The history of fantasy maps in books goes back at least as far as Jonathan Swift and Gulliver’s Travels. Swift’s satirical account of adventures in imaginary lands was modeled on the real-life exploration narratives that were popular in his day, and like many of these travelogues, it included engravings of maps. Two centuries or so later, close analysis showed that these specious maps were based on genuine ones, made by a famous cartographer, which had been traced and then adapted to show the locations of Swift’s fictitious lands.
While they add verisimilitude to the author’s imaginary world, the maps in Gulliver’s Travels are not an integral part of the work and were probably inserted by the publisher without Swift’s prior knowledge. On the other hand, Thrór’s Map in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is not only essential to the plot but was painstakingly devised by the author himself. Tolkien’s correspondence shows that the map was originally intended to be a portrait-oriented, flip-out illustration tipped in to Chapter 1, with “moon-runes” printed on the reverse that would appear as part of the map only when the page was held up to the light. But as Nicholas Tam points out in a brilliant online essay, because of prohibitive production costs the map ended up as a landscape-oriented end leaf that not only eliminated the effect of the invisible moon-runes, but reoriented the map with East at the top. (Tolkien nimbly dealt with this setback by claiming in an author’s note that “the compass points are marked…with East at the top, as usual with dwarf-maps.”)
The maps embedded in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time provide insight into the character that draws them, a teenager named Christopher Boone, who tries to make sense of his scary and confusing world by visualizing it schematically. Haddon’s book is nominally a mystery, but unlike maps and floor plans in more conventional mysteries, his maps are not puzzle clues but a means of drawing us – quite literally—into Christopher’s world of austere logic and sensory overload. In a completely different vein, the Christopher Robin’s-eye map in Winnie the Pooh is saturated with the (to some, sick-making) whimsy of the Hundred Acre Wood, identifying many important landmarks such as RABBITS HOUSE and WHERE THE WOOZLE WASNT. It also bypasses the awkwardness of A.A. Milne’s framing device, in which Christopher Robin lives in a real house with a bathtub and a storytelling father and has the unfortunate habit of whacking his toy bear’s head on the stairs. On the map, Christopher Robin quite properly lives alone, in a tree with a door, and Pooh is a real bear.
Treasure Island‘s plot, like The Hobbit‘s, is centered on an enigmatic map that guides a quest. More than that: if we are to believe Robert Louis Stevenson’s own possibly apocryphal account, the map begat the story. In an 1894 magazine essay, Stevenson described a rainy afternoon spent entertaining his stepson: “… I made the map of an island … the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression…and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance ‘Treasure Island.’” When the original map later went astray before it reached the publisher, Stevenson was forced at the last minute to make a new one with the help of his father, a prominent civil engineer. The senior Stevenson’s collaboration can be seen not only in the masterful draftsmanship but in the annotations by Billy Bones and Long John Silver that he added in colored ink.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s maps of Middle-Earth – which, like Thrór’s Map, he sketched and then gave to his son to polish up for publication – were an important part of the minutely detailed worldbuilding that went into writing the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But while the Twelve Companions in The Hobbit use Thrór’s Map to guide their travels, the Lord of the Rings maps are provided only to readers, meaning that we know far more about what lies ahead of the Fellowship of the Ring at the outset of their journey than its members do. As an anonymous blogger points out, “we’re waiting for them to catch up to the wide picture of their world that we have from the map.” This type of map, which is external to the story, creates a greater degree of separation between the world of the novel and its readers than maps that are more tightly bound up with plot or characterization.
Six and a half decades after Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings, maps have become a commonplace in speculative novels, some more successful in cartographic terms than others. In the face of this ubiquity, a few authors have expressed ambivalence or hostility toward the idea of mapping their worlds. Diana Wynne Jones mocked fantasy maps in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland and eschewed them in all of her thirty-plus books. Terry Pratchett disavowed maps for years, as did the fantasy writer N.K. Jemisin, though Pratchett eventually collaborated in the publication of Stephen Briggs’s Discmapp, and Jemisin’s most recent book includes a map by artist Tim Paul. The British writer Joe Abercrombie laid out several anti-map arguments in a 2007 blog post, though he, too, has now begun using maps in his speculative fiction.
What’s not to like? Some authors claim that maps are spoilers that forewarn readers about how the landscape will affect the characters who live in it and travel through it. Terry Goodkind dismisses them as a distraction from the story. More convincing, to me, is the argument that maps – like illustrations and movie versions – can limit the reader’s imaginative engagement with the story. Some readers may prefer to construct their own mental map of Middle-Earth, just as some would rather read about Harry Potter without seeing Daniel Radcliffe in their mind’s eye.
Many of the fantasy writers who have been the least enthusiastic about maps are also the most committed to pushing the boundaries of the genre and creating settings that are too fluid in time and space to be captured easily by cartographers. The advent of interactive maps has opened up new possibilities for fantasy cartography that may better accommodate some of these innovative approaches. Exciting as these possibilities are, it’s worth remembering that though he was ultimately thwarted by his publishers, J.R.R. Tolkien managed to create an interactive map for The Hobbit using only natural light and both sides of a page.
NOTE: Click on all maps to enlarge.
Now it’s your turn: Are you a fan of maps in speculative fiction, or do you prefer to imagine the landscape on your own? If you’re in the pro-map camp, do you have a favorite?