Mapping the Fictional Universe

Gulliver's Travels, mapmaker: anonymous

Gulliver’s Travels, mapmaker: Anonymous. Click to enlarge all maps.

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.”)


Thrór’s Map (The Hobbit); mapmakers: J.R.R. Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien

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: Robert Louis Stevenson and Thomas Stevenson

Treasure Island; mapmakers: Robert Louis Stevenson and Thomas Stevenson

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.

The final map of the world of An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. Illustrated by Jonathan Roberts and published by Razorbill for Penguin

The world of An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir; mapmaker: Jonathan Roberts. 

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?








11 thoughts on “Mapping the Fictional Universe

  1. I love maps, and not just in fantasy books. Take Faulkner’s map of Yoknapatawpha County, which shows the reader not only the county but also the location of his many stories and families, thus illustrating the interwoven nature of his creation.

    I’ve just finished two out of the three books in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy. How I wish the publishers had included a map of the countries involved–England, India, China, the island of Mauritius to show the scope of the story and to clarify the coming Opium War. Yes, I could Google such a map, but to have it as, say, end papers would have been an enhancement to the books.

  2. Delicious post! I’m forwarding it to my Tolkien-loving daughters. Just gave them a tea-towel map of Middle Earth for Christmas 🙂 Love me a book with end-paper maps. Invites me right into story.

    Post is full of delicious background info I want to comment on. Like RLS’s fascinating account of Treasure Island map. Like the concept that some don’t like maps because they limit the imagination. I feel the same about descriptions of a character’s physical appearance, but ironically not about maps.

    What!? Some people think A.A.Milne is sick-making!? Fie on Dorothy Parker. I agree that the copycats can be, but not the original Milne.

    Plus, it’s always a good day when one comes across a word like verisimilitude in a good read…

  3. Great article! As a visual person I secretly like book maps, though I really see the limitations argument. When I’m reading something set in a country/place with unfamiliar geography, I just find myself going to the map or wikipedia anyways. One thing I remember loving when I was heavy into ancient lit were “fictional overlays” – maps of the Mediterranean/Middle East/Englad where Calypso’s Island or Troy or Rostam’s battles were. As I’m reading Asterix to my kids, I’m rediscovering this pleasure.
    As for Speculative Fiction, I prefer no maps. G.R.R.Martin’s maps actually annoyed me (to be fair the map was like #13 on annoying things about those books – sorry I’m a hater). I could make an exception for Tolkien, but otherwise, use your words to let me float in my imaginary maps.

    • I’m with you, Stephanie. I love maps in books that have a real-life setting, be it fiction or non-fiction. Speculative fiction: nah. I can understand the appeal of maps for folks who get very deeply into the fandom of, say, Lord of the Rings, but I prefer a more passive experience, myself.

  4. This was most interesting! I am a very spatial person and I love maps. Reading the Greg McGuire Wicked series, I was constantly referring to the maps on the end pages. I do not find them intrusive at all. Quite the contrary, I find they enrich my reading experience. To each his own. This has me think about adding an old map of Atlanta to Madam May…

    • Oh, yes, do think about it! That would be great.

      Incidentally, the reason I started thinking about the topic in the first place was that I’ve spent such a lot of time mapping the two MG novels I’m working on — not because I think readers would need or want the maps, but to help me keep track of the geography as I write. I found a lot of writers online who say that this preliminary kind of mapping is indispensable. (It’s also fun.)

  5. I love maps, real and imaginary. I do find some fictional maps annoying, though, when they do not have all the details mentioned in the text, or when vast swaths of map have details that are never mentioned.

  6. I’ve seen the argument that making the map only partially congruent with the text is a way to avoid spoilers, but I don’t really buy it. I can’t resist sneaking in a quotation from Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasyland: “There will be scribbly snakes that are probably rivers and names made of capital letters in curved lines that are not quite upside down. By bending your neck sideways you will be able to see that they say things like “Ca’ea Purt’wydyn” and “Om Ce’falos.” These may be names of countries, but since most of the Map is bare it is hard to tell. … In short the Map is useless, but you are advised to keep consulting it, because it is the only one you will get.”

    There’s a lot more in this vein. Oh, how I love Diana Wynne Jones!

  7. I just finished The Tournament by Matthew Reilly set during the Ottoman Reign in Turkey. There was a map showing the layout of the Topkapi Palace, as well as how it was situated to the rest of Constantinople. Although, I’ve been there, it was great to refer to these diagrams from time to time as I read. So, yes, I enjoy maps, both real and fantastical..

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