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Jonathan Crowe

Celebrating Christopher Tolkien’s Cartographic Legacy

Christopher Tolkien died last week at the age of 95. The third of J.R.R. Tolkien’s four children, he was his father’s literary executor and the editor of his posthumous works. He whipped The Silmarillion into publishable shape (with the assistance of a young Canadian philosophy student named Guy Gavriel Kay, whom we would hear more from later) and edited volume after volume of his father’s early drafts and other fragmentary tales.

But before that, Christopher Tolkien was his father’s first reader—and his cartographer. And while his obituaries mention the fact that he drew the first published map of the west of Middle-earth, which appeared in the first edition of The Fellowship of the Ring in 1954, they do so in passing, the map overshadowed by his later editorial and curatorial work.

I think that’s a mistake. Christopher Tolkien’s map proved to be a huge influence on the fantasy genre. It helped set the norm for subsequent epic fantasy novels; indeed it became the norm. Epic fantasy novels would come with maps—were supposed to come with maps—and in many cases those maps would look a lot like the one drawn by Christopher Tolkien.

So it’s worth taking a closer look at this map…

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Where Do Fantasy Maps Come From?

Welcome to the third installment of a series exploring the look and feel of fantasy maps. In this series, I argue for the existence of a default fantasy map style, tease out its key elements, and say something about where it came from and where it’s going.

What Does a Fantasy Map Look Like?” is an attempt to separate a fantasy map’s design language—which is broadly understood but just as broadly ignored—from the territory it describes. I followed that up with “Fantasy Maps Don’t Belong in the Hands of Fantasy Characters,” which argues that because the default fantasy map style is aimed at a modern audience, it would be out of place inside a fantasy story set in a premodern society. Which turns out to have been a controversial thing to say (even if it is, you know, true).

This time I’d like to spend a few moments exploring the origins of the default fantasy map style. We’ve established that fantasy maps don’t much look like real-world maps of the premodern era—that they adopt, to use Stefan Ekman’s phrase yet again, a “pseudomedieval aesthetic”: the maps are modern in function and sensibility, but adopt design cues intended to signify old maps.

We know what this fantasy map style looks like. We’ve established some of its parameters. But where does it come from?

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Fantasy Maps Don’t Belong in the Hands of Fantasy Characters

Fantasy maps usually reside in a book’s endpapers, or in the front of the book. They’re part of a fantasy novel, but not necessarily a part of the narrative: they are, as Stefan Ekman has pointed out, part of the paratext (to use Gérard Genette’s term).

But every so often, one of these maps makes a break for it, escapes from the endpapers, and lands in the story itself, where it may find itself in the hands of the story’s protagonists.

What happens then?

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What Does a Fantasy Map Look Like?

Epic fantasy and maps: it’s hard to imagine one without the other. The presence of maps in fantasy is so well established and so well understood that it’s become a point of parody. “No Tour of Fantasyland is complete without one,” wrote Diana Wynne Jones in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. “If you take this Tour, you are going to have to visit every single place on this Map, whether it is marked or not. This is a Rule.”

And yet, for all their ubiquity, their role in writers’ creative process and their usefulness to the reader, we don’t examine fantasy maps as objects in their own right as much as we could. In this and future posts here on, I will take a closer look at fantasy maps: their design and aesthetic, their origins and inspirations, and where they may be going in the future. The first question I’d like to tackle is a basic one:

What do fantasy maps look like?

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A Literary Love Letter to Maps: The Writer’s Map

“I am told there are people who do not care for maps,” Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in 1894, “and find it hard to believe.” Stevenson famously began Treasure Island with the map:

[A]s I paused upon my map of ‘Treasure Island,’ the future character of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection. The next thing I knew I had some papers before me and was writing out a list of chapters.

Other writers have begun their worldbuilding with a map; others build maps as they go; and while some go without maps altogether, the fact remains that for many writers, the maps are an intrinsic part of the creative process: as a tool or as sources of inspiration. That relationship, between the map and the act of literary creation, is the subject of a new collection of essays and maps, The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, edited by the historian of exploration Huw Lewis-Jones.

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The Dúnedain and the Deep Blue Sea: On Númenórean Navigation

Now that Jeff LaSala’s excellent Silmarillion Primer has reached the Downfall of Númenor, I’d like to talk about something that has been bothering me about the whole Númenor matter:

How on earth did the Númenóreans become such good mariners?

“Above all arts,” says the Akallabêth, the Men of Númenor “nourished ship-building and sea-craft, and they became mariners whose like shall never be again since the world was diminished; and voyaging upon the wide seas was the chief feat and adventure of their hardy men in the gallant days of their youth.” With the exception of the Undying Lands, travel to which was banned, the Dúnedain traversed the Sundering Sea and beyond: “from the darkness of the North to the heats of the South, and beyond the South to the Nether Darkness; and they came even into the inner seas, and sailed about Middle-earth and glimpsed from their high prows the Gates of Morning in the East.” In other words: they got around.

To travel the world like that doesn’t just require hardy seafarers and ships, it requires skilled navigation. And that’s where the problem is. Before the Changing of the World that destroyed Númenor bent the seas and made the world round, the world—Arda—was flat. And if you know enough about maps, navigation, or mucking about with boats, you know that will have serious implications for navigation.

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