Fantasy Maps

First things first – just to get it out of the way: maps are abstractions. It's in their very nature. In fact, let me start with Baudrillard.

In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard recounts the Borges fable in which “the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory exactly the decline of the Empire witnesses the fraying of this map, little by little, and its fall into ruins, though some shreds are still discernible in the deserts.” Today, he points out, the territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. The map comes first, the simulacra. It forms the territory. And it is the reality, and not the map, whose shreds slowly rot. The desert of the real. (Yes. That's a Morpheus quote from The Matrix.)

Welcome to the ... well, you know now, don't you?

As a fantasy writer, I deal with the reality of things a lot more than you might believe. But it's fantasy, you sneer, you can just make it all up, the whole world and everything in it. True, I answer in line with Tolkien's spirit, but I have to make it up so artfully that you believe it's real. There are rules I must lay out as a foundation, the cornerstones of my world must have the density of the four great elephants carrying the disc on their shoulder. Or … something.

In worldbuilding, the 'map' of the fantasy world usually comes first to mind. It doesn't have to be a literal map on paper, although most likely it is. The magic of a map is it can help you make your world 'real' as you figure out the geological history, the relation of continents to each other, the constraints this might put on your characters when traveling, and so on.

Ever since Tolkien drew his own map of the Lonely Mountain, it has become a Thing (capital T) to include maps in every fantasy book. The map of Middle Earth has become a copy of a copy of a copy, reproduced so many times, accompanying DVD's, hanging in dorm rooms, and bedrooms all around the world. It's merchandise. It sells your book. It's taken for granted that your fantasy book must come with a map.

But why? Well, the underlying idea is that without one, readers won't be able to navigate your fantasy territory.

Lean closer and listen carefully, now: a good fantasy world is accessible without a map.

“OMFG! How dare she say that?”

Actually I didn't. I stole it from my editor, Harry Dewulf.​

Simple. I dare because it's true. First of all, Tolkien included maps because a) they delighted him personally, and b) his world was originally intended as a thought experiment in the development of languages. As a linguist, he knew and had an interest in how geography and history shaped a language and its widespread distribution. And in all fairness, the map in The Hobbit shows only a small part of a much larger world, at only one point in time. And yet, while his beautifully hand-drawn and simple map enhances the pleasure for his readers, the truth is, the readers don't really need it as an aid to understanding what they are reading. Because most importantly, readers are fucking smart!

And that's the crux right there. You need to trust that your story telling abilities are good enough AND your readers smart enough to follow along the roadways of your world without having a GPS to guide and annoy them all the fucking time.

That means, you, as the writer, need a map to figure out what your world looks like, the distances that must be traversed, the obstacles that might come up – hello, Himalayan-scope mountain range! - and what geological forces (or magical forces) helped shape your fantasy landscapes in the first place, and you must know it as though the map were the one of the Borges fable – laid out in such detail, it covers the whole world. But …

… it must be your skill in telling the story that guides the reader through it. Yes, your map makes it real for the readers, but you must place them in the desert of the real.

Here's something I learned standing in front of classrooms, teaching students how to read maps: the first thing anyone ever does is look for the hidden treasure. No matter what the teacher just told them to look at or look for, there must be a spot marked with x somewhere. There must be!

We are aware of the abstraction even before we are formally aware of how to read maps. All maps are treasure maps. They conceal something hidden, some extra knowledge. Mostly they conceal an underlying worldview of whoever made the map, or had it made. They reveal what that mapmaker doesn't know of the topology. And that's the treasure right there. As someone who reads the map, you become complicit with the one who made it. You both buy into the simulation. The simulation becomes reality.

Full circle.

Anyway, going on the premise that a map is not necessary … I uh … I had a map made for my fantasy series. I took all the scribbled and hastily drawn maps I had, and gave them over into the able hands of Robert Altbauer of (Go check out his maps! He has some incredibly beautiful ones over at his site!)

I told Robert that I wanted a map that looked as though some brainy scholar who had never traveled the world sat in his ivory tower and, after listening to the tales of sailors and checking the maps others had made before him, drew up a map as best he could. Some parts are sketchy – he has too little information to go on. Other parts are him imposing his worldview. There are nuggets of information hidden throughout the map for those who have read Touch of Iron, and bits of information that appear in Book 2, and others that might never appear in the books, but were included anyway to keep readers guessing, muahahaha.

*Ahem* Here it is.

This map was first revealed to my email list. If you'd like to be one of the first to find out more about the world of the Living Blade series, fill in the box! See you on the other side!

Leave a Comment:

Zac says 11 months ago

Excellent article, the concept of a map maker enforcing his/her perception of the world onto others through the use of his/her map blew my mind! Also it made me watch Morpheus clips on Youtube.

    Timandra says 10 months ago

    I’m glad you liked it. 🙂 I love Morpheus’ character in the Matrix trilogy. Laurence Fishburne does a great job of juxtaposing him as a mentor, a guide – but the stuff he says is borderline fundamentalist dogma. It’s a great performance with some really good and memorable lines.

    Here’s a cool link to an article reminding us that we must never forget: maps are created by people for people (wish I’d read it sooner, i.e BEFORE this post was written)

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