The Sixteenth-Century Origins of Fantasy Maps

One of the things I’m interested in for my fantasy maps project is the origin of fantasy map design: where does that tell-tale fantasy map look come from?

Look at enough fantasy maps, and it’s hard not to notice certain commonalities in design. As Stefan Ekman demonstrates in Here Be Dragons (yes, I have a review coming—soon!), the maps that accompany fantasy novels tend to be characterized by a number of typical features. “Like much high fantasy,” he writes, “the secondary-world maps follow a pseudomedieval aesthetic according to which dashes of pre-Enlightenment mapping conventions are rather routinely added to a mostly modern creation.”1 Fantasy maps look nothing like medieval maps, and can in many ways be seen as the hybrid descendent of 19th-century amateur mapmaking and early-20th-century children’s book illustrations.

But that’s not to say that they can’t have earlier antecedents. Take a look at this slice of a map:

Forliani map excerpt

It’s rather better done than most modern fantasy maps—much greater resolution and precision, and it’s on a proper map projection, to boot—but there are certainly some similarities. Compare it with, for example, a slice from the (admittedly mediocre) map that accompanies Robin Hobb‘s Fool’s Errand (2001):

Fool's Errand map (excerpt)

The mountains are digitally clone-stamped, but it’s easy enough to see the similarities in design. Look at enough fantasy maps, and you see the mountains—to the point where if a map draws mountains instead of contour lines or relief, people see fantasy maps.

Mountains done that way are a characteristic of 16th-century maps—printed maps, from the early modern period. The slice of map above comes from Paolo Forlani’s Universale Descrittione Di Tutta la Terra Consciuta Fin Oui, and it dates from 1585. (The excerpt above shows the middle of North America.)

Universale Descrittione Di Tutta la Terra Consciuta Fin Oui (Forliani)

Go through Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum and you’ll see similar maps (especially his Islandia).

They’re not quite modern fantasy maps, in that they’re still too good: artistically excellent, on map projections, full of sea monsters and cartouches and blowing winds at the margins—indeed, I stumbled across these maps while reading The Art of the Map—whereas fantasy maps, in general, tend to be devoid of all these flourishes. The worst have only mountains, rivers, shorelines and cities.

There’s no 1:1 correlation, but I find the similarities interesting.


  1. Stefan Ekman, Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2013), p. 66.