The history of fantasy maps & Tolkien's Middle-earth

We stock maps originally published to accompany and describe J.R.R. Tolkien's legendarium which form the backdrop for his Lord of the Rings, Hobbit and other novels. These iconic maps are an important component of his works, and set the standard for later maps in the fantasy genre.

The maps, which depict his fictional Middle-earth and other places in his legendarium, helped him with plot development, helps guide the reader through his often complex stories, and contributes to the impression of depth in his writings. Tolkien stated that he began with maps and developed his plots from them, but that he also wanted his maps to be picturesque. Later fantasy writers often include maps in their novels. Tolkien's publisher Allen & Unwin commissioned Pauline Baynes to paint a now iconic map of Middle-earth based on his draft maps and his annotations.

The Lord of the Rings contains three maps and over 600 placenames. The maps are a large drawing of the north-west part of Middle-earth, showing mountains as if seen in three dimensions, and coasts with multiple waterlines; a more detailed drawing of "A Part of the Shire"; and a contour map by Christopher Tolkien of parts of Rohan, Gondor, and Mordor, very different in style. Tolkien worked for many years on the book, using a hand-drawn map of the whole of the north-west of Middle-earth on squared paper, each 2cm square representing 100 miles. It had many annotations in pencil and a range of different inks added over the years, the older ones faded until almost illegible. The paper became soft, torn and yellowed through intensive use, and a fold down the centre had to be mended using parcel tape. He made a detailed pencil, ink and coloured pencil design on graph paper, enlarged five times in length from the main map of Middle-earth. His son Christopher drew the contour map from the design. The finished map faithfully reproduced the contours, features and labels of his father's design, but omitted the route (with dates) taken by the Hobbits Frodo and Sam on their way to destroy the One Ring in Mount Doom. Father and son worked desperately to finish the map in time for publication: "I had to devote many days, the last three virtually without food or bed, to drawing re-scaling and adjusting a large map, at which [Christopher] then worked for 24 hours (6am to 6am without bed) in re-drawing just in time". Many of the places named on the maps are never referred to in the text. The map of the Shire is the only one to include political boundaries, in the shape of the divisions between the administrative districts or Farthings.

In 1954, Tolkien wrote in a letter to the novelist Naomi Mitchison that "I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit (generally with meticulous care for distances). The other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities, and in any case it is weary work to compose a map from a story — as I fear you have found." Tolkien developed not only maps but names and languages before he arrived at a plot. He had already used Old Norse for the Dwarves of Dale (to the east) in The Hobbit, and he was using modern English for the Hobbits of the Shire (in the west); his choice of Old English for the riders of Rohan implied a linguistic map of Middle-earth, with different peoples, languages and regions. Karen Wynn Fonstad, author of The Atlas of Middle-earth, commented that in such a world, writing has to be based on a detailed knowledge of the topography; she found herself, as Tolkien had, unable to proceed with the atlas until she had mastered all of them. Distances travelled, the chronology of the quest, geology, and terrain all needed to be understood to create the work.

Tolkien was not the first to use maps in a novel about strange worlds. Jonathan Swift included maps in his 1726 Gulliver's Travels, and Robert Louis Stevenson followed in his 1883 adventure story Treasure Island. The frontispiece to William Morris's 1897 The Sundering Flood was a map showing the city on a great river, "The Wood Masterless", a "Desert Waste", and towns with English names like "Westcheaping" and "Eastcheaping"; this map appears to have been the first fantasy map in the modern sense, defining a wholly invented world. Tolkien was influenced by the style and content of Morris's romances, and he has stated that he incorporated elements from them.

Tolkien can be said to have created the fantasy genre, and his maps establish the new benchmark; a map is now an expected component of the genre. Peter Jackson used Tolkien's Middle-earth map in his Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Among more recent fantasy works, George R. R. Martin notably used maps in all his "A Song of Ice and Fire books", which featured prominently in the title sequence of every episode of the Game of Thrones TV adaptation.