Sunday, January 4, 2015

Terra Incognita

Here is a map of the northeastern arc of Enoch, the world-city, the coast-long downtown that surrounds the sea on three sides like a giant omega, together with various adjacent lands.

It's a crude black-and-white scan of my ink drawing on paper, and probably needs to be rescanned and touched up. But you get the gist of it. The lettering is in an Art Nouveau font. I'm inordinately pleased with the mountains, which go beyond the cut-and-paste angle-things you see on many fantasy maps. The basic style is influenced by Tolkien's maps in The Hobbit.

Strangely enough, I've been drawing fantasy maps for longer than I've been reading fantasy. Here is the story of my first fantasy map.

It all began in the third grade. My teacher was kind of weird. For instance, she believed she had once seen a flying saucer, when she was a little girl: it had descended over her backyard one night, and she'd thought to it, if you can hear my thoughts, give me some sign, whereupon it had started flashing and flown away. I believed the story, and after that would "think" to all the mysterious lights I saw moving in the sky; once, a light I thought to kind of blinked, or so I imagined, and when I mentioned it to my teacher a few weeks later, she was upset that I hadn't told her sooner. She acted as though I had neglected to give her a crucial piece of information. "Why didn't you tell me sooner?" were her words. We also had to talk to her houseplants when we watered them, to encourage them to grow, and other New Agey stuff like that.

Well, anyway, sometimes this teacher would turn the lights out, sit cross-legged on her desk, and rub a crystal bowl with a crystal rod, producing a hypnotic hum. We would put our heads on our desks and imagine whatever she narrated. Generally it would begin like this: "You come to a gate. It has your name on it. You open it and go inside. There you find a giant egg. The egg is your house."

Not long after this I was introduced to Edith Hamilton's Mythology by my father, and I had been pretty skilled with a map and compass for some time, so I began creating fantasy contour maps of the egg-house-country peopled by creatures of Greek mythology. As a matter of fact, I got in trouble in math class when the girl who sat in front of me to told the teacher that I was drawing and not paying attention.

So when I discovered Tolkien at age fourteen or thereabouts I was immediately drawn to the maps. What sets them apart from a lot of other fantasy maps is, I think, the fact that they were constructed as part of the drama. They're not "overworld" maps someone drew and set a story in. Tolkien was continually modifying the geography so as to accommodate his desired plot. They're almost alive. Of course the geography is quite unrealistic, as he himself admitted: long, straight mountain ranges running north-south or east-west, at right angles to each other. But they're really a literary construction, and the power of the story makes such artificiality a nonissue.

I was also really into fantasy role-playing video games at the time, especially Final Fantasy II and III (IV and VI in Japan), those have doubtless influenced me as well.

In college I dealt with a bout of depression by creating a future history of Martian civilization, drawing numerous maps based on a fold-out map of the planet's surface I'd gotten in a National Geographic. None of those have survived, unfortunately. I also began, but never finished, a large watercolor map of the world of Norse mythology. That I still have somewhere.

So, me and fantasy maps, we go way back.

This map may ultimately be accompanied by another with a smaller inch-to-mile ratio, so that the entire Tethys Sea is visible. This is for a sword-and-planet story, so the design takes place on a planetary scale, though much of the surface is terra incognita to the inhabitants. A really good map makes the reader want to know what lies beyond the boundaries, and I hope mine has that effect.

All of this brings up a stylistic issue. Do you make your map bear some of the weight of your story, so that the reader has to consult it if they want to follow the action, or do you write your story in such a way that the reader must consult the map only if they can't keep the geography in their head? I go with the second, regarding the first as sloppy writing. Then again, I can't remember ever having read The Lord of the Rings without looking at the map.

Now on to the next thing.


  1. I really like that. In the best way, it reminds me of my favorite maps from fiction: JRRT's and PC Hodgell's.

    1. Thanks! I definitely had the map in Godstalk in mind as well.