The Plot Elements of Fantasy Maps

There is a new good article on fantasy maps at The Map Room Blog: The point being that much of the discussion of fantasy maps is not the map as such but rather the implausible territories that they depict. Fair point. However, I wanted to loop back to the post I made on the simplified Middle Earth map. A successful fantasy geography requires the terrain to shape the story and The Lord of the Rings does this well. It matters to the story whether the characters are in forests or towns/villages or mountains.

Roads, paths trails

These imply places where the story covers a greater distance. Travel is either uneventful or involves encounters with others. Leaving the path implies not only danger but a shift from the main objective. They are also (random encounters aside) boring but may also imply more personal conversation between characters. Outside of fantasy, a road trip has its own conventions and expectation of bonding between travellers.


Forests require finding a way through. As noted in the earlier post, in both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, forests are transformative to characters. They can both be benign and threatening, magical and spooky. There is an implication of things being hidden – characters are hidden from pursuit but also things of power hidden among the trees (consider Merry and Pippin fleeing into Fangorn to escape the Uruk-Hai and encountering Treebeard).


Hills are minor obstacles, vantage points and places of note. They can be sanctuaries, objectives or scenes of battles. Weathertop is the definitive hill in Lord of the Rings but Bag End is also in/on a hill. People have built defensible settlements on hills for millennia.


Are either major obstacles or really big hills 🙂 By “really big hills” I mean examples from Tolkien such as The Lonely Mountain, Minas Tirith and Mount Doom. These are singular locations that serve as objectives to be reached and which contain structures and may also be scenes of battle. Sets of mountains, on the other hand, are major obstacles that divide the terrain into different sections. They force characters to make decisions about the direction they need to take. In both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, the Misty Mountains divide the terrain and the story.

Mountain passes

One way to deal with the obstacle of mountains is to find a way through and over. A mountain pass is a forced choice for characters and a physical challenge. I can’t recall an epic fantasy where the characters suffer altitude sickness but that alone could fell a mighty hero who isn’t properly acclimatised. Accidental death is a plausible danger as is a need for shelter.

Caves, and journeys underground

Caves are naturally spooky and comforting as shelter – natural houses but also possibly homes for various beasties. Journeys underground are something else. Western myth (and beyond Western myth) associates passage through an underworld with a spiritual journey of the soul. This evokes ideas such as the Christian hell but also pre-Christian underworlds (Hel’s realm, Hades’s realm), mystery cults (and Orpheus’s journey to the underworld) or pre-scientific notions about the journey of the Sun at night.

Like forests, a journey underground is transformative. In The Hobbit, Bilbo finds the one ring and encounters Gollum. In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf dies (ish) and the tone of the story changes. A journey underground naturally hits mythic resonances with death-and-rebirth transformations. A cave (even if it is just a shallow cave) is a potential gateway to a world within a world.


Rivers are perhaps the most flexible geographic element of a fantasy terrain. They are minor obstacles (the require fording), they are locations (bridges and ford are specific places you need to get to), scenes of battle (a good place to stop an enemy), they are also major obstacles and divide the terrain into regions. Also, they are a means of transport and present more rapid transition from one location to the next. In The Hobbit, the barrel trip moves the story rapidly from Mirkwood to Laketown. In Lord of the Rings the trip down the Anduin is slower but shifts the characters from one level of the map to a different level. Consequently, rivers have a transformative quality for characters and story in a way not dissimilar to forest and journey’s underground but at the same time have road-trip elements as well including random encounters.


Are the ultimate obstacle and often delineate the setting of the story. Where stories cross oceans, the ocean separates different kinds of territories (a good exception is Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King where the ocean is more like a highway for a Viking like people). Alternatively, an ocean is a setting for an archipelago of which the paradigmatic example is Earthsea and acts more like the default empty bits of other maps.

Ships and ocean journeys

Ships combine elements of both road-trips and towns. A ship is a location and a means of transport. Characters are placed together and the journey covers significant distance punctuated by conversation and random events. Tolkein only uses ship journey as bridges between life and after-life. Lord of the Rings has ships only in two places – Aragorn brings the dead spirits to relieve Gondor (but the ship journey is not itself depicted in detail) and at the end, Frodo leaves Middle-Earth from the Grey Havens by ship to journey to the undying lands. In the Silmarillion ships also play a role moving people from being closer or further away from the gods. The great ship-travelling civilisation of Numenor is one that lies halfway between the more earthly and the divine.

Islands, lakes, islands in lakes and other things

I’ll save for another time and I’ll need to branch out into other fantasy stories. 🙂



24 responses to “The Plot Elements of Fantasy Maps”

  1. Keeps? Including keeps/walls in or on geographical features. Gemmel’s Dros Delnoch is an iconic example.

    For some reason I’m very fond of river journeys in fantasy books – they tend to be a relaxed way of shifting the plot along while allowing some interesting character interaction.


  2. Authors who received classical educations had impressed upon them that forests are places where violent death might lurk around every bend in the trail, after reading Caesar’s Commentaries and the history of the reign of Augustus.

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    • Also the forests of Central European folklore – which are the same forests come to think of it! Full of barbarian armies and big bad wolves. Damn. Now my head is in Mythago Wood…


      • Mirkwood is a medieval name. I think it is in Nibelungenlied that there is a mention of the sons of Attila ridning through Mirkwood. So, yes the same kind of woods.

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        • There is an interesting scale thing here as well. Next to the Shire is the Old Forest – which is on a very English sort of scale, whereas Mirkwood is much more the great Central European forest of folklore (although apparently Germany isn’t actually inhabited by giant talking spiders)


          • Good point. I hadn’t thought about that. By the way, Mirkwood and the Old Forest share the feature of being home to both good and evil, unlike Fangorn and Lothlorien. I was about to say both hostile and benevolent, but changed it, because the good in all for places would be quite hostile to dwarves with axes, and mortal men indending to do the thing mortal men does with agriculture and cities.😀


    • One of the nice touches in Michael Flynn’s Eifelheim, which features aliens in medieval Germany, is that in some ways the aliens were more familiar in thought-pattern than the medieval humans were – in one scene, where an alien and a medieval character are looking into the forest, it’s clear that the alien is seeing the forest as a modern would (as a place of natural beauty), while the medieval character is seeing it as a place of known danger and possibly hidden terrors as well.

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    • Not to forget the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, which did not even take place there, but further north in Kalkriese near Osnabrück. It still plays a big role in German historical memory to the point that every schoolchild knows the story and that both the Arminius monument in the actual Teutoburg Forest and the museum in Kalkriese are popular destinations for school trips. I have to confess that I have a soft spot for the Arminius monument, because how can you not love a 25 metre tall statue of a Germanic warrior with a seven metre long sword and a goofy expression on his face?

      And of course these are the deep dark woods from myth and fairy tale. The region where many of the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm supposedly originate is right next door to the Teutoburg Forest. And the Harz, where the witches supposedly gather on Walpurgis Night (April 30) to dance, is only a bit further East, separated only by what is today the highway A7 (and very likely already was some kind of road in Roman times).

      The romantic robbers of 18th and 19th century German fiction also lurked in those same deep dark woods, inspired by actual not at all romantic bandits that preyed on those traveling through secluded woodlands. The trope of the romantic robber (as well as the related tropes of the villainous robber and the bumbling robber) survived well into the 20th century via novels, operettas, movies, etc…

      My favourite example is the 1958 movie version of Wilhelm Hauff’s novella The Spessart Inn, which has it all: deep dark woods, a creepy inn, a dashing robber captain, a crossdressing comtessa, excellent use of music to further the narration, sly political digs (SJW message fiction in 1958 – inconceivable). It’s on YouTube, but only in German without subtitles.


  3. My personal pet peeve is how fantasy sea voyages have magic winds. In the age of sail, sea voyages depended on seasonal winds and long voyages had very specific timetables. In fantasy novels, boats just go wherever the hell they want. It really trivializes what a tremendous feat a sailing journey is.


  4. Moderately epic, but in at least one of the Lady Trent novels (dragons!), Our Heroine acclimatizes to and suffers from altitude sickness. In the last novel, she’s in the Himalayas expy.
    Also in “The Bedlam Stacks” (set in the same world as Watchmaker of Filigree Street [Katsu! :octopus: 🐙] and sort of a prequel), Our Heroes are running about in Peru and they both suffer from it, one very badly.


      • I read Bedlam Stacks when it came out, freeing me to finish the new Leckie on Wednesday.

        Spoiler: it’s swell. More straightforward than Ancillary, so likely better for the Not So Faannish As Us. Plots and counter-plots, reverses of fortune, a bit of pew-pew, nice turns of phrase, robots, soupcon of romance.

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