the elves very rarely venture outside of the magical boundary that keeps the North Pole shrouded from the rest of the world.

The question is, as seen in the title, how do these elves give each other directions to get around? Let's say a new hot chocolate bar opened in town. How would an elf describe to another elf how to get there? Normally, the cardinal directions are sufficient to get where you're trying to go, but this gets rather confusing when your town is actually centered on the North Pole. Here's a picture to help illustrate the issue: Generic Map of a Fantasy North Pole Village If you assume that you're standing somewhere on this red ring, you begin see that going North just leads you toward the center of town, while heading South means heading away from the center of town. To travel East or West means you are travelling along the perimeter of the circle whose radius is the distance between you and the North Pole. (I mean, I guess this is technically always true, but it isn't usually an issue in navigation.) Furthermore, if you are standing on the North Pole and you begin walking in a straight line then it doesn't matter which direction you're facing, you are heading South.

So how do Elves give meaningful directions to navigate their North Pole village?

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    $\begingroup$ I am not young, and I have never ever ever given anybody directions of how to go around in the city in terms of cardinal points. Nor have I ever received directions from a real live person in such terms. In fact, the only entities which have ever given me directions in terms of cardinal points are the voices of navigation software such as Google Maps, and I have always ignored them; when it says "go west" all I hear is "just drive and I will tell you what to do". Normally, people says something like "the new chocolate bar is at the corner of Street1 and Stree2, on the left as you go uptown". $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ Does not seem like a world building question. $\endgroup$
    – Boba Fit
    Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ Is there some reason that street names wouldn't work? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 20:15
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    $\begingroup$ Ahem, use polar coordinates. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Before the invention of rotating map GPSs, it was statistically more common for men to give directions in terms in cardinal directions than left/right. I believe that most people now prefer left/right only because we are less used to seeing a fixed orientation map and more used to seeing a GPS screen that turns with us, but if your elves are used to paper maps, then cardinality will be important to them $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 6:10

6 Answers 6

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If, at the four edges of town, there are big/prominent buildings, they could stand in for the cardinal directions. "Go towards Santa's house", "Go in the direction of the Samsung factory until you see a..." etc.

(Also, pet peeve: Santa does NOT live at the North Pole, he lives in Lapland. I'm 100% sure of this because I sent a letter to him addressed to Lapland and received a reply. Also because my Mom said so and she wouldn't lie to me.)

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  • $\begingroup$ I really like this idea! Having large, prominent landmarks stand in for the cardinal directions makes it very clear the general area of the desired destination. It also immediately springs to mind for me distinct city districts which are characterized by their respective landmarks. It also makes it easier to distinguish where people enter and leave the city from such as "They came in the city gate in the Toymaking district" as opposed to "They came in the South gate" (Technically, every gate is a South gate). $\endgroup$
    – Redbomber
    Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 21:09
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The North Pole is a point. A city, a village or even a hamlet are larger than a point.

As long as you are off that point, cardinal directions are still perfectly valid.

That aside, if you can't give directions with N,S,E,W, you can always use physical features of the place: "next to the barber shop, 3 houses down the road after the butcher" and so on.

Before Google maps and alike, I was never given directions with cardinal points, and I doubt many folks knew how to tell the cardinal points unless they were in some trade needing it, yet they always managed to get where they wanted to go.

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    $\begingroup$ "Thataway" said the elf, pointing where the inquirer needed to go... $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ It's a cultural thing. Where I grew up we used north/south/east/west for everything $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ The problem is, 'due east' is a curved line, not a straight line. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 22:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Justin Thyme the Second - So follow the curved line. What's the problem? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 11:18
  • $\begingroup$ @– chasly - supports Monica The problem is that to get to a point 'due east', you might be better off going north west. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 19:46
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Just name the meridians

Going through the north pole to the south pole, there are lines called meridians. )You may be familiar with the prime meridian.) All the elves need to do is give names to four meridians at 90 degree angles (prime, grim, lee, and grey). Now they have useful directions (primeward, grimward, leeward, and greyward) each meaning in a direction parallel to that meridian.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yep, and "north" and "south" would still be applicable, just headed away or towards town center. "Go 3 blocks south down Grimward Avenue, take a left at 5th street." $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ So, from the center, 'Go south, go east, go north' gets you where? Exactly where you started from. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 22:18
  • $\begingroup$ @JustinThymetheSecond That is no different than saying "Turn left, then left, then left, then left again" on a block system. The directions are only silly because the sequence of directions given was silly. But one could say, Go south, then East, then South and have a very usable set of directions... especially if there is some giant marker in the center of town that you can see from anywhere. Then North and South become the very easy to understand instructions of moving towards or away from the big landmark, and west and east mean to move clockwise or counter clockwise to it. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 6:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki You seem to have missed the point Your 'block directions' require FOUR 90 degree turns to get to the same point. I used only three 90 degree turns. Only the turns were not 90 degrees in 3D. That's my point - at the poles, east is not 90 degrees from north. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 19:45
  • $\begingroup$ @JustinThymetheSecond That only matters because you are used to it mattering. If you grow up somewhere that North, South, East, and West have different meanings, but can still get you to anywhere you are going, then it does not really matter what they mean. It's like the difference between Imperial and Metric, no matter what advantages one system seems to have over the other, the most useful system will always be the one you already know how to use. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 20:15
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There's no problem here, just use the same methodology we do today

The only change you need to make is that no street passing through the north pole can do so without changing names. This isn't that uncommon (you should go to Holland, where some of the older towns have street names that change every block). The circumpolar streets can be the same name around the entire latitude, but you can't have, for example, Candy Cane Lane that crosses from a latitude over the pole returning to the same latitude.

Why?

Because so long as you have that restriction, all the directions can be made with procedures you see today.

  • Go north on Candy Cane Lane.
  • Go south on Candy Cane Lane.
  • Go north on Reindeer Ave.
  • Go south on Reindeer Ave.
  • Go east on Teddy Bear St.
  • Go west on Teddy Bear St.

All of that makes sense, because the point of reference is always from the point where the provider of directions is standing. It would never make sense for someone standing on the north pole to say "north on...." But it makes perfect sense for someone standing on a latitude below the pole to say "north on...."

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    $\begingroup$ "Go east until you get beck here". $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 22:20
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    $\begingroup$ @JustinThymetheSecond To be fair, that works today anywhere on the planet. :-) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 23:45
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Polar Coordinate Systems are already a thing

The kind of maps we are most familiar with are based on Cartesian Co-ordinate systems which annotate locations based on the combination of an origin point, and 2 perpendicular axises... but there is another equally valid way of determining where things are called Polar Coordinate Systems. In a polar Coordinate System, instead of tracking a position using 2 distances, you track position using a distance and an angle. So, the question is, how do you give directions in a Polar Coordinate System... as it turns out, it's actually very easy.

North is always going the be the direction towards the center of town, an South always away from it, and West will always be to move around town clockwise, and East Counter clockwise. Assuming you can always see, or generally gauge where the center of town is, then from anywhere you are standing, gauging the direction of North, South, East, and West will always be trivial.

Can you go East until you get back to where you started? Yes, but that actually does not matter at all. Considering that a flaw in the system is like worrying about being able to get back to where you started by taking 4 left turns in a block system. Of course you can get back to where you started, the methods by which that is in option are trivial from a navigation standpoint.

Since your road system is basically a set of concentric circles, Cartesian East and West would actually not be as helpful anyway because East would eventually become North, and then West, etc... but in a Polar Coordinate system, you could go East on Polar Circle, and never have your street mysteriously change directions on you.

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    $\begingroup$ There is no 'east' and 'west' in a polar coordinate system. To be effective, the polar coordinate system would only work if the origin was at the point that you are, not at the actual pole. But this begs the question be asked, 'where is the zero degree line?' And, of course, a reasonable answer would be 'the ray that intersects the North Pole'. Where you want to go is the polar opposite of what you would expect. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 20:12
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    $\begingroup$ @JustinThymetheSecond then it is a good thing someone put a big candy-cane colored rod there so that no one can ever stand on it exactly and get confused ;D. Even in our Cardigan system, West and East are directions, not places. We added meridians and arbitrarily called some things Eastern or Western to make things less/more confusing... but there is no place you ever arrive at called East or West. Theses are just relative directions. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ This is a very clever solution! Using polar coordinates seems both on-theme and a serviceable solution to get around. Also the idea of an Elf pulling out a protractor because he needs to go about 400m at 67 degrees makes me chuckle internally a little. $\endgroup$
    – Redbomber
    Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Redbomber fun thought, but in practical terms, the protractor is as unnecessary as the Pythagorean Theorem is to finding your way around a grid system. I generally would not say, go 5 blocks South-West in a grid system oriented to the Cardinal Directions, I'd say go 4 blocks South, then 3 blocks West. Likewise, an elf would literally still say go 4 blocks South, then 3 blocks West... it's just that those instructions create a different displacement in a the Polar system than on a grid, but they are just as easy to understand, communicate, and follow, and therein lies the important part. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 23:04
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use relative directions

Many people do anyway. Tell people whether to turn right or left.

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  • $\begingroup$ Unless you are traveling backwards. Which you are if you are facing someone to give them directions. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 20:13
  • $\begingroup$ You give them according to the directions. "Left onto Holly Street" may be left to neither you nor the person getting them, where you are standing, because it is relative to his facing when he reaches Holly Street. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Commented Jan 25, 2023 at 0:21

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