The Art of Literary Cartography

by Rachel Day

Map of Rohan, Gondor, and Mordor, © J.R.R. Tolkien. Photograph: The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

How would you navigate from the Shire to Mordor?

Box-shaped mountain ranges and bizarre drainage basins aside, Middle Earth’s topography poses questions about crossing literary landscapes. As a writer, how do you plan a quest spanning continents or an adventure set in a sprawling dystopian city? How should your characters traverse mountains, towns and forests in a way that is believable to your readers?

If you’re J.R.R. Tolkien, the answer is simple: draw maps on every piece of paper you can get your hands on.

Sketches of islands for Cloud Atlas, © David Mitchell, as seen in The Writer’s Map.

Visual guides to imaginary worlds can make or break the creative process. Take David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, for example. Thanks to the God’s-eye view of his notebook maps, Mitchell moved the action he had planned for the Roman-style settlement of Prescience in Alaska to one of “semi-barbarism” in Hawaii. On seeing Prescience’s sophisticated layout from above, Mitchell realised that the rowdier Hawaiians would be “a more interesting bunch to spend a hundred pages with”. He then drastically altered his novel’s plot to accommodate them.

Mitchell did not consider his original design wasted. It gave him an idea of what his characters knew about Prescience, he explains in The Writer’s Map, a new collection of musings on fantasy cartography, edited by Huw Lewis-Jones. The book collates sketches like Mitchell’s and Tolkien’s and places them next to glossy renditions of published maps including those of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea and Tove Jansson’s Moominvalley. The result is an enchanting look at how maps have shaped every stage in the creation of novels, from inception through to publication.

Monro Orr’s version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Photograph: The British Library Board.

Starting a map without a story can lead to wonderful things, Robert Macfarlane notes in his contribution to the volume. He points to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the map for which was created on a rainy day in 1881 to entertain Stevenson’s 12-year-old stepson. A narrative soon followed, bringing the map’s evocative place names to life and proving the power of mapmaking as a generative exercise.

Stevenson’s original map was more art than science: it featured profile mountains, tiny galleons and a stylised compass rose. Its illustrations mapped out an individual character’s experience of a place, an innovation that would soon become a staple of children’s fantasy literature.

Map of A.A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood, © E.H. Shepard. Photograph: Sotheby’s.

Consider, for example, the map of A.A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood, on which Christopher Robin accords landmark status to his friends’ houses, or Harry Potter’s Marauder’s Map, an artefact that traces the position of Hogwarts’ wizards in real-time. Unlike Treasure Island’s fertile map, artists created these pieces after publication to embellish the story, linking place and narrative to offer the reader a taste of the adventure to come. As Miraphora Mina, creator of the Marauder’s Map, notes, wielded skilfully maps can reveal (or conceal) the secrets of their world.

Maps are more than illustrations. They have helped authors create and navigate the most intricate imaginary worlds and, with the booming popularity of science fiction and fantasy, should remain a valuable tool in the writer’s arsenal for years to come.

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