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.
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.
While we’re on the subject of fantasy maps, here’s Camestros Felapton with a thing: “I thought I’d look at the most classic of fantasy maps again but from a different perspective. Part of the problem and the attraction of Tolkien’s original map is the additional detail and a sense of a bigger explorable world. What happens if we strip that away and while we are at it making the right-angle problem a bit worse?” What happens is my eyeballs bleed: that’s what happens. (The right-angle problem is probably a reference to Alex Acks’s critique.)
Science fiction/fantasy novelist Alex Acks, a geologist by training, has some issues with Middle-earth’s mountain ranges. “Middle-earth’s got 99 problems, and mountains are basically 98 of them.” Basically it comes down to how Tolkien’s mountain ranges intersect at right angles—and mountains don’t do that.
And Mordor? Oh, I don’t even want to talk about Mordor.
Tectonic plates don’t tend to collide at neat right angles, let alone in some configuration as to create a nearly perfect box of mountains in the middle of a continent. […]
To be fair to J.R.R. Tolkien, while continental drift was a theory making headway in the world of geology from 1910 onwards, plate tectonics didn’t arrive on the scene until the mid-50s, and then it took a little while to become accepted science. (Though goodness, plate tectonics came down—I have it on good authority from geologists who were alive and in school at the time that it was like the holy light of understanding shining forth. Suddenly, so many things made sense.) Fantasy maps drawn after the 1960s don’t get even that overly generous pass.
And here I thought Tolkien’s mountains were better than most—but then I’m no geologist, and also than most may not be saying that much.
In the latest instalment of Hannah Stahl’s series of posts on fantasy maps at the Library of Congress’s map blog (see previous entry), she takes as a starting point my argument that Tolkien’s map of Middle-earth is the progenitor map from which the modern fantasy map design is descended, and compares that map to maps of Westeros from George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series.