There is a new good article on fantasy maps at The Map Room Blog: http://www.maproomblog.com/2017/09/the-territory-is-not-the-map/ 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.
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. 🙂