Or, more accurately, for the love of maps of pretend places.

Maps have been appearing in fantasy literature going back—how long? I’m not even sure. At least to Tolkien, yes? Homer? Maybe—some editions, at least. There are ancient maps of Atlantis, which we’ll go ahead and assume is not a real place. Maps of Dante’s vision of Hell date back at least 540 years.

I love maps of fantasy and science fiction worlds and have happily included maps in books of my own. I’ve also hand-drawn rough little maps of parts of worlds, rooms or buildings, as I’m writing to help me visualize the place, to help choreograph how characters move through those spaces and to prevent myself from getting confused as to how far they’ve gone or how many right turns they’ve taken, and so on.

I’ve written about the importance of consistent travel times and distances between places in your story, calling into question that now infamous episode of Game of Thrones, but I’m far from the first person to wrestle with this question, as we can see from Samuel Johnson, writing in the mid-18th century:

The objection arising from the impossibility of passing the first hour at Alexandria, and the next at Rome, supposes, that when the play opens the spectator really imagines himself at Alexandria, and believes that his walk to the theatre has been a voyage to Egypt, and that he lives in the days of Antony and Cleopatra. Surely he that imagines this, may imagine more. He that can take the stage at one time for the palace of the Ptolemies, may take it in half an hour for the promontory of Actium. Delusion, if delusion be admitted, has no certain limitation; if the spectator can be once persuaded, that his old acquaintance are Alexander and Caesar, that a room illuminated with candles is the plain of Pharsalia, or the bank of Granicus, he is in a state of elevation above the reach of reason, or of truth, and from the heights of empyrean poetry, may despise the circumscriptions of terrestrial nature. There is no reason why a mind thus wandering in extasy should count the clock, or why an hour should not be a century in that calenture of the brains that can make the stage a field.

My love of maps might have something to do with so very many hours spent playing Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller,and other role-playing games—all known for their maps. I particularly love the poster maps of the classic Judges Guild world. I adore them all out of proportion. In this detail of the Elphand Lands from Fantastic Wilderlands Beyond (Judges Guild #67, 1978) we see this part of the world broken down into hexagons each five miles across.

The Elphand Lands

With this map we can get fairly precise measurements of the distance between the villages of Quickstep and Sekhet (about fifteen miles) and their relationship to the adjacent Sidhe Hills to the north and east and the Folkvangir Forest curving along west to south.

Though this was incredibly useful for players and their dungeon masters in determining how long it took to get from one of those villages to another and what sort of terrain was found in between and so which wandering monster table to use, and so on… how “realistic” was that?

Keeping in mind that maps, especially the ones we sketch out for our own use while writing, should follow the same concepts of realism vs. plausibility that I’ve talked about ad infinitum, what did real medieval maps look like, and for that matter, how “medieval” is a medieval fantasy world?

Jessica Hines, interviewed in “Why Game of Thrones & Fantasy Literature Get Medieval,” said:

We study maps of Westeros, examine the title credits, and talk about the role of maps in the series: why, for example, does each episode begin by panning across a map? We use this as a spring board for discussing the long cultural history of mapping, particularly as tools for delineating between “civilized” spaces and “non-civilized.”

Studying maps like the amazingly detailed 14th-century Mappa Mundi, we can see how medieval mapmakers imagined themselves at the center of the world and populated the outer edges of the map with the fantastic, strange, and other, often the racialized other. This made maps important tools for crafting social identities. This lets us then circle back to GOT: what kind of world-building and even social and racial marginalizing might those maps be doing?

Mappa Mundi

Good question, that. But even more so, how has the concept of the map—the expectations of its usability—developed over the centuries? In The Book of Legendary Lands author Umberto Eco pointed out that:

…medieval journeys were imaginary. The Middle Ages produced encyclopedias, imagines mundi that mainly sought to satisfy a taste for the marvelous, telling of distant and inaccessible countries, and these books were all written by people who had never seen the places they talked about, because in those days the power of tradition counted for more than experience. A map was not intended to represent the shape of the Earth but to list the cities and the peoples you could come across.

This tends to make things like the Tabula Peutingiana, seen below, make more sense.

Tabula Peutingiana

Like these flattened, oblique medieval maps, some more modern maps of fictional spaces make use of some of the same concepts, like the map of the Spinward Marches from the Traveller RPG.

The Spinward Marches

Here, three-dimensional space is rendered in two dimensions, with hexes equaling one parsec so we know we’ll need a Jump-2 drive to get from Pedase to Leander and if our ship is capable of Jump-4, starting at Pedase we’re within one jump of Traltha or Fen’s Gren. It makes sense “in game,” but not some much in “real life”—whatever that is. That in no way stops the Traveller universe from being awesome, or monumentally expansive, as you’ll see if you click over to an interactive version of the whole Traveller universe.

I love maps in books. I think they add something beyond their “educational” value. They’re a part of the experience of the artifact of the book (or game) itself. In a Locus guest post, “Forging Literary Artifacts,” Justin T. Call wrote:

…when an author adds a map or other extra-textual ephemera to their books,  they are making a promise to the reader. For better or worse, they are foreshadowing the scope of their story and promising that, if you stick with them long enough, you’ll explore many of the locales on that map. In that context, a map isn’t a crutch—it’s a promise; and, much like the cover of your novel or book blurb on the cover jacket, it sets the tone for your book and suggests what kind of story that reader is about to experience.

As guides so we’re all (player, DM or reader, author) on the same page when it comes to the distance between things, what’s west of Westeros, or how many jumps it will take to get to Persephone, maps are great, but for authors like us, maps are not enough. The places that appear on that map never come properly to life until you put characters in them. And J.R.R. Tolkien said as much in “On Fairy Stories”:

If a story says “he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below,” the illustrator may catch, or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene; but every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word.

So by all means, map away—before, during, and/or after bringing those places to life with the direct experiences of your characters.


—Philip Athans


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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. I’ve been thinking about maps of my epic fantasy world recently. I have the hand-drawn version I created years ago, but my critique partners are asking for something more substantial. Do you know of any software that makes the creation of these maps easier? I don’t claim to be a great cartographer.

  2. Sherri Bealkowski says:

    Hi, Phil. I don’t comment on all your post stuff but I want you to know they are important to me. You’re like a bright beacon in the dark fog.

    Keep em coming!

    On Tue, Aug 11, 2020 at 1:03 PM Fantasy Author’s Handbook wrote:

    > > > > > > Philip Athans posted: “Or, more accurately, for the love of maps of > pretend places. > > > > Maps have been appearing in fantasy literature going back—how long? I’m > not even sure. At least to Tolkien, yes? Homer? Maybe—some editions, at > least. There are ancient maps of Atlantis, whic” > > >

  3. I have seen a bunch of mapping programs out there, starting with the venerable Campaign Cartographer, but I haven’t really used any of them–my digital art skills are essentially non-existent. A quick Google search will probably yield half a dozen you can take a swing at.

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