Here Be Blank Spaces: Vaguely Medieval Fantasy Maps

(First published in The New York Review of Science Fiction 300, Aug. 2013.)

Generally speaking, the maps that accompany secondary-world fantasy novels are anachronistic. They bear little resemblance to the real maps produced during the period that high fantasy tends to emulate: that is to say, medieval and early modern Western Europe. Stefan Ekman, in his new study of the role of place in fantasy literature, Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings (Wesleyan University Press, 2013), argues that secondary-world fantasy maps “follow a pseudomedieval aesthetic according to which dashes of pre-Enlightenment mapping conventions are rather routinely added to a mostly modern creation” (66).

There are clear differences between fantasy maps and real-world maps: no modern fantasy novel, as far as I’m aware, has a map that resembles the Hereford Mappa Mundi or the Fra Mauro map. But cataloguing why they’re different is a bit more of a challenge—like trying to explain, briefly, why a tapestry is not a comic book. Several new books, including Ekman’s, have helped me understand some of those differences more clearly. Apart from matters of style, content, projection, or scale, one main difference between fantasy maps and real-world maps is information density. Fantasy maps are, for the most part, empty; real-world maps were not.

Real-world maps from the medieval and early modern periods are dense with information and illustration, with winds blowing from every corner, ships and sea monsters on every ocean, and tightly printed text annotating and explaining it all. This is the takeaway from The Art of the Map: An Illustrated History of Map Elements and Embellishments by Dennis Reinhartz (Sterling, 2012), which covers design elements such as cartouches, compass roses, and marginal illustrations on Western European maps from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries; and Chet Van Duzer’s Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (The British Library, 2013), which lavishes attention on the mythological sea creatures that turned up on maps before the seventeenth century. These are beautiful books full of beautiful maps, but they’re more than eye candy: each provides a close reading of some important elements of cartographic design in the time and place of interest to much high fantasy.

Ships and sea monsters, beasts real and mythical, and other embellishments weren’t just a matter of prettying up the map. They could set the tone (sailing ships meant a nautical chart), fill up areas about which nothing could be shown (and in this period there were many of them), or provide useful information, in pictorial form, about the strange (and sometimes imaginary) flora, fauna, and peoples of faraway lands. They were nearly ubiquitous on large maps, as were textual descriptions, and were still present on the portolan charts and maps of the Age of Exploration. They added another layer of information to the geographical map.

The modern fantasy map aesthetic, on the other hand, is spare, if not downright barren: sea monsters are as rare as in real life, and the oceans and lands—at least those not covered by mountains or forests—are empty white spaces. Here, in other words, be no dragons. The Lands of Ice and Fire (Bantam, 2012)—a boxed set of twelve maps of George R. R. Martin’s Westeros executed by the fantasy cartographer Jonathan Roberts—is a dramatic example of this. These maps are colorful and have high production values, for fantasy maps, but they fail to escape the fantasy map paradigm; they’re very large, at two feet by three feet, but because they show no more detail than an endpaper map, all that extra space is wasted. Medieval maps would never waste vellum like that.

It’s safe to say that most fantasy maps have a lot of blank space. That blank space can mean many things: wastelands, for example, or unknown and unexplored lands. Reading them closely, Ekman parses out what blank spaces mean on the maps for J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings:

On the Shire map, the blank spaces correspond to a norm that does not need to be mapped. Here, the white emptiness, portrayed on the map by name only, is not a stand-in for fields too obvious to map, nor is it treeless, flat heaths, or desert, tundra, grassy plains, or any other one type of terrain. It is not even simply “wilderness.” On the general map, the fields of the Shire are just as blank as the desolate Brown Lands; the grasslands of Rohan are empty white, as is the broken wasteland of the Plateau of Gorgoroth. White is not the unknown or unmapped, nor is it a specific type of landscape: it is landscape that it is irrelevant to map.

Ekman, Here Be Dragons, p. 64

If only places that are relevant to the story appear on the map, it’s easy to see why, as Diana Wynne Jones informs us in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, every single place on the map must be visited (vii). It’s why they’re on the map!

That fantasy maps have a shared design language is readily apparent. In Here Be Dragons, Ekman quantifies the aesthetic by doing something one does not normally expect in a work of literary criticism: statistics. He takes a random sample of 200 fantasy novels and counts not only how many of them have maps (answer: about one-third), but how frequently certain map features and elements turn up on those maps. The sample size is small by Ekman’s own admission, but it’s revealing all the same. Here’s how he sums up his findings:

In brief, a typical fantasy map portrays a secondary world, a compass rose or similar device showing its orientation with north at the top. It is not set in any given hemisphere (not necessarily in a spherical world at all), although there are reasons to believe that clues in the text would indicate north as the direction of colder climates. Apart from topographical map elements such as rivers, bays, islands, and mountains, such a map would also contain towns and other artificial constructions. The hill signs used are typically pre-Enlightenment (either profile or oblique).

Ekman, Here Be Dragons, p. 66

As much as this description applies to most maps that accompany modern fantasy novels, it applies just as much to the maps accompanying The Lord of the Rings. If no study of modern fantasy can ignore Tolkien, the same must be said about any study of fantasy maps. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t just give us the ur-text of modern fantasy; it also gives us, in its map of the western part of Middle-earth, the ur-map: the progenitor map from which the modern fantasy map design is descended. All the elements Ekman discerns in the typical modern fantasy map can be found in the maps in The Lord of the Rings: coastlines and rivers, oblique mountains, towns and territories. So too is the sparseness: the empty spaces of Enedwaith, Minhiriath, and Rhûn, the seas free of monsters, and, with a few exceptions (Arnor, Angmar, and South Gondor), the almost total absence of descriptive text—all of which are at variance with real-world medieval and early-modern maps.

Which brings me to a question I’ve had ever since I started looking at fantasy maps in earnest: if the map of Middle-earth is the ur-map of modern fantasy, what are its antecedents? If modern fantasy maps have a style, a design language, where does it come from?

My working hypothesis, still to be confirmed, is that modern fantasy maps are the direct descendants of the illustrations in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century English children’s books. Among those illustrations were certainly maps of imaginary places, though the tales of the Hundred Acre Wood, Neverland, and the neighborhood of Toad Hall, illustrated by the likes of E. H. Shepard and Pauline Baynes, certainly fail to reach Wagnerian heights. Playful and small-scale, more illustrations than maps, they hardly look like modern fantasy maps at all.

Tolkien can be seen as a bridge between children’s books and modern fantasy, his work blending the epic and the distant with the childlike and the quotidian. Writing in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik argues that this was Tolkien’s “real achievement,” calling his work “[an] arranged marriage between the Elder Edda and The Wind in the Willows—big Icelandic romance and small-scale, cozy English children’s book. The story told by The Lord of the Rings is essentially what would happen if Mole and Ratty got drafted into the Nibelungenlied.”

In that sense, we might expect The Hobbit to represent the first step in the process that converted children’s book illustrations into modern fantasy maps.

But a look at the two maps in The Hobbit—Thrór’s treasure map, drawn by Tolkien himself, and the map of Wilderland, drawn by his son Christopher—reveals a problem. These are not intermediate forms. Neither map looks anything at all like a map from a children’s book. The map of Wilderland, while clearly a predecessor of the maps executed for The Lord of the Rings by Pauline Baynes and Christopher Tolkien, has elements not found in the later maps. In fact, it turns out that both Hobbit maps contain many of the illustrative and informative elements that Reinhartz and Van Duzer describe in medieval and early modern maps. They are, in other words, far more reasonable facsimiles of real-world maps than most fantasy maps.

Consider Thrór’s map, which, says Ekman, “more than any map in the sample, takes advantage of the genre’s cartographic possibilities, with its alternative (medieval) orientation and use of an alien alphabet” (42). Like a medieval mappa mundi, east, not north, is at the top. It uses runes extensively, including in the compass rose, but there is also text in English—and lots of it, describing locations both on and off the map. “Here of old was Thrain King under the Mountain.” “Here is the gateway of the Long Lake.” “West lies Mirkwood the Great. There are spiders.” “Far to the north are the Grey Mountains and the Withered Heath whence came the Great Worms.” And so on. Here too there are illustrations in the sense Reinhartz describes: a dragon at the Lonely Mountain, a spiderweb at the bottom-left corner representing Mirkwood, a hand pointing to the secret door. These elements are not normally seen on modern fantasy maps.

And if the map of Wilderland is much more conventionally a fantasy map, with its oblique mountains, forests, and text limited to labels, it nonetheless has two instances of illustrated monsters: Mirkwood is thick with spiders and webs, not just trees; and the Desolation of Smaug is crowned by a great big dragon.

Here, then, is the symbolic language. Here are the explanations, the warnings of danger and implications of adventure. Here are the spiders. Here, at long last, be dragons.

This is not to say that the modern fantasy map does not bear a close reading. Ekman’s reading of the Shire-map and the map of western Middle-earth from The Lord of the Rings finds meaning, as we have already seen, in the map’s blank spaces, but also in the Shire-map’s use of prominent roads (representing orderliness: see pages 46-47), the use of language on the labels (Elvish privileged over English), temporality, and even the direction of travel. But for the most part, the maps of The Lord of the Rings, and the epic fantasy novels that follow it, not only lack the illustrative detail found in medieval and early modern maps but have also lost the detail that was found in The Hobbit’s maps.

It’s possible to imagine it otherwise. Imagine a map of Middle-earth showing Fangorn with Ents peering around the trees, or the Southfarthing covered in fields of pipe-weed. Imagine a map of Beleriand with spiders watching the road across Nan Dungortheb or a smoking Glaurung circling the gates of Nargothrond. There are reasons for omitting such things. There’s only so much detail you can put on a small-scale map, particularly one printed on C-format pulp paper. And so much of what could be added to the map, including the examples I’ve imagined here, would require the cartographic equivalent of a spoiler alert. All the same, it seems to me that fantasy maps could have had a very different design tradition had their development gone in a different direction after The Hobbit.

Works Cited

This article has been edited slightly since its first publication.