Maps and fantasy

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Monday musings on fantasy writing

By Scott Bury

A map is a necessary feature of any fantasy novel.

Tolkien’s map from The Hobbit

Ever since Tolkien and Lewis, and maybe before, every fantasy novel has a map at the beginning or the end of the book.

It’s not necessary, but I find a map often helps. I also think a good map would help with any historical fiction as well as some others, to show the reader the relationships between settings in any story, to give an idea of how close or far apart key locations are. 

The trouble is, with a lot of fantasy novels, the map is childish looking. Totally unsatisfying for anyone who knows the first thing about maps.

It seems that every fantasy writer thinks that Pauline Baynes, the illustrator of the maps in The Hobbit, set the rules of cartography. 

But they’re not as good at drawing maps as Baynes. As a result, their maps are not detailed, nor realistic nor, more importantly, believable.

One good example is the map of the fantasy world in the bestselling Eragon by David Paolini. Obviously inspired by the maps drawn by Tolkien and Baynes, it’s particularly unsatisfying and child-like. It displays a lack of understanding how geography and geology work. 

This is not the only example. All the writers of fantasy seem to think mountains look like individual little cones, sometimes topped with a charming snowy peak. Rivers conveniently go through cities, which always have a hill for a castle with four towers in it. 

Coastlines are remarkably smooth, and borders between kingdoms are regular, rather than the tortuous, twisting and contentious messes you can see in virtually every part of the word, shaped by centuries of warfare and politics. 

Likewise, the societies were always limited and simplistic. There is a good kingdom and an evil kingdom. Their allies are also either good or bad, but less extreme. Tolkien, Lewis, Pratchett, Turtledove and most others follow this trope. George Martin is the one author who comes close to reflecting the complexity of international relations and dynastic politics in his Song of Ice and Fire series. But even that is not as complex, nor as far-reaching as the real ancient world was.

The sophistication of ancient societies

The ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, knew about China (which they variously called “Qin” or “Seres.”) Rome traded with India, and with far-off places like Abyssinia and Axum. Roman writers listed far-flung tribes in Scandinavia and what is now Russia, as well as in Africa. Their geography extended far beyond the maps of most fantasy writers. 

Maps and direction

Dissatisfaction with maps was part of the inspiration behind my first-published novel, The Bones of the Earth. When I began writing it, many years ago, my children were quite young and seemed to like stories about dragons. So we got a few movies and books, but somehow, they all seemed to follow a few well-worn tropes. The dragons were all friendly, or at least amenable to human direction. 

But that’s not what dragons meant to me. A little reading about the mythology involving dragons reveals them to be immensely powerful creatures, as well as very intelligent. While European stories generally depict dragons as antagonistic. Leave them alone on their giant piles of gold and jewels, or they’ll burn down your town and eat you alive, is the moral.

Asian dragons, on the other hand, are often said to have taught humans agriculture and other wisdom. They’re still not friendly, though. Certainly they are not suitable as pets.

Inspiration

All of this inspired me to do something different.

I guess it started with the map. “How can I make a map look more realistic?” I wondered. Eventually, I found the obvious solution: use a real map.

Which then led me to the next decision: set the fantasy story in a real place. And what is more fantastic than the Dark Age?

Current thinking dismisses the concept of the Dark Age of history. There are plenty of records from the time following the fall of the Western Roman Empire. In fact, the idea is highly western-European-centric and ignores the splendid civilizations that persisted through the years 476 to 800 CE: the Sassanid Persian Empire, China, Japan, powerful and sophisticated civilizations in India and Africa and the Americas. 

But it’s still a powerful, romantic idea, a great place for stories.

So that’s what led me to set a fantasy series in the Eastern Roman Empire around the turn of the seventh century CE. 

And it has an awesome map, and I’ll use it in my upcoming sequel, The Children of the Seventh Son.

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About Scott Bury