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Inventing an imaginary world, complete with its peoples, places, cultures, and customs, is an arduous task. Compounding this task is the need to share this world with the reader, to initiate them into a setting distinct from their everyday reality. Ever since J. R. R. Tolkien put his imprint on the fantasy genre, maps have become a staple in helping speculative fiction authors share their imagined world with the audience. Yet even as they provide this crutch to the reader, the location of maps outside the narrative raises questions about their literary significance. How does the map contribute to the creation of the invented geography? Are thematic dimensions of the narrative present on the map? And what sort of perspective does a map's author represent?

To make sure that the world they created makes sense to the readers, authors must achieve a balance between literary and historical conventions, symbols, and metaphors that will be quickly understood by all. I will argue that maps of imaginary geographies are extensions of this dynamic balance and not just visual representations of the narrated world. Three examples will help me demonstrate this: Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, and Robin Hobb's The Soldier Son.

Imaginary Geographies

Invented universes draw inspiration from historical periods. All three of our authors looked to medieval Europe to shape their worlds, with Hobb taking additional inspiration from nineteenth century America. These two periods share a tension between civilization and savagery, with myths, the myth of chivalry and the myth of the frontier respectively, that propose firm definitions to resolve the tension. As semi-legendary periods, with vast unexplored spaces, little-known cultures, and a real sense of danger, they provide stock fodder for fantasy fiction. Indeed, both The Lord of the Rings and The Soldier Son make use of this geopolitical instability. In the former, travelers make their way through warring countries and deserted landscapes; in the latter, a colonial empire attempts to subdue a nomadic people. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire uses geopolitical instability in a more peripheral way: while most of his series is set in a "civilized" land reminiscent of fifteenth century England, we're given glimpses of mysterious borderlands where nomads and "savage" enemies make their homes.

It must be noted that the three settings follow a similar spatial arrangement: the "civilized" lands in which the story begins are in the west, the lands of enemy tribes are in the east. This reflects the geography of medieval Europe: the known world is bordered by the sea to the west and the lands of the barbarians to the east. Even the American pioneer inspiration of Hobb's series, with frontier lands populated by nomads (the Plainspeople and the Specks) and an Old World (Varnia) on the other side of the sea, still follows the compass orientation of medieval Europe, with the sea in the west and the frontier in the east. This has become a canonical arrangement in fantasy literature.

Besides employing these literary and historical conventions, writers also use the various landscape elements metaphorically, as was detailed by Pierre Jourde in Géographies imaginaires (Imaginary Geographies). Geography, used as metaphor within a narrative, becomes a useful tool for writers when they construct their fantastic worlds. To demonstrate this, I will focus on two geographic features that figure prominently in many fantasy novels: mountains and the sea.

Mountains epitomize separation. Their height acts as a physical barrier and at the same time suggests the potential for a metaphysical ascendance, as exemplified in Dante's Purgatorio. Tolkien's mountains evince both these dimensions. The epic quest in The Lord of the Rings doesn't really begin until the heroes pass the Misty Mountains, which separate the relatively quiet land of Eriador from the old kingdoms of humans and elves, and Mordor, land of the Dark Lord himself. Many of these nations are themselves separated by mountain ranges, especially the kingdoms at the center of the narrative—Rohan, Gondor, and Mordor. Mountains in The Lord of the Rings give political entities an organic reality: they are not countries with arbitrary frontiers, but follow the natural divisions of the landscape. Yet mountains also act as catalysts for character development. Gandalf falls in battle with the Balrog deep under the Misty Mountains, at which point Frodo becomes aware of the gravity of his quest and thus departs the Fellowship. It is in a dark mountain valley, on the Paths of the Dead, that Aragorn finally claims his birthright as the king of Gondor. And the climax of the journey is the ascension of Mount Doom, doubling as the end of the quest and a symbol of the apocalypse when we come to the Crack of Doom, where at the last moment, Frodo will decide the outcome of the battle between good and evil.

Mountains play a similar role in Hobb's The Soldier Son. The goal of the protagonist's quest lies in a mountainous region where he joins the Speck people, the mountain nomads who oppose the colonizing forces of the Gernian empire. The mountains do function as a political stake, but they are far more significant in representing the personal accomplishment of the main character.

On the other hand, in Martin's novels, mountains are markedly rare. His stories are historical epics, where strategic moves trump personal quests and individual heroes are lost in the multitude of allies and foes. Here mountains figure no more important than rivers, coastlines, or swamps, which all play their parts as strategic geographic features in the civil war. Instead of showing vast mountain ranges, the maps of Martin's novels show small clusters of mountains which rarely have names except when an important fortress (like The Eyrie, the fortress of the Arryn family) is situated there.

Seas represent another metaphorical dimension, that of origins. Colonization of the plains and mountains in The Soldier Son began with the defeat of the Gernian empire by an enemy who blocked the empire's access to the sea. Tolkien's elves came from across the sea and still long for it, as it is the only way back to their homelands. This history is recounted in The Silmarillion, which presents the wider mythological universe of The Lord of the Rings. Even in A Song of Ice and Fire, the sea represents the origin of the story: the old kings of Westeros came from over the sea, and the extinction of their line marks the beginning of the series.

Mapping the Imaginary

In addition to the metaphorical meaning that geographic elements can provide to a narrative, the inclusion of a map to the reader adds another graphic dimension to the text. Standing parallel to the narrative, a map presents the imagined geography with its own particular and meaningful set of icons. These icons are not chosen arbitrarily, either in their relative form or in their distribution. Rather, decisions made regarding the use of these icons are dependent on a combination of cartographic conventions and the author's intentions.

Compared to modern maps, such as those of roads, nations, or geography, which are often colorful and decorated, the fantasy maps we're considering today look rather empty. They are mostly white, with landmarks drawn in black. Although the reality of publishing is probably responsible for this style, there are thematic implications. For instance, the maps appear as if they came from a different age, with stylized text and ink drawn lines. Of course, unlike the inked maps of the past, the authors of these maps have a God's eye view of the world they're depicting, giving a degree of precision to the coasts, rivers, and borders that was impossible to obtain for ancient cartographers. The emptiness of the map can itself be seen as a literary device, allowing important elements to stand out and provide the reader with a visual benchmark of their progress through the story.

There are two basic types of icons we find designated on these maps: human landmarks (cities, fortresses, and roads) and natural features (mountains, seas, rivers, forests, and swamps). Different degrees of precision in respect to these types help distinguish our authors. Considering first the natural features, Hobb draws a map where forests are represented by different types of trees depending on their location (evergreens in the North, orchards near the capital), different symbols represent mountains according to their height, and rivers are drawn with proportional breadth. Against this, Martin uses minimal symbols, one for each type of feature, with a uniform pattern for all sea water and rivers represented by a simple line. Tolkien splits the difference. His mountains vary between ranges, whereas his forests differ only in size. Major rivers such as the Anduin come across as thicker lines and deltas are clearly seen, but there's no sense of direct proportions as with Hobb. These uses of icons reflect the narrative and symbolic import of particular geographic elements to the authors. Thus Tolkien gives so much attention to mountains (and to a lesser extent rivers), Martin goes no further in detail than their objective type and location, and Hobb, uniquely, details every type of landscape, suggesting that nature has an existence independent of the human concerns portrayed in her series.

Symbols of human occupation can be analyzed both in respect to their occurrence and their details. For example, in respect to frequency, the map of Tolkien's Middle-Earth shows only a handful of cities, the capitals of important countries. The map of Martin's Westeros, on the other hand, distinguishes a number of large cities, smaller towns, and castles. And while Tolkien and Martin include a few roads on their maps, Hobb does not show a single one, despite the importance of road-building in her series. As to the details, Martin represents cities and fortresses schematically (dots for cities and castles in the first volumes; dots for cities and diamonds for castles in the later ones), where Tolkien and Hobb use the traditional dots for cities but a stylized towers to represent fortresses. In contrast to Martin, they stress the difference between peaceful living places and places to make war. The fact that the symbols of fortresses are bigger and more detailed indicates than unlike cities, fortresses are not to be taken for granted. They will be the stage of some exceptional action. On Martin's maps, castles are only one more form of human occupation, needing no different visual marker. However, the later maps in A Song of Ice and Fire include an element that is absent from Hobb's and Tolkien's maps: cities and castles that are still in use are black, ruined cities and castles are white. The impact of wars and time is thus directly represented on the map. Lastly, it must be noted that Martin and Hobb record some man-made boundaries: frontier posts for Hobb, and the wall separating Westeros from the North for Martin, while the sole borders on the map of Middle-Earth are natural features such as mountain ranges.

The simple shape, presence, or absence of symbols on a map is thus enough to paint a different picture of the imaginary space. But maps present other aspects, such as the ability to present the reader with the languages (and indirectly cultures) of the imagined world in a non-narrative form. It is well-known that Tolkien took great pains to ensure that the names of his world would seem to spring from actual languages. When those nouns appear on a map, an additional effect is created: all the different languages Tolkien invented are found side by side on the same page, and the sound of the names themselves build the picture of a world that emerged from many cultural layers. The names on the map of A Song of Ice and Fire blend nature with civilization and war, as natural features do not always have names, but castles are frequently given names drawn from nature: Riverrun, The Eyries, Highgarden, Winterfell. As for Hobb, she used some names of towns that actually exist in the USA, such as Bitter Springs or Lost Springs, or Gettys (probably an allusion to Gettysburg; Gettys is the stage of the critical confrontation between the Gernian empire and the Specks). Those names can be seen in the eastern part of the map, reinforcing its status as a frontier.

Finally, maps exist as aesthetic objects. Their aim is not to be functionally precise (they usually don't indicate distances or scale), but to present the world of the novel as a coherent object in itself, with an aesthetic value. The nouns are written using calligraphy, and the maps are framed with a more or less elaborate border. The frame ensures that instead of appearing to depict a part of a larger world (which these three maps ultimately do), they represent a closed object, a geographical whole, which even has a name (Middle-Earth) for Tolkien. This whole can be problematic in different ways. The name Middle-Earth actually links Tolkien's world to Norse mythology, where the world of humans was referred to as Midgard, the exact Norse equivalent of Middle-Earth; thus the reader is made to understand that Middle-Earth is the mythical definition of the known world and its immediate surroundings for its inhabitants, not the name of the world at large. It should be remarked that the map of Middle-Earth as a whole is the only one in The Lord of the Rings that has no border, decorative or otherwise, implying that there are more lands that the readers need not be immediately aware of. In Hobb's series, however, there is only one map, neatly bounded by a decorative frame. This map includes the Gernian empire, its frontier, its immediate neighbors, and Varnia. But a crucial part of the world is excluded: the lands beyond the mountains where the Specks have their wintering place. A large part of the third volume of the series takes place there, yet the map ends firmly before it, making the frame problematic. Finally, the maps in A Song of Ice and Fire cut Westeros in two: one map represents the North and the center, the second the center and the South. Other maps, in the later volumes, depict lands selected in regard to their situation from Westeros "north of Westeros, east of Westeros," but there are no self-contained maps of all the land, and each map is neatly bounded, as if each small part of the world was irreconcilably separated from the others. These maps are not complete either: an important part of the world, where the heir of the former kings of Westeros is gathering an army, never appears on any map.

The Map and the Text

The contrast between our three authors and their use of maps can perhaps be summarized best by considering the whole perspective of the map itself. For example, George R. R. Martin provides the most detached map of the three. The North and the South, the primary sites of action, are depicted equally. Map elements are different in types—whether as cities, fortresses, mountains, and seas—but only the narrative reveals the significance of particular places. This significance is determined by their place in human history, its cycles of civilization and violence. These maps then show how this land was marked by men. Natural landmarks are given names only insofar as they provide strategic importance. Thus, bays and capes are named, as seaborne warfare will play an important part in the series; forests and rivers, that are either means of communication or obstacles, are named as well; but mountains, for instance, very rarely have names, as the people of Westeros seldom use them. And while extents of sea near the coast receive names, the sea itself is uniformly filled with a stylized wave pattern which does no more than act as a field for marine warfare. Instead of Tolkien's mysterious names, he chooses names that will be immediately understood by the readers, names that explicitly tie humans to nature, invoking natural phenomena that affect man (Rainwood), anthropomorphism (the Broken Arm), or civilization (Highgarden). We get the picture of a human-dominated world, where nature's function is to support civilization, and where civilization essentially expresses itself through wars that irremediably divide space.

Tolkien's maps are similarly uncritical, as they mainly act to reference the narrative, placed near the many appendices Tolkien included. But unlike Martin, Tolkien's maps draw an intimate connection between the races and the nature of Middle Earth. Languages and cultures mark the map and reveal the history of the land, and geographic elements themselves play a fundamental part in this history. While the world map that Tolkien includes at the end of each volume of The Lord of the Rings has mountainous symbols the suggest proportionality to the territory of the mountains itself, there are maps focused on smaller bits of territory at the beginning of these volumes that are explicitly topographical—that is, the altitude of the land is represented by contour lines that ascend up to mountain peaks. These maps are partial and only show where the journey proceeds in that part of the narrative, thus offering the reader a stage by stage reference of the heroes' journeys. The detail that Tolkien gives to nature and specifically mountains on his maps, reveal the symbolic role that nature comes to play.

Our last map shows a more nuanced picture, and is not so clearly uncritical as the other two we've considered. The main focus of The Soldier Son is colonization, and how it affects the relationships between civilizations and the natural space they inhabit. At first glance, this map appears to be much less anthropocentric than Martin's and even Tolkien's. Natural diversity is represented on the map for its own sake, having no particular symbolic value within the narrative. But human landmarks are also diversified. Forts are represented by detailed towers, while cities are a simple dot. The beginning of the frontier is represented by border stones, stressing that borders are human inventions, and there is a drawing of a ship on the sea for aesthetic more than practical purposes. Yet only the landmarks of the Gernian empire are represented. The two colonized civilizations, the plains nomads and the Specks, have their own landmarks (cities, towns, and sacred places) but these don't appear on the map. The coast where the Specks spend the winter is left out. It could not be assumed, however, that the author intended her map to appear as if it had been made by the Gernians themselves; in that case, it would certainly have shown the roads, the building of which is a major issue in the war between the Gernians and the Specks. It is as if Hobb intended the map to be a commentary on her own novels. She re-established the natural landmarks that are consistently ignored or destroyed by the Gernians, and she suppressed the road that was so important to them, as if to give a less biased view than the one we get through the Gernian protagonist. At the same time, she only included Gernian landmarks, and her map is cut by a neat frame before we see the Speck lands, a choice that, incidentally, renders the map almost useless for a large part of the story. The map hints at the limits of the Gernian point of view. It subtly suggests that the colonizing empire is blind to the significance of events it does not control.

Maps present two valuable dimensions to a work of fiction. We can look at maps as simple representations of the imagined world's geography. Doing so, readers can use the maps to enhance the literary illusion and escape further into this foreign world. But viewing them as an extension of and commentary on the imagined world, maps provide the reader with an additional level of interpretation. More often than not, this level of interpretation reinforces thematic and metaphorical elements already present in the narrative, whether as seen in Tolkien's character building mountains or the disinterested strategic lay of Martin's war-torn world. But as we have seen with Hobb's The Soldier Son, maps can also subtly undermine themes of the novel, giving expression to less explicit perspectives on the world.

Not all authors of fantasy choose to include maps with their novels. In fact, the custom of adding a map only became widespread after many authors followed Tolkien's example (even if Tolkien was not the first to draw a map to an imaginary world; More drew a map of Utopia, among others). Before Tolkien consistent fantasy worlds had been invented, for instance Lovecraft's Dreamland. But the Dreamland does not need a map. It is a mythical, fluctuating space, alternatively depicted as a parallel universe and a past time according to a complex pattern, and consequently, it cannot be established as a land with a definite and meaningful geography. The fact that there is no map, either of the Dreamland or of the Earth of Lovecraft's imagining, reinforces this fluidity between the two worlds. In another example, Samuel Delany wrote his fantasy series Nevèrÿon between 1979 and 1987, at a time where the codes of high fantasy were becoming formalized, including the customary maps. Delany's invented land seems to have a very precise geography, and reads as if indeed the author had used a map to write it. But if such a map ever existed, it is never included. Delany writes from an explicitly deconstructive perspective, and thus he may see maps as artificial devices that only hide the fact that an invented world is just a sign, not a reality. By choosing not to give the readers a map, he tells them to look for the meaning his story has in the real world, rather than by itself. Literary fiction as a genre tends to elide maps, perhaps for this very reason. Besides, it seems unnecessary to include a map that could easily be found in the reader's atlas. The genres of speculative fiction and their invented worlds presents an all together different picture. As readers we must be careful not to let these maps become mere aids to the geography of the story, but instead approach them as extensions of the story that provide valuable new dimensions to the text.


Bord, Jean Paul and Pierre Robert Baduel, Les cartes de la connaissance [The Maps of Knowledge], Paris: Karthala, 2004.

Jourde, Pierre, Géographies imaginaires de quelques inventeurs de mondes au XXe siècle [Imaginary Geographies from 20th Century World-Builders], Paris: José Corti, 1991.

Cécile Cristofari is currently writing a PhD dissertation on imaginary worlds in speculative fiction. She teaches English and music for a living, and writes fantasy stories in her few spare hours. She lives and works in Aix en Provence, France. You can follow Cécile on LiveJournal.
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