Jul 10 2009 4:30pm
Beyond the Aryth Ocean: Part 1: A review of selected maps in fantasy novels

Well, well, well. After a decade of reporting and blogging about all things related to Robert Jordan and The Wheel of Time, I’m going to do something incredibly impulsive and crazy. Are you ready for this? Get your party hats on. … Wait for it… I’m going to talk about something else for a change!

Yup, that’s right. I, Jason Denzel, a.k.a The Guy Who Runs, am going to venture over the borders of Randland, and beyond the horizon of the Aryth ocean to talk about (gasp!) Other Things. I know, I know… calm down, people. It’s a big step, but I’m feeling good about this.

On one hand, I feel a lot like Gollum probably did when he came crawling out of his cave after a thousand years or whatever it was. (“The sunnn! It burns-ssss!”) And on the other hand, I’m feeling pretty good about this little adventure. It’ll be interesting to explore topics with you that don’t involve, “When does the next book come out?” (And before you even dare to ask in the comments: Nov 3.)

Besides, you guys have Leigh to keep you busy with the whole WoT thing. She’s doing a fine job. *Waves to Leigh*

So here we go! For our maiden voyage, in the grand spirit of new adventures and unexplored horizons, let’s take a look at some of the great maps of fantasy literature. This is by no means a complete list of the great ones, or even the most well known. Rather, it’s a list of maps that I’ve pored over for hours during my childhood, and ultimately, have inspired me to imagine my own fantastic worlds.

This is the first article of a three-part series. In this first article, I’ll look at maps in some well-known fantasy novels. In the remaining articles, we’ll discuss maps from computer games and other types of fantasy entertainment.

Thror’s Map
Any discussion of significant maps in fantasy should include “Thror’s Map,” the well-known black and red illustration included at the beginning of The Hobbit. Drawn personally by J.R.R Tolkien, it depicts the Lonely Mountain and the lands immediately adjacent to it, in particular the Running River and the Desolation of Smaug to the mountain’s southeast, er, I mean, southwest. (You gotta turn the map sideways to get your “N” rune, which sorta looks like a “t” to face “up” if that’s how you like it.)

What I love about this map is how authentic it feels. It’s not an overly produced image designed to look good; its design was intended, I think, to engage the reader and invite them to explore. Like many of us, I took great pleasure as a youngster trying to “crack the code” and decipher the runes on the page. Somewhere, I still have the folded piece of paper, originally intended for a homework assignment I’m sure, that instead became the worksheet for my careful and deliberate translation.

I won’t translate it for you here, and no, you shouldn’t google it either. If you haven’t done so yet, go get a pencil, some binder paper, and a copy of The Hobbit and get to work. When you’re done, go and enjoy the other map, “Wilderland,” illustrated by Tolkien’s son Christopher, found in the rear of the book. If you love those, then of course you’ll love the beautiful maps found in The Lord of the Rings, and all of Middle Earth’s various atlases.

When the young boy Sparrowhawk leaves his village home to learn to become a wizard, he sets sail into a huge sea of islands, both great and small. To say that the map of Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea is complex is an understatement.

Here’s a closer view of a portion near the center of the map:

My paperback copy of this novel is only 182 pages long. Yet in the course of the adventure, the protagonist manages to visit pretty much every corner of the archipelago. As I read, I had fingers constantly holding one or more of the map pages so I could trace Ged’s travels through the world.

One of these days I’m going to frame a copy of this map for my wall.

The Deathgate Cycle
The seven novels that make up the Deathgate Cycle by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman contain a plethora of fascinating maps spanning four different elemental worlds: Arianus (Air), Pryan (Fire), Abarrach (Earth), and Chelestra (Water). There was a fifth world, the mysterious Labyrinth, but I don’t know of any maps that were ever published of its landscape.

While some of the maps within are more akin to cross-sectional diagrams of the worlds, they still very much evoked that same sense of wonder that Tolkien’s and Le Guin’s did. Of the four Deathgate worlds, the one that most provoked my imagination was Chelestra, the world of water, found within Serpent Mage, book four of the series:

It’s interesting to me how the world is essentially contained within an egg-like structure, and the “Seasun” slowly floats back and forth within, thawing out nearby floating landmasses, and leaving distant ones behind to become frozen in the “Longnight.” On the pages after this one, we see some cross sections of the floating spheres, but we never get a true topographical map of any of the islands, which I find to be unfortunate. Then again, if I recall correctly, much of the adventure in this novel takes place within the watery core of the planet, sailing (floating?) from island to island.

The other three worlds were equally as awesome: Arianus was a gas world containing floating continents; Pryan’s massive world was similar to an inverted bowl with four suns shining at the top of the “dome” with trees so massive on the surface that cities exist in their branches and most people never see the planet’s floor; and Abarrach was a subterranean honeycomb of volcanic caverns filled with poisonous fumes and laced with rivers of lava. Good times, eh?

Here’s a map of part of Arianus’s “Mid Realm” showing how some of the floating continents circle around one another.

Honorable Mentions
The fantasy genre, particularly high fantasy, is by definition, filled with original fantasy worlds. The maps discussed above are just a tiny fragment of the great ones out there. A small sample of other maps that I’ve found to be especially interesting and captivating can be found in these novels:

  • Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson: The map of the known world was cool enough to begin with, but then Sanderson winds up having a few surprises for you along the way.

  • The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss: Pretty much every page of this outstanding novel is filled with intrigue and mystery. I constantly referred to the map as Pat’s story unfolded.

  • Dune by Frank Herbert: The map included in some editions of the book is hard to decipher, but still fascinating nonetheless.

  • Tales of the Otori by Lian Hearn: Hearn’s historical fantasy drama is as much about the land as it is the characters. Every town has a secret, and every natural landmark either hastens or hinders the protagonists (alas, mostly hinders as is typically the case). The map is beautiful, but strangely absent from the first book. It makes its debut in book 2, Grass for his Pillow.

  • The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan: In truth, I consider Jordan’s maps to be some of the best in the genre. I might be a little biased, however. Perhaps we’ll discuss WoT maps if there’s time later.

How about you guys? What are some of your favorite maps from fantasy novels or fantasy series that you’ve pored over?

Richard Fife
1. R.Fife
Hey Jason, good to see you on tordot!

Anywho, I really enjoyed the map from Jane S. Fancher's Dance of the Rings trilogy, especially since the geography played some huge roles in an already wonderful political-intrigue series. I might be biased since I cannot help but love that one of the main characters has the nickname "Hell's Barrister."
Jennifer Liang
2. JenniferL
Neeeeeerd! =)

That'll do, Jason. That'll do.
3. annettek
I've long been a fan of Raymond Feist's maps in the Magician series.
j p
4. sps49
If I don't have a map, I'll get lost.

I mentioned this in Leigh's reread: some maps are nicely detailed but have too many straight lines and right angles. Middle-Earth and Randland are well-crafted examples, maps of the Belgariad somewhat so. I find Earthsea maps to be excellent. Maps for "the Land" started good, but were left behind when the setting expanded.

I like the Rhapsody maps generally. Some good maps don't come with the books; I appreciate someone plotting star locations for some of C. J. Cherryh's works.
JS Bangs
5. jaspax
Okay, so this isn't attached to a novel or anything more significant than a handful of short stories published on the website, but I've always been in awe of The Historical Atlas of Almea, the end result of one man's truly amazing worldbuilding over several decades. His maps (and there are dozens of them) are not the prettiest maps I've ever seen, but they're the most detailed and realistic by an order of magnitude.
6. DemetriosX
Thanks to Tolkien, a good map became almost a necessity for fantasy novels. There are so many examples, it is hard to pick any out. As sps49 @4 mentioned, David Eddings' maps tend to be very good (and usually necessary), while the maps for Stephen R. Donaldson's "Land" novels were better in the first trilogy. An excellent example for the straight lines and right angles problem would be the very first Shannara map. Of course a lot of these maps weren't drawn by the authors, but some publishing house artist who may or may not have had a lot of authorial input.

A couple of less obvious examples of good maps would include A.A. Milne's map of the Hundred Acre Wood and a wonderful map in a Dunsany collection I had of Pegana. I don't know if it was based on anything by the author, but it worked very well.

A good source for fantasy maps in general is An Atlas of Fantasy by J.B. Post, which was originally released in the late 70s. It covers a lot, especially from earlier works, though it misses out on the post-Tolkien fantasy boom.
Bridget Sullivan
7. Ellid
I dunno so much about the map of 'Randland.' It just seems to me that many of the countries are strangely squarish, plus I have always thought that Andor's longish, rectangular shape was a bit implausible.

then again, Tennessee, so, hum.
8. Herandar
The one thing I really like about Randland is the empty spaces between countries, but the continent is pretty much a giant rectangle.

Thought not as impressive as the illustrations, the map from Dragonworld comes to mind. I also really liked the map from Dune.
9. Penguin159
I probably overthought this, but i figured the excess right angles, straight lines of mountain ranges, etc in the wheel of time maps were due to the world being re-shaped my people during the breaking.
Leigh Butler
10. leighdb

I remember kind of liking Guy Gavriel Kay's maps in Tigana, myself.
11. Dietes
I really liked the maps from Tad Williams "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn."
12. NomadUK
What, no Oz?
Wesley Parish
13. Aladdin_Sane
JRR Tolkien's and Ursula Le Guin's maps have always seemed to me to be the best in the genre.

Though the Half-men of O's maps seemed to break out of many of the resulting genre detritus ...

I'm actually glad that none of China Mieville's books have maps in them. They're too "elemental" one might say, much too involved to be tied down by maps ....
Matthew Brown
14. morven
There are authors who are very Tolkien-influenced in their mapping; a good example is P.C. Hodgell, whose maps for her Kencyrath novels are very Lord of the Rings style, and work well. She's admitted to consciously imitating the map style, I believe.

There are also authors who deliberately do NOT give a map, such as Joe Abercrombie in his The First Law trilogy.
15. Kadere
I'm sorry, where's the mention of George R. R. Martin's maps in ASoIaF? Those maps are all awesome.
Dru O'Higgins
16. bellman
I liked the maps for Robert Silverbergs Majipoor books.

I found parts of the Ethshar books by Lawrence Watt-Evans slightly confusing. Definitely need a map. But the Discworld books don't have them and I never get confused as to where countries are in relation to each other.
Michael Grosberg
17. Michael_GR
My favorite map is that of Adrilankha from Steven Brust's _Yendi_. It's a fantasy novel, so it *has* to have a map, but it's an urban fantasy (in the sense that it takes place entirely within the confines of a city), so the "map" is just a map of a smallish section of a city, showing a few streets...
18. Skyfyre Dragonhawk
Some of the best maps I favor outside of Middle Earth, and WoT, are from Anne McCaffrey's PERN series.
19. Wenzo
I'm more concerned about the series where there are NO - or too few - maps!

None in Carol Berg's Arnarth series.
Too few, not enough detail in Kerr's Deverry books.

Too many others to mention, but think about Saberhagen, Rawn, Rowley....
20. DemetriosX
One that nobody has mentioned so far. I'm rather fond of the maps for Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain series.
Sandi Kallas
21. Sandikal
I don't use maps, either fantasy or real-life. In fantasy, I really don't care where one place is in relation to another. In the real world, they confuse me. I'd rather have directions.

That said, I do have one favorite map--the one in "The Princess Bride". The map makes me laugh as much as the book and movie do. It has every place mentioned in the book on it, whether it's significant or not.
john massey
22. subwoofer
Wha? I was comment 12- seems to of gone up in smoke. Meh. Hi Jason, nice to see you have come to the dark side. Anyways... I am a map and compass man myself. Nothing like doing laps in the middle of the boonies to give you a healthy respect for orienteering.

I could never wrap my head around the maps in the Death Gate Cycle. The water one made no sense to me. Pratchett didn't have a map but I could always picture the elephants on top of a giant turtle swimming through the cosmos, all supporting a big flat earth.

I could also picture the alignment of places in Treasure Island and I think I also recall a map in The Count of Monte Cristo for digging out of the prison and the location of the fortune.

And I skipped over my favorite maps-The Hardy Boys. I grew up with those books and they were chock full of maps of every adventure. Good times!

Go Bela!
23. MichaelK!
Janny Wurts map of Athera; dangerous to let an author/artist map their own world....too many fjords, really jagged landscape. And now Pratchett has several maps, and are quite fun and enjoyable....
Cathy Mullican
24. nolly
A few things come to mind:

In my bedroom as a child hung a poster of Pauline Baynes's map of Narnia. It was lost/destroyed in a move; I wish I could replace it.

No discussion of fantasy literature maps would be complete without a mention of Karen Wynn Fonstad's Atlas of... books -- Middle-Earth, Pern, and The Land, plus a couple of others.

Lastly, this is a collaborative fan-annotation of the published map for Recluce, mapping the journey(s) of the main character(s) in each volume. It's still a work in progress, but kinda nifty. (Not my project, but I've contributed a bit, both coordinates and display code.)
25. tamyrlink
my all time favorite maps are (randland of course) Donaldsons "The Land" and Eddings "Belgariad and Mallorean". i know im not the only one to open a book and go over every inch and mile of the map before even reading the book. the bigger and more detailed the better i always say.
26. benpatient
27. dwndrgn
Oddly enough, I love maps of all kinds. And yet, I never look at the maps of fantasy worlds other than as art, and usually that is after I've read the book itself. I never reference where the characters are, never search to see what is east or west or over the mountains.

Hmm. I must be missing out on a lot of good stuff if so many people do this. Maybe I'll give it a try next time.
28. AielAdam
I'll put in another vote for Janny Wurts' Athera - a good example of a world that was really well thought out and makes geological sense instead of "well, here would be a good place for a volcano"
Jason Denzel
29. JasonDenzel
DemetriosX @20 - I almost included the Chronicles of Prydain map in this article. But, from what I recall, there was no map in the books. Perhaps I am mistaken on this? I didn't have the books handy when I wrote this.

I do, however, remember seeing the map for the first time in the excellent Dictionary of Imaginary Places. But that wasn't published until years after the Prydain books were.
30. DemetriosX
jwdenzel 29: Some editions do, some don't. I saw the maps first in J.B. Post's Atlas of Fantasy (which I mentioned above) before I actually read the books. It seems to me that the edition I have (early 80s) has the maps, though I can't check at the moment as the books are currently somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic.
31. Mike G.
Good maps in fantasy (or sometimes, SF) books are a big plus.

On the "insufficiently mapped" front, I'd mention the Paksenarrion trilogy by Elizabeth Moon. The only map in the books covers territory only visited in half of the 1st book - the action in the other 2.5 books takes place in unmapped lands to the north.

Sometimes, though, the map is worse than no map.
On the OVERLY mapped front, Tamora Pierce's _Will of the Empress_, where the map says, effectively, "Plot spoiler happens here!" That was pretty sad...
j p
32. sps49
Dunno how I forgot, but Fritz Leiber's maps of Nehwon were very helpful- and those of Lankhmar almost essential- to visualize in my head.

@22 subwoofer-

The Count of Monte Cristo has a nicely detailed set of directions to the treasure (a 3x2x2 box of coins, ingots and jewels*, woo hoo!) but I never saw a map. Maybe you had a better edition.

*That's maybe 60-ish million USD in gold, which sounds right (there is a $1M porous nugget in Vegas that's somewhat larger than my head); most of the value must've been the jewels.
Rikka Cordin
33. Rikka
I think Sword of Truth is disgustingly under-mapped. and I wish there was more to the maps in books by Robin Hobb (i.e. maps of Buckkeep in Farseer and the Outislands in Tawny Man).
Michael Ikeda
34. mikeda

I love Fonstad's various "Atlas" books.

Her Dragonlance Atlas is why I have the first two DL trilogies. I bought the Atlas first, then just HAD to get the books.

(Mostly stopped after the first two trilogies, although I did buy some additional related material from time to time.)
35. jon dahl
All of the maps in Steven Erikson's Malazan novels are flat-out gorgeous, even if they still don't add up to a complete view of the world. Which actually adds to the whole, I think.
36. skinnyiain
I like the unusual maps (becuse they're of an unusual place) in John Varley's Titan.
37. LongStrider
I find it interesting that you mention Mistborn's map but not Elantris's where the map itself is an integral part of the plot.

I'll also chime in and agree with several of the others who commented that it's annoying when the map reveals plot points that should come as a surprise later in the book/series. I just ran across this again when rereading the Feist/Wurts Empire Trilogy where the map that appears in all three books reveals (in what I consider a completely unnecessary fashion) what happens to one of the Acoma rivals at the end of the second book.
Joseph Soler
38. travellinguist
I have to say I remember being most fascinated by the maps provided in the Forgotten Realms set of the old D&D games. These are now used in computer games and such, but I am talking about the originals in the original Forgotten Realms RPG set. That set, which was for the paper-based game of course, nonetheless fired up my imagination for providing this nearly complete other fantasy universe. That was as good as it got for me until computer games really started to get good. I still have the books, which are rare now the TSR is gone and people play online, but I still try to hunt them out of used book stores and such.
It clearly was a great RPG game design because it actually spawned the video games and novels rather than coming afterwards as most often happens these days.
39. IcewindDale
I'm partial to the Forgotten Realms map from R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt Do'Urden series...maybe it's because I'm obsessed with those books, but I do love seeing how every location mentioned is mapped out and it connects you with the story even more. But besides these books, I do love having maps in fantasy books, I think it just draws the reader that much more into a book and lets your imagination run a little further.

Miss Kai
40. wolfkit
"As I read, I had fingers constantly holding one or more of the map pages so I could trace Ged’s travels through the world."

This is why I shall always prefer hard-copy books over digital. The feel of one finger at the map page for flicking back to for reference can not be replaced, no matter which book or which map.
41. Makgraf
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss: Pretty much every page of this outstanding novel is filled with intrigue and mystery. I constantly referred to the map as Pat’s story unfolded.
Me too, I loved that book and did the same thing. But, I didn't like the map. Sometimes maps can be overspecific, but I usually never found the information I was looking for when I referred back to the map. Plus, it doesn't really work in black and white – the colour version let's you know where the countries borders are.
Mary Krenke
42. mdkrenke
I loved and found myself constantly referring to the maps of Anne McCaffrey's PERN. Also great are the map in the HOBBIT and LOTR.
43. JWezy
I certainly agree that Tolkien's maps from The Hobbit are the best in the business. And his maps from The Lord of the Rings are up to the same standard, as far as I am concerned.

So imagine my dismay when I read The Silmarillion, and tried to follow along on the big fold-out map. It turns out that the places on that map don't even come into being until far, far into the book. Given that most people can't even get through The Silmarillion in one reading, the probability is that many readers never reach the point where the map makes any sense at all.

I even went to the trouble of removing the map from the book (and putting a pocket inside the cover to keep it safe) so I could refer to it more easily. "Nope, not there yet, or at least I can't find the place just referred to on it."

That said, it is a great map. It's sort of like having a map of France when you are reading a story about Japan, but it is a great map.
44. Lobo7922
I translated this article to Spanish and posted it to my blog. I give you, Jason, the proper credit and linked both your home page as this article.
I'm also planning to translate the other parts too, I hope you don't mind.

Este artículo puede leerse en español en:
45. Alatar the Blue
Nice job,but you forgot one of the best maps ever and by that I think of Westeros,imaginary world from ASOIAF serial by G.R.R.Martin.Still,it's a nice map review. :D
Elio García
46. Egarcia
Speaking of ASoIaF maps, I think my favorite maps are not the ones published in the novels, but the fan-made maps based on them. This map by "Tear", for example, is easily the most beautiful straightforward interpretation. It's good enough to be published.

But for my money, the coolest maps are this ongoing series by "Other-in-Law". Full of character and whimsy, he's slowly but surely working his way through all the regions, and he's intending to put the regional maps together to create one uber-map to rule them all. His latest is the map of the Reach, and I think it's his most impressive to date.

The kicker for me is that he just uses MS Paint to create these. Outstanding.
Jason Denzel
47. JasonDenzel
In response to comments about the ASoIaF maps.... check out my blog post about the TV show promotion:
49. Strawed
Raymond E. feist all the way!

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