A detailed image of Pietro Vesconte’s world map

Why Early Cartography Doesn’t Work Well for Fantasy Maps

I got message in my inbox the other daaaaay…

“I’d love to see something from the Late Medieval or even Crusades period. Does the dearth of material from those eras prevent or make such a project more difficult? Are you simply uninterested?”

It’s a great question and one I’ve received several times in the last few years. The answer is longer and more complicated than it should be. We’re dealing with history and history is always messier than we’d like. Plus, I think it’s interesting enough that everyone will appreciate why I seem to ignore the Middle Ages’ maps in favor of later sources.

Also I blame Tolkien.

Strap in, cowpokes—I’m going history nerd on y’all.

Technology, Cartography, and Fan Expectations

We need to begin with technology. The proliferation of maps didn’t commence until after the printing press became ubiquitous. That’s why we have such an explosion of content after the 15th century. Before then, maps were all hand-made. Reproduction was difficult. You don’t find as many maps from those early eras, and often the maps you do find are reproductions done in a later style. That’s not to say they don’t exist, they’re just much different than the maps that came later, and they don’t correlate with what we think of as a map.

Then there’s the fan experience and the modern fan’s expectation. Fantasy maps serve a story, after all, and most fans want certain things from the map. Locations, distance, landforms, perhaps even enough to understand the climate. But the era of your typical fantasy novel is often set much earlier than the era of the printing press. (Yeah. Sure. It’s fantasy. And yeah, sure, you can fudge it.) But this is where it gets complicated.

In many ways, Tolkien is the one who set the expectation for fantasy fans. His famous map of Middle Earth, the one we all know and love, is more akin to cartography from the 16th, 17th, or 18th century than one from the Middle Ages. While it’s easy to point fingers, the reality is there is a good reason for his decision.

The art from the Middle Ages was weird.

Have you ever spent time looking at Western art from the Middle Ages at a museum? Notice how it’s always a little goofy? A bit off? Strange angles. Weird faces. There’s a flatness to everything. Eyes are looking in different directions. The artist had no idea what a cat looked like. The baby Jesus on Mary’s lap looks like a 34-year-old man. Camels look like horses and horses like goats. Trees are rendered oddly, and buildings are even odder. Art at this time was in its infancy and it’s like that with the cartography as well.

Let’s look at a few examples to see what I mean.


10th Century – Ende’s Map of the World – 975 A.D.

Most Western cartographers from the Middle Ages were monks, or in Ende’s case, a nun. The maps they made were often crafted alongside, or as a part of, “illumination” for religious manuscripts. Religious zeal tended to dominate many of those early Western works, making them almost useless as maps.

This “map of the world” is an excellent example of that fervor. It’s sparse, with more effort spent on the Garden of Eden cartouche than detailing the geography. It’s far different from the detailed maps we expect from our modern fantasy novels. Yet, the era it was created, the late 10th-century, is more often than not closer in era to our crafted fantasy worlds.


12th Century – Al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana – 1154 A.D.

During the 10th century, most of the progression in the science of geography and cartography was coming from the Middle East. Most of our modern understanding of mathematics and science is rooted in discoveries from the early Muslim world. Cartography is no different.

Muhammad al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana is one of my favorite pieces from those times and is largely considered the height of early Muslim cartography. While this work is rendered upside down, with North being at the bottom (not uncommon for Middle Ages work), the map itself is incredibly accurate—while scale is still being sussed out, it’s easy to spot recognizable landforms.

It’s also stunning.

Colorful mountain ranges dance across beige landforms, green lakes and seas drain into rivers, which in turn empty into the deep blue swaths of open ocean. It makes for a beautiful piece of history. While you can see the roots for the hill-profile style that would become the norm in later centuries, it’s quite different from maps we find in the opening pages of a novel. Everything here is a bit flashy, more like a painting—whereas, with later maps, engravers began using the symbols we expect. The map itself shifted in later years to become a tool for the commoner, not a piece of art for a fancy king named Roger.


13th Century – Matthew Paris’s Britain – 1259-ish A.D.

The other approach we find in the Middle Ages was more typographical. Take this 13th-century map of the British Isles from the Benedictine Monk Matthew Paris. It’s not bogged down in religious fervor the way Ende’s map was—but it’s also not as detailed as one would expect.

There are only a few signs and symbols, and much of the heavy lifting is done with text. Beyond the coastline, there is very little in the way of landforms. No flora is present. No mountains—well, maybe one mountain. Few rivers. And this is the 13th Century! We’re nearly three hundred years after Ende crafted her map, and still two hundred years before duel-beard wielding Johannes Gutenberg would invent his printing press. And etching—the process that rendered many of the maps that influence fantasy cartography today—wouldn’t show up on the scene until seventy-five years after that.

But you can see the origins of what was to come. You can see symbols begin to creep into the idea of a map. You can see where cartography is going.


I once read an article that compared these early maps to “storytelling” rather than representations of geography. This was undoubtedly the case in Western cartography during the Middle Ages. These maps serve to enforce a narrative. But beyond that narrative, most are unusable. They’re paintings. Piece of art. They’re not tools. We see more cartouches and illustrations than useful signs and representational symbols. This is why I avoid using these as a base. There aren’t enough signs to make a robust set, and the signs and symbols that exist are very limited. This is why early cartography and Middle Ages’ sources won’t make practical brush sets.

The Silver Lining

I don’t think all hope is lost. While it’s theorized to be a bit earlier than the Middle Ages, I think there’s potential for some sort of set to come from the Tabula Peutingeriana, an early map of the Roman Empire.

I’m not sure how effective it’d be from a landform-perspective, but there are so many variances in the Roman settlements that I could see it working for the right project. The trick will be finding a decent source, it’s been reproduced so many times and every time there are slight variations. Plus, I’ll need to dust off my High-School Latin before I tackle it.

There’s also an opportunity with some of Sebastian Münster’s or Girolamo Ruscelli’s work. It’s early as far as the hill-profile style goes, but it somehow feels older even though both are from the 16th century. The downside is most of the individual maps are fairly light in the number of symbols present, so I’ll need to pull from multiple sources. Unfortunately, neither did an outstanding job maintaining a uniform size with their signs or keeping line strokes consistent. Not impossible to overcome, but it is time-consuming.

In Conclusion

There are going to projects that will benefit from the earlier styles of cartography. The maps I shared are stunning and fantastic pieces of history. Creating in-era ephemera can add a level of authenticity to a story, and any of the pieces I shared would be great to replicate for the right project. But for those, I think proper illustration goes a lot further than trying to shoehorn brush sets into cartographic development. In those cases, one would be better off hiring an illustrator.

I design my brushes to help non-designers create period-authentic maps. For the vast majority of fantasy projects, I think mimicking the hill-profile style will satisfy fans. Tolkien chose it for a reason. It’s easy to wrap your head around and still feels properly antiquated even if it doesn’t precisely match era to era. It’s become the defacto fantasy style, and for a fantastical world, and you know what? That’s more than acceptable.


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J. R. R. Tolkien

Alive at Once

“The significance of a myth is not easily to be pinned on paper by analytical reasoning. It is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography, as our poet has done. Its defender is thus at a disadvantage: unless he is careful, and speaks in parables, he will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and he will be left with a formal or mechanical allegory, and what is more, probably with one that will not work. For myth is alive at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected.”

J. R. R. Tolkien

China Miéville

Fantasy As A Challenge

“When people dis fantasy—mainstream readers and SF readers alike—they are almost always talking about one sub-genre of fantastic literature. They are talking about Tolkien, and Tolkien’s innumerable heirs. Call it ‘epic’, or ‘high’, or ‘genre’ fantasy, this is what fantasy has come to mean. Which is misleading as well as unfortunate.

Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature. His oeuvre is massive and contagious—you can’t ignore it, so don’t even try. The best you can do is consciously try to lance the boil. And there’s a lot to dislike—his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity. Tolkien’s clichés—elves ‘n’ dwarfs ‘n’ magic rings—have spread like viruses. He wrote that the function of fantasy was ‘consolation’, thereby making it an article of policy that a fantasy writer should mollycoddle the reader.

That is a revolting idea, and one, thankfully, that plenty of fantasists have ignored. From the Surrealists through the pulps—via Mervyn Peake and Mikhael Bulgakov and Stefan Grabiński and Bruno Schulz and Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison and I could go on—the best writers have used the fantastic aesthetic precisely to challenge, to alienate, to subvert and undermine expectations.

Of course I’m not saying that any fan of Tolkien is no friend of mine—that would cut my social circle considerably. Nor would I claim that it’s impossible to write a good fantasy book with elves and dwarfs in it—Michael Swanwick’s superb IRON DRAGON’S DAUGHTER gives the lie to that. But given that the pleasure of fantasy is supposed to be in its limitless creativity, why not try to come up with some different themes, as well as unconventional monsters? Why not use fantasy to challenge social and aesthetic lies?

Thankfully, the alternative tradition of fantasy has never died. And it’s getting stronger. Chris Wooding, Michael Swanwick, Mary Gentle, Paul di Filippo, Jeff VanderMeer, and many others, are all producing works based on fantasy’s radicalism. Where traditional fantasy has been rural and bucolic, this is often urban, and frequently brutal. Characters are more than cardboard cutouts, and they’re not defined by race or sex. Things are gritty and tricky, just as in real life. This is fantasy not as comfort-food, but as challenge.

The critic Gabe Chouinard has said that we’re entering a new period, a renaissance in the creative radicalism of fantasy that hasn’t been seen since the New Wave of the sixties and seventies, and in echo of which he has christened the Next Wave. I don’t know if he’s right, but I’m excited. This is a radical literature. It’s the literature we most deserve.”

China Miéville


I don’t usually post quotes this long, but as I’ve been working on Coal Belly, and after publishing my essay on problematic fiction this quote from 2002 has been kicking around in my head. (Originally from here, but it’s been modified over the years.)

My work has frequently been described as “difficult to categorize”—and while I label the Bell Forging Cycle as urban fantasy for simplicity, it’s no secret that its more accurate description is much more complicated. I revel in this, genre classification is boring at best and writing dangerous or challenging fiction within the “Next Wave” the “New Weird” or whatever we want to call it is exactly where I want to be as a writer.

💀🦑💀

Friday Link Pack 10-16-2015

Friday Link Pack 10/16/2015

Friday is here! That means it’s time for the Friday Link Pack. My weekly post covering topics such as writing, art, current events, and random weirdness. Some of these links I mentioned on Twitter, if you’re not already following me there, please do! Do you have a link I should feature in the upcoming link pack? Click here to email me and let me know! (Include a website so I can link to you as well.) Let’s get to it…

RED LITTEN WORLD:

This will be the last week for the Red Litten World category. If you haven’t picked up your copy there are plenty of ways. Paperbacks can be purchased from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, or direct from My Store. EBooks can be purchased from  KindleKoboiBooksGooglePlayNook, and of course, My Store. (Always DRM Free.)

Red Litten World, 1 Week Old
A week after the launch I reflect on the happenings around Red Litten World. I discuss early reviews, direct folks to inspiration, the delay I experience with some minor printing issues, and more.

Jazz Saints Of The Bell Forging Cycle
In the first entry for my ongoing series, Wild Territories, I explore the reasons behind the Jazz Saints that crop up through The Bell Forging Cycle. I look into individual songs and explain why I selected them.

WRITING:

Three Reasons Your Writing Career is Stuck
Author and blogger, Kristen Lamb, offers some tough-love advice on shifting your attitude, changing your perceptions, focusing your time, and unsticking your writing career.

See the Sketches J.R.R. Tolkien Used to Build Middle-Earth
Yay! A maps link (and a bit more)! If you’re a fan of Lord of the Rings, then do yourself a favor and check out these early sketches and notes for Middle Earth. Heck, if you’re a fantasy fan at all this article and the associated imagery is worth your time. Show’s how much work Tolkien put into his world.

100,000 Books Sold – What Happened?
Indie-author John Ellsworth, writer of legal thrillers, discusses his career and what it took for him to sell his first 100,000 books and what he plans on doing to sell many more.

How to Market Your Book to a Niche Audience
Handy advice from BookBub on how to sell to a specific audience. From nailing down that metadata to creating a solid social campaign strategy.

RANDOM:

The Most Mysterious Star In Our Galaxy
Strange things are circling a very distant star located between the constellations of Cygnus the swan and Lyra the harp. Is it a natural occurrence or some enormous an ancient superstructure? Maybe Commander Shephard knows? Scientists are struggling to find out. [Thanks to Mike for sharing this.]

It Could Be Worse
Charles Stross takes a serious look at China’s new and controversial Citizen Score. A dystopian dream made into a creepy reality. [Thanks to Jim for sharing this.]

Holy City Of The Wichitas
My favorite blog, Atlas Obscura, looks at a little piece of old Jerusalem smack in the middle of Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains. Bonus points for their use of the pun: faux-ly land.

Monty Python Releases 14 Minutes Of Unseen Animation From Holy Grail
I have always really enjoyed those weird little animations in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. So I was extra excited when the A.V. Club shared this look at never before scene footage from the classic movie.

WEIRD WIKIPEDIA:

Taman Shud Case
“The Taman Shud or Tamam Shud Case, also known as the Mystery of the Somerton Man, is an unsolved case of an unidentified man found dead at 6:30 am, 1 December 1948, on Somerton beach, Glenelg, just south of Adelaide, South Australia. It is named after a phrase, tamám shud, meaning “ended” or “finished” in Persian, printed on a scrap of paper found in the fob pocket of the man’s trousers. This turned out to have been torn from the final page of a particular copy of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a collection of poems attributed to 12th-century poet Omar Khayyám. Following a police appeal, the actual book was handed in – six months after the body was found, a businessman (given the name Mr. Francis) said his brother found it in the back footwell of his car at about the time the body was found. The book was handed to Detective Leane who made the decision to keep the finder’s real name out of the papers. Imprinted on the back cover of the book was something looking like a secret code as well as a telephone number and another unidentified number.”

H.P. LOVECRAFT STORY OF THE WEEK:

The Call Of Cthulhu
So, oddly, I don’t think this has ever been a featured story of the week. This is one of the biggest (and some might argue one of the best) of Lovecraft’s story. Also, the only tale to feature the tentacle-faced monstrosity himself, Cthulhu.

When you’re done reading this, make sure you go and read my Guest Geek editorial, Cthulhu The Wimp.

GIF OF THE WEEK:

boop!