‘The Messed Up Mountains of Middle-earth’

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.

The Medieval Fantasy City Generator

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]

Previously: Uncharted Atlas.

Mapping the Tensorate Series

A post on Tor.com reveals the map of the Protectorate, the world of JY Yang’s forthcoming Tensorate series (The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune, both coming in September), with a look at both the author’s initial sketch of the world with the final product created by artist Serena Malyon (who we last saw doing the map for Kij Johnson’s Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe).

Previously: Mapping the Dreamlands.

Jonathan Roberts, Scientist and Fantasy Mapmaker

Fantasy cartographer Jonathan Roberts is profiled in a short, paywalled piece in Crain’s New York Business. (Winter Is Coming has a summary.) Roberts is, among other things, the artist behind The Lands of Ice and Fire, the boxed collection of 12 maps of George R. R. Martin’s Westeros. Things I did not know about him: he has a Ph.D. in physics, works as Dotdash’s chief innovation officer—and was given all of 12 weeks to complete the maps for The Lands of Ice and Fire. [Cartophilia]

Previously: A Q&A with Fantasy Cartographer Jonathan Roberts.

Fantasy Maps Exhibit at Texas A&M Library

An exhibition of fantasy maps, Worlds Imagined: The Maps of Imaginary Places Collection, opens Friday at Texas A&M University’s Cushing Memorial Library and Archives. “The maps included are part of an ongoing effort by [Texas A&M’s] Maps and GIS [Library] and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection to develop a shared collection of maps of imaginary places. Cushing is known worldwide for its collection of science fiction and fantasy materials, even housing [George R. R.] Martin’s personal collection of memorabilia.” Worlds Imagined runs until 10 October 2017. [Thanks, Alex.]

Previously: Fantasy Maps Exhibit at St. Louis Central Library.

Map Literacy in the Middle Ages

When we talk about map literacy, we mean the ability to read a map. We can blithely talk about how map reading has changed over the centuries while failing to interrogate whether what we mean by map reading has changed as well. It’s presentism to assume that people in the past did things the same way as they do today. In a useful essay called “Maps, Travel and Exploration in the Middle Ages: Some Reflection About Anachronism,” French academic Patrick Gautier Dalché explores how medieval audiences interpreted mappae mundi and marine charts. Even a mappa mundi, he argues, has a practical function. Spoiler: it’s not how you or I would use them.

It also occurs to me that Dalché’s paper is a must-read for writers of fantasy novels (and fantasy map makers), who might also fall into the trap of assuming that their characters would use their maps the same way as a modern map reader would.

Applying Fantasy Maps to Globes


Map to Globe is an online tool that allows you to transfer a flat map onto a globe. Adam Whitehead has been trying it out with fantasy maps. Some work better than others. Westeros is not one of them, “because the maps of the North and the lands beyond the Wall need to be adjusted so they work on a globe.” Think of it as sort of a Mercator problem in reverse: imagining a flat map rather than a round world: the flat map’s lack of distortion is the issue.

As discussed before, in creating the maps of Westeros and Essos for A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin has not really taken projection into account at all. On his maps of Westeros, the Wall is 300 miles long but the distance between Deepwood Motte and Winterfell (hundreds of miles to the south) is also said to be 300 miles long and the south coast of Westeros—3,000 miles south of the Wall!—is said to be 1,200 miles long. These are all in perfect scale to one another, which is not really possible when you look at the maps as a representation of what the planet actually looks like.

Trying to circle the square, so to speak, leads to complications, as Whitehead points out on his Atlas of Ice and Fire blog.

Of course, if your fantasy world is flat instead of round, you don’t have this problem.

The British Library on Fantasy Maps

Bernard Sleigh, "An ancient mappe of Fairyland," 1918. British Library.
Bernard Sleigh, “An ancient mappe of Fairyland,” 1918. British Library.

British Library curator Tom Harper writes about fantasy maps, which make up a major component of the Library’s current exhibition, Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line (previously).

Fantasy maps increased in number during the 20th century due to the rise of science fiction and fantasy writing, and the birth of television and video games.

Many of them are products of the wildest imaginations, and are immersive places of escapism. Yet all of them retain vestiges of the ‘real’ world in which they were created—whether because of a particular feature illustrated in it, the way in which it has been drawn, or even the ‘real-world’ contexts which inspired it.

Harper’s examples aren’t what someone well-versed in fantasy fiction would expect: they include Milne and Tolkien, but also Sleigh’s 1918 map of Fairyland (above), San Serriffe, and other maps of the unreal from outside genre fiction. (A reminder that fantasy map does not only mean map accompanying a secondary-world fantasy novel in the Tolkien tradition.)

Exhibition Writeups

A couple of reviews of recent map exhibitions that I’ve mentioned before. First, the Arctic Journal looks at the Osher Map Library’s current exhibition, The Northwest Passage: Navigating Old Beliefs and New Realities (see previous entry). And the St. Louis Library’s fantasy maps exhibit (see previous entry), which wrapped up earlier this month, got a writeup from Book Riot. [Book Riot/Osher Maps]

Parnasium’s Fantasy Maps of Real-World Places


I’ve written before about maps of the real world done in the style of fantasy maps; they’re a key piece of evidence for my argument that fantasy maps have a distinct (and limited) style. Enough of these fantasy maps of reality are being done that it’s clearly a thing now. The latest examples I’ve encountered come from an Etsy store called Parnasium. Run by a Polish designer named Karol S., it sells poster-sized maps of Europe, the United States, the British Isles, France, Italy, Japan and Poland (so far) in the style of fantasy maps. (The fact he’s using Uncial script suggests he’s primarily inspired by the Lord of the Rings movies; Uncial is fairly rare in book maps.) [Maptitude]

Fantasy Maps: Macaroni and Malazan


This post describing how to make a fantasy map using macaroni has been making the rounds of Tumblr for a while—it was first posted in January 2014—but it just got picked up by Tor.com recently, so let’s talk about it. The point of the post is how quick and easy it is to make a good looking fantasy map:


(All caps in the original. Yes, it’s like that throughout. Sorry about that.)

But it seems to me that its quick-and-easy appeal is also an indictment of the fantasy map making process—just like the Uncharted Atlas bot (previously), which demonstrates that fantasy map terrain can be algorithmically generated. They do not, in other words, require much in the way of human imagination.

Meanwhile, on the Atlas of Ice and Fire blog, Adam Whitehead has a look at the maps of the Malazan world. Originally co-created by Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont as the basis of a role-playing campaign, the Malazan world is the setting for multi-volume fantasy series by both authors.

The Library of Congress Blog’s Last Post on Fantasy Maps

The Library of Congress blog’s series on maps of imaginary places has now concluded; the final post is a look at what’s available on the subject from the Library of Congress itself. One interesting nugget of information: “The Library of Congress classification system has a range of call numbers reserved for maps of imaginary places: G9930-G9979.” How about that.

Previously: Two More Posts on Fantasy MapsFantasy Maps: Middle-earth vs. WesterosThe Library of Congress Looks at Fantasy Maps.

Uncharted Atlas


Uncharted Atlas is a Twitter bot that generates a new fantasy map every hour. The brainchild of glaciologist Martin O’Leary, it uses algorithmically created terrain that is weathered by water erosion, a process he details on this page (All Over the Map’s post explains it in more human-readable terms). As Martin writes:

I wanted to make maps that look like something you’d find at the back of one of the cheap paperback fantasy novels of my youth. I always had a fascination with these imagined worlds, which were often much more interesting than whatever luke-warm sub-Tolkien tale they were attached to.

At the same time, I wanted to play with terrain generation with a physical basis. There are loads of articles on the internet which describe terrain generation, and they almost all use some variation on a fractal noise approach, either directly (by adding layers of noise functions), or indirectly (e.g. through midpoint displacement). These methods produce lots of fine detail, but the large-scale structure always looks a bit off. Features are attached in random ways, with no thought to the processes which form landscapes. I wanted to try something a little bit different.

The code is available for playing with, and apparently other people are doing just that. Another algorithm—one that linguists should find fascinating—generates the place names.

These maps, generated by Python and JavaScript, are at least credible in comparison to the human-made product. (Quite possibly better, since fantasy maps aren’t always geologically and hydrologically accurate.) So it’s possible to look at Uncharted Atlas as an indictment of fantasy geographies and maps.