Defending Tolkien

There is a history of criticism around JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth creation that charges him with extreme conservatism. Some of this critique dates back to the seventies from respected Marxist theorist Darko Suvin and the author Michael Moorcock in his acerbic critique of childish fantasy tropes, the essay titled Epic Pooh – which is included … Read more…

Here be Dragons…

I am a big fan of maps…

As a kid, even before the whole fascination with dragons and fantasy literature I was always looking at maps. If you sat down with my mother, well first she would want you to have something to eat, but after that she would tell you that I spent hours as a kid looking over maps. From about the third grade through, i don’t know maybe fifth or sixth grade, I spent days pouring over the secrets of the Bermuda Triangle. I was convinced that by reading the maps in the National Geographic or an encyclopedia somewhere I could find the answer to the burning problem of the Bermuda Triangle*. Those were much simpler days…  I also find it interesting that I had a burning passion to fix the world’s problems right up until the age when I discovered girls… after that I was like ‘look world you got your troubles I got mine y’know? I love to help but now that I am growing hair in the oddest places I find it tough to concentrate and all so… I guess you are on your own for now until I can figure out women…’  forty some years later the world still waits for me to get back to it on the Bermuda Triangle thing… I guess Sr. Margaret Mary was right- I am a slow learner. It also kind of makes me wonder what the state of the world might be if not for puberty… what other problems have not been solved because the solutions got interrupted by nocturnal emissions?

Anyway, my map fetish… Oh yes, so I was fascinated by maps before I ever heard of fantasy fiction, but the guy that got me hooked on them for good was Tolkien. Once I saw that map of Lonely Mountain in the Hobbit I was done forever. To this day, if you put that map in front me I get lost in it like a dwarf in an eleven forest. I find myself immersed in a different sense of place whenever I look at a map, whether it describes a place in our world… or someplace else. Once fantasy literature introduced to me the possibility of someplace else I became enamoured with the idea of navigating those worlds via the maps that they create.

A map is always a magical thing. It is a narrative all its own. For a fantasy creation the map provides depth. The world in which the reader is immersed is instantly older and wiser and more mysterious by virtue of the map that describes it. The map narrative tells the reader what is known, and hints at what may not want to be known. It tells the reader that the world has a history, and maybe provides a bit of that history through place names and borderlines.

As a gamer I spent hours learning about maps a creating new places with a simple set of tools like  a few mechanical pencils and some graph paper. Later as an author I began to understand that the map is its own narrative, related to the story but not the same as the story it is related to. The story can be very small in the time and place it describes, but the map has to represent the entirety of the history the place it describes. The geography that makes up the place, the battles that were fought there, the people who have come and gone over the eons in which that space has existed are all incorporated into the things that a map details. The author doesn’t need to know the entire history being entailed in the narrative but the author does need to understand that it is all there.

Some of my favorite maps have come from the Fantasy books that spawned them – Tolkien’s maps were the first. But there were many other greats like the Young Kingdoms of Melnibone or even the Greyhawk maps from the first edition of AD&D. Let me know if the comments section if you have any favorite maps old or new.



*by the way, plot twist! The Bermuda Triangle disappearances were caused by narwhals – bet you didn’t see that coming. I know I did not.