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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