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.

The Atlas Awards

The Cartographers’ Guild, that online community of fantasy map makers, announced the 2018 winners of their Atlas Awards, which honour the best maps made by their members. It’s the second year of the Awards’ existence. Winners were named in eight categories, including best world, regional, city/town, hand-drawn, space, and structure and gaming maps; most original; and best overall map, for which there was a three-way tie between maps by Filippo Vanzo, John Stevenson and Katarina Božanić (see above). Click through to see the other winners and finalists: there is some extremely adept work on display there.

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.

Mapping ‘River of Teeth’

Sarah Gailey/Tim Paul

Sarah Gailey is the author of two novellas, River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow, about an alternate America that domesticated hippos, which promptly ran swam feral in the Mississippi. In this Tor.com post, she describes how there wasn’t supposed to be an accompanying map, but one got made anyway.

It had never occurred to me to draw a map. I had written a story that wasn’t an epic, high-fantasy journey across nations. Why would I draw a map? Maps are for bigger stories, right? How does one go about drawing a map? I stayed up that night googling cartography. My search was not fruitful. I tucked that particular insecurity into the part of my brain where I catalogue all my shortcomings as a writer, and I did my best to forget about it.

Imagine, then, my abject horror when my River of Teeth editor, Justin Landon, sent me the following message: “oh hey, btw, do you have a rough map you’ve done for RoT?”

I said no, and he asked me to put something together. I hedged heavily, hoping that if I said “I will probably do a bad job” enough times, my editor might say “oh, ha ha, just kidding, I would never make you do something this hard! Please, go enjoy a cocktail.”

Reader, he made me do a map. I gritted my teeth, grabbed a piece of paper and an existing map of Louisiana, and braced myself for despair. You’ll never believe what happened next.

I had so much fun.

Literary Maps Exhibition at Harvard’s Houghton Library

Landmarks: Maps as Literary Illustration, an exhibition of literary and fantasy maps at Harvard’s Houghton Library, is free to the public and runs through 14 April 2018. “Presented in conjunction with the bicentenary of the Harvard Map Collection, this exhibition brings together over 60 landmark literary maps, from the 200-mile-wide island in Thomas More’s Utopia to the supercontinent called the Stillness in N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. Visitors will traverse literary geographies from William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County to Nuruddin Farah’s besieged Somalia; or perhaps escape the world’s bothers in Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood.” Atlas Obscura has more on the exhibition, along with a selection of some of the maps it presents. [Tony Campbell]

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.

More Fantasy Map Generators

Maps Mania has a roundup of fantasy map generators—applications that generate maps of imaginary cities or landscapes algorithmically. Sometimes even with names. Two of them I’d previously heard of: Uncharted Atlas, a Twitter bot that tweets out a new map every hour, and the Medieval Fantasy City Generator, which generates a random medieval city layout. Two were new to me: Azgaar’s Fantasy Map Generator, which comes complete with documentation and an accompanying blog; and Oskar Stalberg’s City Generator, which doesn’t.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. If fantasy map generators can produce a map that is at least credible in comparison to the human-made product, what does that say about that human-made product in terms of the imagination and creativity that went into it?

Previously: The Medieval Fantasy City GeneratorUncharted Atlas.

Fantasy Maps as Memory Palace

On Obsidian Wings, a post on why I need maps in fantasy novels: “Two books I recently read made me realize that I don’t just like maps, they’re part of how my mind works. For me, a map is a type of memory palace, linking up all kinds of information for easy retrieval. Without one, I don’t just feel lost, I feel dumb—because my memories are disorganized and harder to recall.” An interesting take on the usefulness of fantasy maps. [Skiffy and Fanty]

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.

Maps from The Magicians Trilogy Available

Roland Chambers, map for The Magician King, 2011.

Roland Chambers is selling limited-edition prints of his maps for Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy. Each print costs £100 and is A2-sized (42 × 59.4 cm); only 100 copies of each will be printed. More at The Verge. I’ve admired Chambers’s work for a while: these are fantasy maps that are less derivative and closer to their original source matter (children’s book illustrations) than the standard fantasy map fare. [Lev Grossman]

Previously: Fantasy Map Roundup.

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 Perplexing River Systems of Middle-earth’

Having ruffled fannish feathers with a post critiquing Middle-earth’s mountains and another admitting that they don’t like fantasy maps, Alex Acks returns with a Tor.com post about the problems with Middle-earth’s river systems. Specifically, the Anduin, which breaks all kinds of hydrological rules: it cuts across mountain ranges (and parallels the Misty Mountains), it lacks tributaries along one side and it doesn’t seem to have much of a drainage basin. “Even if you grant the mountains as things created by the Valar doing their Valar-thing—which means my mental excuse for the Anduin cutting through mountain ranges is void—it still looks weird from a geological perspective.”

Another point Acks makes, about Tolkien’s influence on fantasy maps in general, that I should file for later:

Just as Tolkien’s novels have had a massive influence on epic fantasy as a genre, his map is the bad fantasy map that launched a thousand bad fantasy maps—many of which lack even his mythological fig leaf to explain the really eyebrow-raising geography. The things that make me cringe about the geography of Middle-earth are still echoing in the ways we imagine and construct fantasy worlds today.

Previously: ‘The Messed Up Mountains of Middle-earth’Two Views on Fantasy MapsThe Territory Is Not the Map.

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”