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?


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