‘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.

Fantasy Maps: Middle-earth vs. Westeros

In the latest instalment of Hannah Stahl’s series of posts on fantasy maps at the Library of Congress’s map blog (see previous entry), she takes as a starting point my argument that Tolkien’s map of Middle-earth is the progenitor map from which the modern fantasy map design is descended, and compares that map to maps of Westeros from George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series.

Previously: The Library of Congress Looks at Fantasy Maps; Review: The Lands of Ice and Fire.

Tolkien’s Annotated Map On Display for One Day Only

Tolkien’s annotated map of Middle-earth, recently purchased by Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, is being put on display—but only for one day. Mark your calendars: Thursday, 23 June 2016, from 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM, Weston Library. [Tony Campbell]

(The only other instance of a single-day map exhibition I can think of was when the Austrian National Library put the infinitely more delicate and valuable Tabula Peutingeriana on display for a single day in 2007.)

Previously: Bodleian Library Acquires Annotated Tolkien MapMap of Middle-earth, Annotated by Tolkien Himself, Discovered.

Bodleian Library Acquires Annotated Tolkien Map

A map of Middle-earth annotated by J. R. R. Tolkien himself that was discovered among the papers of illustrator Pauline Baynes last year and subsequently put up for auction has been purchased by Oxford’s Bodleian Library for its Tolkien archive. News coverage: BBC NewsGuardian.

Previously: Map of Middle-earth, Annotated by Tolkien Himself, Discovered.

The Medieval Origins of Thrór’s Map

thror-cotton

In my 2013 article on fantasy maps for The New York Review of Science Fiction, I noted that J. R. R. Tolkien’s two maps from The Hobbit were much more like real-world medieval maps than typical fantasy maps usually are. Medieval scholar Thijs Porck explores how Thrór’s map, in particular, is quite similar to the 11th-century Cotton World Map.

This Anglo-Saxon map of the world, made in Canterbury around 1025-1050, shows a number of similarities to Tolkien’s map of Thror. First and foremost, the two maps share the same orientation: East is on the top, North is on the left and the West is on the bottom (you can clearly see this by looking at Britain in the bottom left corner!)—a standard feature of medieval maps (before the introduction of the compass, the East (where the sun rises) was the easiest direction to locate). Moreover, the Cotton World Map, like Tolkien’s, features several drawings, such as two little men fighting in the south of Britain, little drawings of cities like Rome and Jerusalem, and mountains (including Mount Ararat in Armenia with a little Ark of Noah!). Finally, the Anglo-Saxon map accompanies some of these drawings with descriptions; e.g., the drawing of a lion in China, where it says “hic abundant leones” [here are many lions]—not unlike Tolkien’s drawing of a spider, near the text ‘There are spiders’.

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