Revisiting the Map of Middle Earth

So I’m back on a map kick it seems.

I thought I’d look at the most classic of fantasy maps again but from a different perspective. Part of the problem and the attraction of Tolkien’s original map is the additional detail and a sense of a bigger explorable world. What happens if we strip that away and while we are at it making the right-angle problem a bit worse?


I’ve tried to simplify things as far as possible to leave mainly the plot relevant features, plus extensions of them sufficient to make them not look absurd. I’ve left off labels and names for extra minimalism. The red locations are places from Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit which are marked on the map as specific spots and where stuff happened. I’ve left off the scale but relative distances are consistent with the standard Lord of the Rings maps.

Some things to observe. All The Hobbit locations and most of the LOTR locations to the west of the Misty Mountains are basically in a straight line. The other LOTR locations are more scattered but really they form two groups: a large southern group between Isengard and Mordor and a small number (Gates to Moria, Lothlorien) that lie between the southern locations and the northern locations.

While the geography of Middle Earth may have many details, the actual plot geography is fairly simple and is dominated by west-east lines.

Here is the area that The Hobbit takes place in:


And here are the regions in LOTR broken into books. The pale green areas are the two parts of The Fellowship of the Ring. The purple polygon is The Two Towers combined. The red rectangles are The Return of the King.


In all cases except Book 2 of The Fellowship of the Ring and the final parts of The Return of the King, west-east journeys predominate. Even in Book 2 of The Fellowship of the Ring, the North-South legs of the journey tend to be more featureless and cover greater distances in fewer pages.

In this final map, I’ve but Bilbo’s (red), Frodo’s (cyan) and Aragorn’s (green) main journeys (the There but not the Back Again). Aragorn’s is the most complex and includes a loop that happens “off-screen”.


No startling revelations here but I think it exemplifies aspects of the map. Story wise the map really is mainly redundant. However, what it does support is the way the story makes use of different elements to influence the plot.

  • Mountains are plot barriers – they force the characters to follow particular routes and take difficult risks. Each mountain crossing involves supernatural forces (goblins in The Hobbit) and a subterranean element.
  • Rivers are both softer plot barriers and also means of rapidly shifting the characters from one place to another. Mountains slow the characters down and rivers speed them up (sometimes).
  • Forests are the most complex of all. In each case they are transformative. Lothlorien is the most overt example but Mirkwood also marks a change in Bilbo, as well as Merry and Pippin changing in Fangorn.

I think it is this aspect of the books, which makes the map particularly memorable. Each of the forest is both different but also similar in the way that they allow the characters to pass through them but not without danger or consequences.


6 responses to “Revisiting the Map of Middle Earth”

  1. Well exactly. I certainly wouldn’t defend the geological plausibility of Middle Earth, but it’s hard to argue with the metaphorical nature of its structure.
    I mean, at least the fantasy genre does attempt maps and even usually tries for some sort of geographical verisimilitude (in that journeys take time and are often structured to make events happen on meaningful days, which is again something that Tolkien took effort over.) Space Opera generally openly mocks the entire concept; Star Wars being the most notorious culprit, even excluding the whole parsecs nonsense.

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