Having ruffled fannish feathers with a post critiquing Middle-earth’s mountains and another admitting that they don’t like fantasy maps, Alex Acks returns with a Tor.com post about the problems with Middle-earth’s river systems. Specifically, the Anduin, which breaks all kinds of hydrological rules: it cuts across mountain ranges (and parallels the Misty Mountains), it lacks tributaries along one side and it doesn’t seem to have much of a drainage basin. “Even if you grant the mountains as things created by the Valar doing their Valar-thing—which means my mental excuse for the Anduin cutting through mountain ranges is void—it still looks weird from a geological perspective.”
Another point Acks makes, about Tolkien’s influence on fantasy maps in general, that I should file for later:
Just as Tolkien’s novels have had a massive influence on epic fantasy as a genre, his map is the bad fantasy map that launched a thousand bad fantasy maps—many of which lack even his mythological fig leaf to explain the really eyebrow-raising geography. The things that make me cringe about the geography of Middle-earth are still echoing in the ways we imagine and construct fantasy worlds today.
Critiques of fantasy maps have more to do with the shortcomings of fantasy worlds than the maps that depict them.
There’s something I’ve noticed about the recent round of debates about fantasy maps, something I’ve been noticing about discussions of fantasy maps in general. They don’t talk about fantasy maps in terms of their cartographic merit. That is to say, they don’t judge fantasy maps as maps.
When Alex Acks vents about fantasy maps, it’s because the mountain ranges in Middle-earth don’t make sense, not because the cartography of Pauline Baynes or Christopher Tolkien wasn’t up to the task. It’s more that the territory is shaped to fit the story rather than the other way around, less that the maps of said territory frequently lack a scale. When Boing Boing’s Rob Beschizza says that “Game of Thrones has such a terrible map it could be presented as a parody of bad fantasy maps,” he’s not saying that the cartography of the various Song of Ice and Fire mapmakers, such as Jonathan Roberts (The Lands of Ice and Fire), James Sinclair (books one through four) or Jeffrey L. Ward (A Dance with Dragons), is deficient. He’s saying that the Game of Thrones geography is terrible.
You don’t have to draw a pointy-witch’s-hat faux-medieval map. You can draw an oblique perspective. You can fill your map with misdirection. You can scrawl annotations over it and make it an actual artifact of your story. You can make geological maps, three-dimensional cutaways, cartoons, whatever suits your story. In fact, I await the day when authors realise they can be as creative—and subversive—with their maps as they are with their text.
There is an assumption there … fantasy books have maps. Which is odd, since I have read hundreds (possibly thousands) of novels without maps, many of them set in regions I’m unfamiliar with. The fact is that for a great many works of fiction maps are irrelevant, they are about what people are doing in their lives, if Sarah goes to visit her uncle in Vostok it is sufficient for me to know it took her several hours on the train and when she got there the forests were covered in snow. I don’t need to look it up on a map. It doesn’t matter. […]
In Red Sister the vast majority of the story takes place within a circle a few hundred yards across. The small amount of traveling is simple. The rare references to remote places are similarly simple. The habitable world is a corridor fifty miles wide and tens of thousands of miles long, following the equator. The empire is flanked to the west by one country behind a mountainous border, and to the east by a sea with another country on the far shore.
A map would be a long skinny thing on a page that was 90%+ white space. The detail would be hard to see and invented by me entirely to fill the map … no other reason.
On the other hand, Betsy Dornbusch, author of the Seven Eyes trilogy, finds that working out the map when writing a story—even when it’s in a real-world location—does aid the writing process. “It helped SO MUCH to map it early and while I wrote. Gave me ideas, provided realism and worldbuilding issues, helped the story immensely,” she wrote on Twitter. See the entire Twitter thread beginning here.
While we’re on the subject of fantasy maps, here’s Camestros Felapton with a thing: “I thought I’d look at the most classic of fantasy maps again but from a different perspective. Part of the problem and the attraction of Tolkien’s original map is the additional detail and a sense of a bigger explorable world. What happens if we strip that away and while we are at it making the right-angle problem a bit worse?” What happens is my eyeballs bleed: that’s what happens. (The right-angle problem is probably a reference to Alex Acks’s critique.)
It might be facile to hashtag #notallmaps, but, really, not every map is a geologic mess, not every map is a Eurocentric western ocean oriented map, with an eastern blend into problematic oriental racial types. Not every map has borders which strictly follow natural barriers and does not have the messy irregularity that real world maps and borders have.
He offers up some examples of what he considers the better sort of fantasy map. Notably, and one I didn’t know, a map from Arianne “Tex” Thompson’s One Night in Sixes:
This is a map I love because it is precisely an in-world artifact. This is a map as used by the characters, changed and remarked for current conditions. Oftentimes, a map in a fantasy novel will be in “god game mode,” an omniscient point of view at the reader, not the character level. Even if characters traverse the entirety of the map, Tough Guide to Fantasyland style, they often aren’t seeing the world of the map as the map. The style and technology of a map is often at odds with what the characters already have.
The difference between maps for the reader and in-world maps is an interesting point, one I plan to look at in more depth in a future article. And I’ll have more to say on fantasy map style, and fantasy map design, shortly.
At Longreads, Adrian Daub has a long, discursive, in-depth essay about fantasy maps, fantasy novels with maps, and what it meant to grow up loving same. It’s so full of good bits and covers so much ground that quoting just a paragraph would mislead you into thinking it was just about that one thing. It’s piece I’ll be returning to often, I think.
Science fiction/fantasy novelist Alex Acks, a geologist by training, has some issues with Middle-earth’s mountain ranges. “Middle-earth’s got 99 problems, and mountains are basically 98 of them.” Basically it comes down to how Tolkien’s mountain ranges intersect at right angles—and mountains don’t do that.
And Mordor? Oh, I don’t even want to talk about Mordor.
Tectonic plates don’t tend to collide at neat right angles, let alone in some configuration as to create a nearly perfect box of mountains in the middle of a continent. […]
To be fair to J.R.R. Tolkien, while continental drift was a theory making headway in the world of geology from 1910 onwards, plate tectonics didn’t arrive on the scene until the mid-50s, and then it took a little while to become accepted science. (Though goodness, plate tectonics came down—I have it on good authority from geologists who were alive and in school at the time that it was like the holy light of understanding shining forth. Suddenly, so many things made sense.) Fantasy maps drawn after the 1960s don’t get even that overly generous pass.
And here I thought Tolkien’s mountains were better than most—but then I’m no geologist, and also than most may not be saying that much.
It’s like Uncharted Atlas, but for cities: the Medieval Fantasy City Generator is a web application that “generates a random medieval city layout of a requested size. The generation method is rather arbitrary, the goal is to produce a nice looking map, not an accurate model of a city.” As was the case with Uncharted Atlas, the effect is accidentally damning: if an algorithm can create a fantasy setting indistinguishable from a human-made product, what does that say about the human-made product? [Ada Palmer]
Noting for future reference: The Cartographer’s Daughter, a middle grade novel by Kiran Millwood Hargrave that came out last November from Knopf. “[W]hen a series of mysterious events shakes the community, it’s Isabella—daughter to the island’s only mapmaker—who will lead a party of explorers into the forest in search of answers.”