Celebrating Christopher Tolkien’s Cartographic Legacy

Christopher Tolkien, map from The Fellowship of the Ring (Unwin, 1954). The British Library.

It turns out that I wasn’t finished talking about the maps drawn by Christopher Tolkien. My latest piece for Tor.com, “Celebrating Christopher Tolkien’s Cartographic Legacy,” went live at Tor.com this morning. It looks at the collaborative process between J. R. R. Tolkien and his son Christopher as father and son tried to make the narrative agree with the map, and vice versa; takes a deep dive into Christopher’s mapmaking technique; and tries to assess the impact of his maps on fantasy mapmaking.

Previously: Christopher Tolkien, 1924-2020.

Christopher Tolkien, 1924-2020

Christopher Tolkien, map from The Fellowship of the Ring (Unwin, 1954). The British Library.

Christopher Tolkien, the third son of J. R. R. Tolkien and the executor of his literary estate and editor of his posthumous works, died yesterday at the age of 95. But one of his legacies is likely to be overlooked: he drew the map of Middle-earth that appeared in the first edition of The Lord of the Rings. That map proved hugely influential. It helped set the norm for subsequent epic fantasy novels: they would come with maps, and those maps would look rather a lot like the one drawn by Christopher Tolkien.

Christopher Tolkien himself was self-deprecating about the execution of his map, and about the design choices he made. Regarding a new version of the map he drew for Unfinished Tales, he took pains to emphasize that

the exact preservation of the style and detail (other than nomenclature and lettering) of the map that I made in haste twenty-five years ago does not argue any belief in the excellence of its conception or execution. I have long regretted that my father never replaced it by one of his own making. However, as things turned out it became, for all its defects and oddities, “the Map,” and my father himself always used it as a basis afterwards (while frequently noticing its inadequacies).

However hastily it was drawn, it was pivotal all the same.

A Fantasy Maps Update

It’s been a while since my last post. That’s because I spent most of last week with my head down, working on a presentation about fantasy maps for a science fiction/fantasy convention that took place over the weekend. The presentation was called “The Territory Is Not the Map: Exploring the Fantasy Map Style,” and it drew on the arguments I made in recent Tor.com articles and in this post. Will I let you see it at some point? Possibly, though not likely in its current form: the paint was barely dry on it when I delivered it, though it was quite well received.

Meanwhile, a couple of other things. Here’s a piece by the author Lev Grossman about the urge to map fictional places. It’s excerpted from his essay in Deserina Boskovitch’s Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy (which came out last month from Abrams).

It didn’t matter that these places didn’t exist, what mattered was how much people wanted them to. Fictional maps are a visual trace of the ridiculous, undignified passion that we pour into worlds that we know aren’t real. They seem to confirm the ridiculous faith we place in novels—to see one is to say, silently and only to yourself, See? I knew it was real!

And the author Diane Duane has a simply massive collection of links to digital mapmaking resources in re fantasy maps, from map generators to tools to tutorials.

What Does a Fantasy Map Look Like?

New from me on Tor.com this morning: “What Does a Fantasy Map Look Like?” This is the first of several planned pieces that will take a deep dive into the look and feel of fantasy maps: their design and aesthetic, their origins and inspirations, and where they may be going in the future. In this piece, I start by trying to describe a baseline fantasy map style—which, though it’s well recognized and often imitated, has not often been spelled out.

Maps Middle-earth Style: By Hand and by ArcGIS

John M. Nelson

Dan Bell’s career drawing maps of real-world places in the style of maps of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth continues apace; a recent piece, a map of San Francisco, got written up in the San Francisco Chronicle, and his website is full of other recent works.

But computer mapping may be about to overtake hand-drawn illustration. John M. Nelson has created an ArcGIS style that does the very thing Dan Bell does by hand: emulate the maps of Middle-earth executed by Christopher Tolkien and Pauline Baynes. The style is called, naturally, My Precious: John explains it here and here, and demonstrates the style with this map of the Americas.

There are, of course, some flaws in this method: a mechanical representation of a hand-drawn style risks falling into the uncanny valley’s cartographic equivalent, especially when mountain and forest signs are clone-stamped over large areas. And to be honest I’m not a fan of the Aniron font: those letterforms were used in the Lord of the Rings movies, but never the books’ maps, and now they’re found on damn near every Tolkien-style map, and we hates it, precious, we hates it forever. But Nelson is basically emulating modern fantasy map practice: modern fantasy maps are invariably done in Illustrator, labels are computer generated rather than hand-drawn, and hill signs are clone stamped. Applying it to real-world maps, and GIS software, is new, but a difference in degree.

Previously: Dan Bell’s ‘Tolkien-Style’ Maps of the Lake District.

New Orleans: ‘Totally Unrealistic’ Fantasy City

Don’t miss writer and game designer James L. Sutter critiquing New Orleans as though it was a city from a fantasy novel. A major criticism of fantasy maps, whether of cities or worlds, is their lack of realism: unrealistic rivers, mountains and so forth. New Orleans, with its totally unrealistic terrain, doesn’t pass the test. “Please clean up your map and resubmit when it follows the rules of a real-world city,” Sutter concludes.

Dan Bell’s ‘Tolkien-Style’ Maps of the Lake District

Dan Bell, “The Lake District National Park.” Giclée print.

Maps of real places done up in the style of fantasy maps are a thing, as those who have been following along will know by now. I’m planning a dedicated page on the subject in the Fantasy Maps section. That page will have to include Dan Bell’s maps of the Lake District—maps, he says, “that resemble the iconic style of J. R. R. Tolkien.” His maps have suddenly got a bit of media attention, which is atypical for this sort of project: BBC News, The Westmoreland Gazette. They resemble more the maps done for the Lord of the Rings movies than the maps created by Christopher Tolkien or Pauline Baynes: one tell is the triple-dot diacritic above the a, which is used in the movie maps and comes from Tolkien’s Elvish script. Bell, a 25-year-old “ordinary guy” from the Lake District, is selling prints of the maps online. [Kenneth Field]

#mappingfantasy

Cat Rambo livetweeted some of the good bits from the online class on creating fantasy maps she taught with Alex Acks and Paul Weimer earlier this month (see previous entry), using the #mappingfantasy hashtag. Most of those good bits were common sense worldbuilding advice; by and large the intended audience is authors creating their fantasy worlds. They’re the ones who benefit most from basic geological or geographical advice, such as:

Other tips would be familiar to cartography students.

Here’s a point that makes sense from a worldbuilding perspective, but it has led to the cliché that every point on the map has to be visited:

On the other hand, there were some subversive bits that are so prosaic and pregnant with meaning that I’d love to know the context.

An Online Class on Fantasy Maps

Alex Acks and Paul Weimer are teaching an online class on creating fantasy maps:

Join Alex Acks and Paul Weimer as they talk about fantasy maps in order to give you the tools you need to create and map your world. Topics include basic geologic principles, common mistakes, forms maps can take, how maps reflect world view, and how maps change over time.

Acks, you may recall, wrote pieces on Middle-earth’s problematic mountains and rivers, and fantasy maps in general; Weimer, for his part, wrote a defence of fantasy maps. The class costs $99 and takes place via Google Hangouts on 16 December.

The Illustrative Purposes of Old Maps

Excellent Twitter thread from Jeannette Ng talking about old maps in the context of fantasy map design. It’s a subject near and dear to my heart: fantasy maps are essentially modern maps whose design language post-dates 16th- or 17th-century mapmakers like Olaus Magnus and Joan Blaeu; Ng talks about what are essentially the non-geographic purposes of old maps, and as I understand things she is entirely correct. Start here and scroll down.

The Territory Is Not the Map

Critiques of fantasy maps have more to do with the shortcomings of fantasy worlds than the maps that depict them.

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.

Continue reading “The Territory Is Not the Map”

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.