The Land Where Oz is North of Middle-earth: Reflections of a Speculative Cosmographer

Hogwarts Platform 9 three quartersIf I were to print a business card for what I do as a fantasy writer, in the section called “title” I would put, “Speculative Cosmographer.” Fancy title, eh?

Well, broken down, it really just means fictional world-builder. When I write, as all fantasy writers do, I create a world that is consistent within itself. These “Other Worlds” may have their own languages, beliefs, sciences, social structures, laws, and arts. When the author does this well, as in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, or Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea, the world must rhyme with itself, if you will. It cannot have jarring inconsistencies, or tears in the social or scientific fabric that betray the authenticity of that world. The boundary between that world and our own is clear. Middle-earth has some connection to our world today, but you won’t find it accidentally by taking a wrong turn on Crescent Ave.

The Hobbit Shire Map TolkienThere are some threshold worlds that are connected with our own, but separate in key ways. We see this in urban faerie tales, like Holly Black’s work–most accessible are The Spiderwick Chronicles and Tithe–but also in J.K. Rowling’s Hogwartsian world, layering England with unseen magic, or Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet, which plays with concepts of space and time focused around a small New England town. But many of our greatest fictional universes are places set apart from Here-Now, and so will typically have a unique geography.

And with a unique geography comes unique maps, and I love maps!

I do like real maps: pulling down the over-sized Atlas of the World from its shelf and looking up Burundi on a carpeted floor; carefully refolding a road map of Maine; pouring over the complex web of lines that make up a Tokyo highway map. I like maps.

earthsea by ursula k le guin mapBut I adore fantasy maps. Half of my time reading Tolkien is spent running my finger along the road from the Shire to Mordor on an onion paper map of Middle-earth I bought at a poster fair on campus. We laminated our coloured map for Narnia for my son’s room as we went through the seven chronicles, and my copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist was purchased precisely because the version next to it lacked a map. Maps make fantasy reading so much more enjoyable. After all, what would Discworld be without flyleaf cartography? How would we know where the Woozle wasn’t if we didn’t have a map of Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood?

So it was with delight that I stumbled upon Mara Valderran’s blog on There and Draft Again, entitled “Creating Your Fantasy Bible: A Lesson in Geography.” Mara is discussing how one creates a fictional world:

“Geography plays a more important role than most people realize. Even if you don’t have your characters traveling across the lands on an epic journey with a rag-tag group of hobbits, dwarves, and elves, it is important that you know where your characters are coming from and who their allies might be.”

Tearian Map by Brenton DickiesonI agree completely. This is why I began a recent fantasy book with a map–a badly drawn one, but a map nonetheless. The valley in The Curse of Téarian is essential to the story as each of its natural borders–woods, sea, mountain, and plain–individually create a different tension in the storyline. The story is authentic to the geography, or at least I hope it is. I this sense Mara is quite right.

Also included in Mara’s blog is Dan Meth‘s Fantasy World Map. It is, of course, just a fun project–a poster that geeks like me can order from his site. But the map itself shows the tactile nature of world-building. The lands of imagination can be charted, measured, taken from the multidimensional realities of an author’s complex brain and stretched into two-dimensional view. The Land where Oz is north of Middle-earth is the world-builder’s sketchpad, the vocation of a speculative cosmographer.

Dan Meth Fantasy MapAs someone who studies how people build fantasy worlds, I am in that sense a “Speculative Cosmologist.” That, of course, just a fancy way of saying I love how these worlds come together in language, social structure, physics, and geography. But, besides the great fun of mapping out these worlds, the title sure looks good on a business card. Narnia Map

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
This entry was posted in Creative Writing, Fictional Worlds and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

149 Responses to The Land Where Oz is North of Middle-earth: Reflections of a Speculative Cosmographer

  1. robstroud says:

    Brilliant. Like you, I love fantasy (and historical) cartography. The Narnia and Middle Earth maps are a cornerstone in my knowledge of those lands as truly real places.


  2. I love maps too, although they are my epic-fantasy archilles heel. I have drawn one truly terrible map for mine, so bad my writing buddy just went ahhh… even she couldn’t think of anything positive to say. Sadly I’ve lost it, or I’d post it as a ‘what not to do’ on my blog. Yours on the other hand looks very artistic!


  3. Jason Hogan says:

    I’m not sure if you’re going to count video games as fantasy, but the Strangereal map is one I’ve always loved as an alternative to modern earth:


    • Absolutely–are they alternate post-Pangaea earths? I mean, what it would look like had the plates shifted a little differently?
      Video game writers are professionals at making alternative worlds.


  4. Wow. When I read your line about worlds needing to “rhyme with themselves,” I realized that even as workaday writers approaching the “real world,” we’re often just trying to explore the rhymes. I admire you for your ability to immerse yourself in your created world, and assure their consistency. Loved this article, and thank you for sharing the maps!


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  6. Beautifully written. This’ made me think of Thomas Hardy’s maps of Wessex, which I loved.


  7. segmation says:

    I think that fictional world-builder would work for this storyteller myself!


  8. Love your blog. When my children were growing up, the four of us would often sit around the dining room table in the evening and just look at maps, think of where we wanted to go…something both my husband and I had also done as children. Even with GPSs, I still love to look at maps. When traveling I still get a better sense of where I am by looking at the larger map. I have often looked at the Narnia map and pictured it in my head (years before the movies). C.S. Lewis was a brilliant writer. It would have been very interesting to have been a fly on the wall at the Bird and Baby pub (The Eagle and Child) when he and JRR Tolkien sat together – I wonder if they ever drew any maps together.


    • Great question: did they sketch together? Tolkien did his own; Lewis had an illustrator, though he could sketch reasonably well. I think most any of us would like to be a fly in that wall on any given Inklings day!
      And great activity. I think we’ll pull out the atlas together tonight.


  9. L. Palmer says:

    I remember spending a lot of time looking at the map The Book of Three in the Prydain series by Lloyed Alexander. I spent as much time on The Hobbit’s map, and Narnia’s. To me, maps are an essential and fun part of the Fantasy universe. It is one of the first things I try to create, in order to build the world the story takes place in – and it’s a lot of fun to create mountains to divide nations, rivers to provide transportation and water, valleys and plains for farmland, and, of course, horrible, desolate places for evil to lurk.


  10. first let me say i like it a lot…. but do any of you even know what Narnia is really about? What c.s. lewis was really writing about?


    • I think he was writing about a lot of things. Narnia comes out of the core of his beliefs and worldview, and he created a world that reflected certain aspects (redemption, self-sacrifice, the proud-fallen, good and evil, etc.) and left other aspects out (liturgy, taxes, formal education, etc.). Any good book should be about a lot of things. Perhaps I’m wrong there…


  11. Thanks for posting Thorin’s map! I vividly remember when I was in 4th grade and got my copy of “The Hobbit.” Opening it up and seeing that map, I was instantly hooked.


  12. John Hric says:

    Brenton, Please stop by Red Lane Gardens and visit with the local Earthwarden. Lovely island you have there ! Nice blog.


  13. awax1217 says:

    I loved this. Of course being a retired social studies teacher, who also taught geography some years, I can get into your map concepts. I loved your imagination and creativity.


  14. Jenny says:

    Oooh I love this. More maps, please (: And many congratulations on getting pressed!


  15. MetaMarsha says:

    Wonderful, and so true. The beautiful, detailed maps of these worlds add so much to the sense of their existence.


  16. stormy1812 says:

    love this! maps really do tell their own story. in this world of GPS, etc., i prefer a good road map and now i have stories tied to them. i love fantasy maps as they help me see in my head what im supposed to be seeing. it does make those worlds all the more real, which i love. 🙂


  17. thelifeofastoryteller says:

    I agree, I love the maps in books, and am always bothered if one is not included. I am currently writing my own fantasy novel, and the map has been in a constant state of revision from the start. But with each copy, I like to think it is becoming a bit better, as everything is slowly tweaked and modified to-dare I say it?-eventual perfection. But sadly I have less natural knowledge of geography than I ought, and I know that is negatively affecting my map. Perhaps if I ever finish my book I’ll have to hire a Speculative Cosmologist! Good luck with your own book and your map!


  18. The Rider says:

    Ah thanks- now I know where my favourite places are… I just miss Atlantis there.


  19. Truer words were never written. Maps have always lured me deeper into fictional works! When I was a little younger my favorite distraction was Black Isle studios baldurs gate games, and while the game and story were great i confess I spent a little too much time admiring the world map, so intricately detailed, logically assembled and presented in fine lines on parchment style sheets. The later ice wind dale games had equally spellbinding geographical distractions, with even more outlandish illustrations of “the savage north” with lushly painted backgrounds and various locations shown in snapshot style.


  20. hollyiblogs says:

    Your map looks medieval, is all. They could never decide between side and bird’s-eye, either.

    Just another a map nut here. I have atlases back into the 19th C. Same shape of continents but different world. If you get into older repros — I’m not so sure about those continents.

    Have you got *The Atlas of Fantasy*? Great collection there. I love to look at fantasy/sf maps at the places nothing in particular happened and wonder what their stories are.


  21. pigeonsblue says:

    As a massive map addict and fantasy fanatic I used to get into trouble when I was in school as I would fill my “rough” books (for working out notes and practice test answers) with scribbles of fictional maps .. they were blank pages, I couldn’t help it…


    • Great story! I think of Asher Lev, sketching pictures in his holy books–frightening other children.
      I’m not a sketch-er, but was a mind-wanderer. I don’t know how many times I heard, “Brenton is intelligent, but just doesn’t apply himself.”


  22. RStorey says:

    I have always felt alone in my fascination with the maps of fantasy worlds. I have been known to purchase a book based solely on the artistry of cartography. It would appear, however, that adoration of maps is a common symptom of a fantasy addict.


  23. RStorey says:

    Reblogged this on Storey on a Story Blog and commented:
    Maps and adventures go hand-in-hand. The grander the journey, the more fantastic the map.


  24. Amryl Malek says:

    Great article!! I always fancy myself as a fantasy writer….but alas I’m not. So many of my early starts with world building would be to draw a map. I would start with the continental shelf, the mountains, the rivers, the forests, the deserts, the islands. And then I start to speculate on the weather, and how the terrains have an effect on it. I remember early on, that I started reading about meteorology just to get an idea on how air current move over an ocean and how it will pick up moisture and energy.

    I would say that, I’m stumped by all the details and by the time I’m half way done with the map, I just got bored with my fantasy idea….and a couple of months later, a new fantasy theme suddenly pops up, and the cycle of map drawing and non-starters continue…


    • I suppose the hardest thing about writing is actually writing, actually doing it to the end. Once you’ve done that, you realize the hardest thing is getting it to publication.
      Might I suggest you partner with someone? You seem to have great ideas, and can think of details, context, and consequence. Perhaps you need a partner to fill in other parts.
      The Curse of Tearian, the map I drew badly, came first from an image, then one character, then ideas, then the world, then the other characters, then the plotline.


  25. gypsymamakas says:

    Reblogged this on The Oracle of Grooviness and commented:
    I love that map of all the fantasy lands together


  26. eman33397 says:

    There is something about a map that just pulls you into a world. I have very distinct memories from when I was six or seven looking at the maps in the front of Lord of the Rings and just imagining myself in Middle-Earth. At some point I think I made a paper-maiche version of it, but I sadly never took a picture. Thanks for the post.


    • Very cool. Something about your comment here made me think of my own childhood. I actually had map wallpaper–a brown-dominated wall of naval maps and naval symbols and ships. I guess I could have seen this coming!


  27. kelseycapoferri says:

    And here I thought I was the only one who would looked back and forth between map and page whenever Eragon and Saphira went traveling…


  28. Love it! For some reason one can feel alone reading Lewis, mainstream media tells you he is all wrong. But it just feels so right! It feels real, and his maps are part of that.


    • How do the Goo Goo Dolls put it? “I don’t want the world to see me because I don’t think that they’d understand.”
      Reading is like that–our favourite authors hidden from the critical world. Our hobbies are like that. Our faith can be like that. Even our love.
      But there are others, beyond the haters.


  29. It’s so crazy that I read this post because I just started working on another Fantasy story as well — I had written several but never using maps and I thought — well for this one I would have to b/c I am involving the elements of intergalactic space travel and the universe with magic and enchantment on certain planets — so I created a map of the galaxies that I am writing about — along with a map of the realm that is the center of my story — It has become quite the adventure and has helped me tremendously with coming up with ideas — you know, my favorite thing about that whole process is naming the places and creatures in my stories — that’s the wonderful thing about Fantasy writing — it doesnt have to make any sense! I loved this post — it refreshed me — now I can get back to work on my book! Good Luck to you and I’ll be following! S.


  30. quinnface says:

    Hey Brenton, I’m just about to self-publish my fantasy fiction for younger adults (I wanted my little brother to read Game Of Thrones, but it’s not age appropriate, so I wrote one that was!). I have a national map and a local area map…would you give me your damning verdict if I linked you to them?


  31. Wherefore, pray, is Atlantis? Location is absolutely essential — the recent greats (especially Kenneth Grahame and George MacDonald) could ‘see’ and help the reader to see as well.


  32. drakenvliegje says:

    How about Kingdom of the Isles, Kesh, Novindus and Roldem?
    I spent so many hours in those beautifull lands …

    (Kelewan as well, although thats in a different universe …)


  33. Audrey says:

    I LOVE YOUR POST! I’m horribly bad at reading maps but I just love looking at the fantasy maps in my novels, or admiring the artistry of medieval maps. I love Feist, Midkemia and Kelewan too but I think a huge challenge would be recreating the lands of the Imaginarium Geographica series, by James A. Owen. If you haven’t read them already, do look them up!


  34. lyve910 says:

    Reblogged this on lyve910's Blog and commented:
    Live this


  35. Marie Anne says:

    I love this, and I can really relate to it. When I was a teenager and first discovering fantasy, I spent hours poring over maps before doing one bit of reading, memorizing places and names. Maps make the worlds feel so real. I always buy the hardcovers just so that I can have the large, beautiful, fold-out maps!


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  37. Really nice. Love the maps.


  38. mikkvillem says:

    Completely agree with the statement that maps are one the most compelling aspects of fantasy worlds/stories. As a matter of fact, now that I’m all exited again, I think my next painting will be a map of Middle Earth 🙂


  39. sureasmel says:

    I love this and I’ve seen the Fantasy World Map before, but somehow I still can’t see Mordor and Whoville being right next to each other.


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  42. Andron Ocean says:

    “Speculative Cosmologist”. I like that title, plus it sounds a heck of a lot better than “world-builder”! Mind if I use it myself?

    I loved looking at all the maps in this post. Thanks! Incidentally, if you like maps and want to check out some really impressive ones, you should browse around the Cartographers’ Guild community and galleries: It’s a wonderful place, and people who want help with their own maps just might find some excellent tutorials and advice there.


    • Feel free! Though I threw the words up here, I’m sure someone else has said it before me. We are a world of permutations.
      I’ve also followed your blog. I’ll check out that online guild.


      • Andron Ocean says:

        Thanks! Hope you enjoy that site.
        And I followed you back. I haven’t looked into C.S. Lewis beyond Narnia and the space trilogy, but you’re doing a fascinating project here, and just may inspire me to get into his writing more deeply.


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  45. Tanya says:

    Quality articles is the main to attract the visitors to pay a visit the web
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  46. jubilare says:

    I am a reluctant Speculative Cosmographer. I easily have the big picture of the universe from which I write, and the world, but the details! Maps are so hard for me to create because I want them to be… you know… perfect!


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  74. T.G says:

    Are the Dreamlands from the Cthulhu Mythos?Cool map the way?


  75. john says:

    I like what you guys are usually up too. This kind of clever work and reporting!
    Keep up the terrific works guys I’ve added you guys to my blogroll.

    Liked by 1 person

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