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?