Can’t Get There From Here, Part 1 2

I love maps. As a child, I used to while away long journeys in the back of the car by following our progress across the pages of the AA road atlas. I remember looking at the way the roads in a particular suburb in the north of Birmingham were laid out, wondering why they were formed in concentric circles. Wouldn’t it be cool to live in such a place, I thought. (Yeah, probably not. New town estate planning. Not nice.)

When my uncle emigrated to Jo’burg in the latter half of the 1980s he left behind three massive boxes of SF&F novels. These were my first journeys into worlds that others had made. Maps. There were maps. All of places you’d never be able to physically visit, but the maps made it possible to travel there – to walk around the Shire, or take in the grand tour of Arendia, Tolnedra and Gar Og Nadrak, for example. I could quest my way from Crydee to Krondor and Rillanon too, wondering what lay beyond that and, somehow, feeling vaguely cheated that Raymond E Feist didn’t take the reader any further east than that.

So this is the first in an occasional series of posts exploring maps of fantasy worlds, working out what makes them tick, whether they add anything to the story, or why they don’t…

The Belgariad

The Belgariad

The quest at the heart of the Belgariad is a simple one: aided by a host of companions, Garion must uncover his legacy, fulfil an ancient prophecy, defeat the Dark One, and visit every single country on the map. Yep, he gets his passport stamped. The map serves the storytelling, and the storytelling serves the map. Thirty years on, the simplistic nature of it all is obviously naïve – down one side of the coast, and back up the other, collecting plot coupons on his way, it’s easy to see why the Belgariad is now marketed at a YA audience. (I hasten to add that I’m not calling YA fiction naïve – only that the Belgariad is now better viewed as a gateway into fantasy fiction…)

Modern readerships are a lot more savvy in general terms about how a world – any world – really works; we know for example that you can’t just put a desert country next to a swampland country with an arbitrary border to keep them apart. And as much as a good map should complement a story, the lands of the Belgariad actually only serve a single purpose and once Garion has gone through them they don’t really have any other function.

Middle Earth’s apparent lack of visible borders is actually far more realistic than Eddings’s easy dotted lines, as are the vast swathes of apparently unpopulated hillsides. This is a world that exists outside of a single story, although Middle Earth has its own problems – Sauron is confined to a bleak wasteland bordered by conveniently straight mountain ranges, for example, while the civilised and bucolic paradise of The Shire seems at odds with the lands just beyond in Bree, and with the thoroughly falling-empire stylings of Gondor.

Map of Middle Earth

Middle Earth

You could read the attention to detail in maps of The Shire as evidence of Tolkien’s love of rural England – there are actual postal districts! – as much as an empathy for the scale of the story at this point; as the One Ring goes south, so the narrative pulls out to become more vast, more epic, and the reader doesn’t really get that Hobbit’s-eye view of the world again until the Scouring of The Shire.

There are hints and references to a world beyond that portrayed on the map too, which doesn’t happen in the Belgariad until Eddings needs to introduce his next plot coupons. Aragorn battles against the pirates and raiders of Harad and Umbar, while Radagast and the other unnamed wizards of Gandalf’s cabal were rumoured to have gone to the far east, past Rhun, to seek news of the Rings. These details are incidental, but they serve a greater world-building purpose. They’re the gaps in the story that make you wonder what else might be in the world – what lies behind the White Mountains? Who lives there? What hidden magic or myths might lie in that part of Gondor Tolkien never plays with?

Unlike the Belgariad, again, Middle Earth also has a history and has changed over time – the western coastline only became that when the ancient lands featured in the Silmarillion sank into the sea. You get the sense that Tolnedria and Arendia, on the other hand, were formed from a void with the geo-political borders already set in stone.

So here we have one map that illustrates the story, and one story that is set deep within the realms of the map. Let us know what you feel about maps in fantasy novels – and which ones are your favourites?

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2 thoughts on “Can’t Get There From Here, Part 1

  • Rob

    I love maps myself (real and fantasy). They certainly add to the enjoyment of exploring a world as a reader. I’ve been lost in ME since I was a child first tracing Bilbo’s journey thru Mirkwood. Love the SoIaF maps of Westeros and Essos. As a writer I like to invoke the “Here be dragons” uncertainty; as more details are added to the map, fleshing out the world.

  • Jo Hall

    Something I really enjoy reading are fantasy authors who hint at something beyond the edges of the map and convince you that what’s happening is only a small part of a much wider world, and a much wider story. Juliet McKenna is someone writing now who does that particularly well 🙂 It’s something I’ve always tried to do in my own writing.