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.
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.
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!
New from me at Tor.com this morning, the latest instalment in my series on the history and design of fantasy maps. “Where Do Fantasy Maps Come From?” looks at the influences on and origins of the fantasy map style—the existing traditions, stretching back as far back as the sixteenth century, that the fantasy map drew upon when it came into being in the early to mid-twentieth century. (Tolkien couldn’t have made it up out of whole cloth, after all.)
This is a speculative piece that draws upon a large and diverse number of sources—everything from Forlani to Berann, from bird’s-eye views of cities to children’s book illustrations—to come up with … well, something interesting, at least. To do proper justice to the subject would require a Ph.D. dissertation. This is a start.
An exhibition at BNU Strasbourg, Hors du Monde: La Carte et l’Imaginaire, explores the role of imagined places on maps, from monsters on Renaissance maps to California-as-an-island to fantasy maps. The press dossier (PDF; in French) serves as a fairly detailed guide. Opened 18 May; runs until 20 October 2019. Admission 3€.
My latest piece for Tor.com went live this morning. It’s called “Fantasy Maps Don’t Belong in the Hands of Fantasy Characters” and it deals with the question of in-world fantasy maps: the maps that characters inside a fantasy novel might use. (Hint: They wouldn’t look like the maps found on the endpapers of a fantasy novel.)
(For some background on how this article came to be, see this post on my personal blog.)
“An Anciente Mappe of Fairyland,” produced by Bernard Sleigh around 1917, is a marvellous conflation of classical myth and fairy tales. Nearly five feet wide, it was apparently designed to hang in nurseries. The echoes of its design elements can still be seen in later fantasy maps and children’s book illustrations, such as E. H. Shepard’s maps of the Hundred Acre Wood and Pauline Baynes’s maps of Narnia, though none of them are this vibrant.
I’m impressed by the work of fantasy mapmaker Priscilla Spencer, whose maps have illustrated novels by Seanan McGuire, Myke Cole, Jim Butcher and Saladin Ahmed, among others. Spencer’s maps push the boundaries of the default fantasy map style: some of them appear as they would in-universe, others adopt elements appropriate to the culture of the world being mapped. Making a note for future reference.
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.
Edited by the historian of exploration Huw Lewis-Jones, The Writer’s Map is a collection of essays and maps that explore the relationship between maps and stories; the essays are written both by the creators of those stories—Cressida Cowell, Lev Grossman, Frances Hardinge, David Mitchell and Philip Pullman make appearances—and by the mapmakers who were inspired by those stories, such as Roland Chambers, Daniel Reeve and others. It also draws an important connection between travel and adventure stories of the past and modern fantasy, and explains why “here be dragons” is as much an attractant as it is a warning. Read my review.
Atlas Obscura is looking for your Dungeons and Dragons maps. “Not unlike the maps found in many fantasy novels, DIY D&D maps act as blueprints to imaginary spaces. Usually, once a campaign is complete, these maps get tossed out or put up on a shelf somewhere, but it doesn’t have to be this way! We want to help share your dungeon maps with the world.” There’s a form at the link, and instructions on how to share your map; they’ll post their favourites in an upcoming article.
If you missed Worlds Imagined, the imaginary maps exhibition at Texas A&M University last year, fear not. The 100-page exhibition catalogue is still available for download (if no longer in print), and while it doesn’t always show the entire map, it’s a hell of a reference, equal in scope and comprehensiveness to J. B. Post’s 1979 Atlas of Fantasy, only more up to date. The exhibition curators also put together a video tour: the full version (above) is 25 minutes long; there’s a three-minute quick tour as well.