Imaginary Maps In Fantasy Fiction

Over the course of the summer the Library of Congress in the United States published a wonderful online series called “Imaginary Maps in Literature and Beyond” which has just come to an end. The several articles posted from May to August focused on different aspects of fictional maps and map-making, and should interest fans of cartography and Fantasy fiction in equal measure. From the introduction by Hannah Stahl of the Geography & Map Division:

“Why would someone with an English degree have any interest in maps? Well, I’ll tell you.

No area of study occurs in a vacuum. In some of my English classes, and other classes I took for that matter, maps and atlases were integrated into our coursework and used to frame conversations about views of society. They were also used to show us where authors lived, where the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales travelled, and where Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy fell in love.

Perhaps more importantly, maps and literature are more intertwined than one would believe. The first exposure I ever had to a map was in a children’s book. When I explored the Hundred Acre Wood with Christopher Robin and the gang, the map in Winnie-the-Pooh helped me lose myself in the pages of the book because I could more clearly picture the world that A.A. Milne had created.

Authors who choose to include maps in their works engage in world-building by laying out the geography of the places their characters inhabit. In doing so, they help their readers disappear from comfy armchairs by the fire into worlds with dragons and magic. This is absolute perfection for an English major. One famous example of this is the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Where would we be if we were not able to plot Frodo’s journey to Mordor with our own eyes? Would we lose an element of the story if these maps didn’t exist? I think so.

There are even more maps available of imaginary worlds that exist outside the pages of a book. Maps are also present in video games, used to map board games, and create imaginary worlds designed specifically for satire. We’ll be exploring all of these types of maps and imaginary worlds this summer. Come revisit the Hundred Acre Wood and the other worlds of your favourite children’s stories, spend some time in medieval Europe, and run from White Walkers in Game of Thrones.”

The collection consists of the following parts:

Imaginary Maps in Literature and Beyond: Introduction

Imaginary Maps in Literature and Beyond: Middle Ages and the Renaissance

Imaginary Maps in Literature and Beyond: “Not all those who wander are lost”

Imaginary Maps in Literature and Beyond: “Different Roads Sometimes Lead to the Same Castle”

Imaginary Maps in Literature and Beyond: Children’s Stories

Imaginary Maps in Literature and Beyond: Half-Real, Half-Imaginary

Imaginary Maps in Literature and Beyond: Conclusion

“An anciente mappe of Fairyland : newly discovered and set forth” by Bernard Sleigh c.1920 (Image: US Library of Congress)

In a similar vein can I recommend this article, “Here Be Blank Spaces: Vaguely Medieval Fantasy Maps“, by Jonathan Crowe for The Map Room:

“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 neighbourhood 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.

Well worth a read.




  1. When I first read Lord of the Rings, I loved poring over the maps. Perhaps even more than reading the text itself!

  2. There was an amazing exhibition in The Crawford Gallery in Cork one time that had ptolemy’s map of Ireland as a centre piece, there were maps of all varying things real and otherwise, one of them was called “Map of an Englishman’s Brain!”

  3. LTOR as ¨[a] marriage between the Elder Edda and The Wind in the Willows¨. I never thought about it in those terms, but YES! Spot on, I´d say.

    As for Scotland being at right angles to the rest of Britain … well that´s not too far from the truth right now … those old Greeks knew a thing or two 🙂

Comments are closed.