The Territory Is Not the Map

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.

“Fantasy maps,” writes Adrian Daub, “are invented, but not all that inventive. Virtually all of them repeat certain features. The way coastlines, mountain ranges, and islands are arranged follows rules. For instance: a surprising number of fantasy worlds contain vast landmasses in the east, but only an endless ocean to the west.”1

They’re not critiquing the map, they’re critiquing the territory.

I’ve seen this before. When people talk about their favourite fantasy maps, they’re not actually talking about their favourite work of cartography; they’re talking about a map of their favourite fantasy place. Harry Potter fans like the Marauder’s Map because it’s a Harry Potter map, not because it’s a particularly fine example of fantasy cartography.

And if in certain critical circles the fantasy map has a rather bad reputation, it’s not because of the quality of the cartography. It’s because fantasy novels are expected to come with maps. It’s become a cliché, thanks to multi-volume epic fantasy series that are basically derivative Tolkien clones: Tolkien had maps, so they have to as well. The presence of a map at the front of a fantasy novel signifies that this fantasy novel is the kind that comes with a map, i.e., an epic fantasy series. Whether you like or dislike fantasy maps often comes down to whether you like or dislike those kinds of books.

In all of this the question of the maps themselves gets elided a bit. If fantasy maps are bad because they’re ubiquitous, because they’re often unnecessary, or because they depict a risibly unconvincing terrain, are they also bad because of their design? As I said earlier, we’ve conflated the map with the territory, in a way that real-world cartographers would find confusing: your opinion of a map of Italy doesn’t depend on whether the Boot is a convincing example of a peninsula.

This is an example of a bad fantasy map:

Terry Goodkind, Wizard’s First Rule (New York: Tor, 1994).

But why is it a bad fantasy map? Is it bad because the terrain is so ridiculously, implausibly mountainous? Or is it bad because the cartography is so poor? The map is drowning in undifferentiated hill signs: is that a fault of the author’s cartography or of his geography?

Which brings up the question of fantasy map design. “What does a fantasy map look like?”—or more to the point, “What is a fantasy map supposed to look like?”—is a question I get a lot, especially from beginner fantasy writers who want to Get It Right. I always demur, partly because I don’t want to set myself up as the judge of such things, partly because I don’t want to perpetuate fantasy clichés, and partly because I’m not actually sure. Because it turns out that for the most part, fantasy map design is unexplored territory.

In his study of fantasy maps and settings, Here Be Dragons, Stefan Ekman talks a little bit about it: using a sample of fantasy maps, he explores whether and how often various cartographic elements, like hill signs or cartouches, are present. His study allowed him to make the following remarks about the “typical” fantasy map:

In brief, a typical fantasy map portrays a secondary world, a compass rose or similar device showing its orientation with north at the top. It is not set in any given hemisphere (not necessarily in a spherical world at all), although there are reasons to believe that clues in the text would indicate north as the direction of colder climates. Apart from topographical map elements such as rivers, bays, islands, and mountains, such a map would also contain towns and other artificial constructions. The hill signs used are typically pre-Enlightenment (either profile or oblique).

Even this brief list reveals the mixture of modern and historical map features. Like much high fantasy, 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. Whether this is because of careless research, genre conformity, lack of imagination, or a desire to give the reader the easiest possible access to the map and the world it portrays is hard to say.2

In the end, it’s tautological: fantasy maps are designed to look like fantasy maps. An endless series of variations on a single theme: as the inadvertent holotype for maps of derivative fantasy worlds, Christopher Tolkien’s original map of Middle-earth has a lot to answer for. We talk about fantasy map geography—the territory—because insofar as the cartography is concerned, there’s very little to say.

Because what a fantasy map looks like is received wisdom. And more to the point, that received wisdom is accepted without question or second thought. For an example of this, consider the many examples of real-world maps done “in the style of fantasy maps.” An incomplete list would include Samuel Fisher’s maps of Australia, Great Britain, Iceland and the United States on Reddit; Callum Ogden’s map of Europe “in a Fantasy Tolkien Style”; and map prints sold at Etsy stores like CartoArt, Mapsburgh and Parnasium.

We know these are done in the fantasy map style because, like obscenity, we know it when we see it. The trouble is that we don’t seem to be able to enunciate what that style is, where it comes from, or what the rules are. There’s a design language here, but the rules are understood, sometimes a bit subconsciously, rather than perceived.

Read Callum Ogden’s article on how he created the Lord of the Rings-style map of Scotland and you realize that what’s going on here is mimicry: the quality of the map depends on skill of the mimic and the quality of the original being mimicked. The problem there is that sometimes the original is itself a copy. Like an extruded-product fantasy trilogy based on a warmed-over D&D campaign, the final result is just a few too many steps away from anything vaguely resembling original source material.

If you want an example of how this can happen, consider a book that ought to be about fantasy map design, but isn’t: Jared Blando’s How to Draw Fantasy Art and RPG Maps (Impact, 2015) is about fantasy map execution. That important difference means that Blando’s book operates on the shared assumptions behind the default fantasy map design, but does not define, explain or interrogate them. Rather, this is a book that will hold the hand of people who want to make their maps look like fantasy maps—the people asking me to tell them what their map should look like will find in this book the answer they’re looking for, but not necessarily the answer they need.

Lavishly illustrated, How to Draw Fantasy Art and RPG Maps is not a manual for professional artists or cartographers; the intended audience is signalled in the book’s subtitle: Step by Step Cartography for Gamers and Fans. (To be honest, my study of fantasy maps has ignored the vast quantities of mapmaking done for role-playing games, both published and homebrewed. I had to draw the line somewhere.) As a guide to mapmaking it’s less useful than you might expect. Blando’s method is to start with the blank page and add, one after the other, the various elements until the map is finished. Start with the basic shape of the continent, then refine the coastline. Add detail like lakes, islands and bays. Trace the line of the mountain range, then add detail. Start with a basic drawing, then add detail. It’s the fantasy map equivalent of drawing everything by starting with a bunch of circles.

While the book assumes a shared understanding of what a fantasy map ought to look like, within those parameters it isn’t prescriptivist. The author does not lay down rules: elements are described as fun, a great way of adding something to the map, and so forth.3 It’s really up to you. And in the context of a private D&D campaign, there’s really nothing wrong with this approach: Blando is basically giving gamers a list of elements to include on the maps of their campaigns, and getting out of their way.

But the fantasy map method is not limited to role-playing games: there’s plenty of genetic exchange between game worlds and novel worlds. Games have become novels, and vice versa. With the short shrift given to landforms in Blando’s guide, it’s easy to see where critiques of fantasy geographies like Acks’s can come from: a map whose creation started with “draw a simple shape” is only going to result in a geologically or geographically plausible continent by accident.

In other words, it’s not the map that’s the problem, it’s the mapmaking process. It’s not the cartography, it’s the act of creation.

We can’t expect Blando’s beginner-level drawing guide to serve as a primer for fantasy cartography. But it offers a possible explanation as to how the fantasy map making process yields a map that ends up being called terrible: as an example of how fantasy map shibboleths are invisibly received and propagated, and of what fantasy mapmakers don’t think about, it is, ironically, quite revealing.

(Featured image: Impact Books)


  1. Daub is referring to the Left-Justified Fantasy Map trope.
  2. Stefan Ekman, Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2013), p. 66.
  3. And Blando’s examples seem ungrounded. Chapter Four deals with typography; the script examples given (“Imperial,” “Gothic”, “Elven” and “Draconian”) are unlike any typeface or writing style I’ve seen elsewhere. They seem received—but from where?