More Plot Elements of Fantasy Maps

Following on from this and this and the other. A few things before I continue. These are musings – not an extensive survey of fantasy geographies but also not intended as ‘normative’ or necessarily suggesting these are cliches. I’m looking for ways of thinking about the terrain and the story. So I also reserve the right to contradict myself! 🙂 – and feel free to contradict what I’m saying also.

Also I should have numbered these posts.

In the previous posts, I was thinking primarily about Tolkien’s Middle Earth and then I headed off to Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun for some territory that worked differently. I want to cover some terrain that is less obvious in Tolkien’s plots and so I’m going to draw on some other sources.

Earthsea – Ursula LeGuin’s island world. For me the maps in A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, predate the maps in Lord of the Rings. So they are personally the original ‘fantasy books with maps’. In particular the labyrinth map in The Tombs of Atuan was a source of fascination for a younger me as we owned the book before I was really old enough to attempt reading it.

By using an archipelago, Le Guin gets a world where the seas are the highways and paths. Each island is a distinct location, and while the characters don’t visit each of them, many get a name check or are scene from a distance from a boat. I’m surprised more books that make use of an archipelago but maybe it is because Earthsea is so distinctive.

The Land – Stephen Donaldson’s books have declined in reputation over the years as the elements of sexual violence and angst ridden characters have made the books feel like the product of an era. There are two elements that make them interesting as far as plot geography goes. Firstly the story and magic systems of the Thomas Covenant novels if overtly connected with the terrain. Secondly The Land is basically a rectangle.

thelandsimplifiedThe left margin is mountains, the bottom margin is mountains. I think the top margin is mountains as well? The right margin is ocean. The coast is basically a vertical line. Another vertical line is Landsdrop, that is about three-quarters of the way along. I didn’t have a map to hand so I drew a very schematic version to reflect how I remember it

Online, there are of course a lot more naturalistic looking versions of the map – and I see I’ve exaggerated the extent to which The Land is like Mordor – a box contained by mountains – but you get the point. It isn’t even a bad idea as a rectangle is an easy conceptual way of dividing a region into areas with locations and places to pass through.


As a fantasy map topology there could be worse places to start than a rectangle subdivided like this:

Giving a sense of regions and locations that give a general sense of relative orientation on a compass and sufficient distance to be distinct from one another. Then imagine warping that grid to give a region that feels less like an abstract board game.

Wandering back to The Land – rivers and forests play a similar role as they do in Tolkien. Rivers being obstacles and facilitators of journeys and forests being places of transformation.

Star Wars – uses terrain less as plot geography and more as a way of dressing the stage to show events are taking place elsewhere. However, Star Wars planets are like trope eco-systems. Speaking of which, I’m also throwing in Flash Gordon (the original movie serials but also the 1980s movie) for good measure.

There is no really sensible way in which the terrains of these space fantasies amount to a geography. Essentially the locations are distinct from one another and people just end up there. In some ways they constitute another archipelago like Earthsea.

…and the introduction to what I was going to write is now longer that what I was going to write…so I’ll save that for another post!


One response to “More Plot Elements of Fantasy Maps”

  1. I have the feeling Donaldson’s geography is – as with many things in the first Covenant Chronicles – deliberately starting off in the ballpark of Tolkien, so as to set up the modernist/medievalist clash that follows.

    Landsdrop is pretty much a literal divide of the map into nice people and nasty things (giants not withstanding).

    A lot of people have poked fun at Donaldson’s idiosyncratic approach to language over the years but there’s a strange kind of blunt poetry to the (sometimes overly literal) naming of The Land’s topographical features that’s stuck with me.

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