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Do What Tolkien Did (But Not What You Think He Did)

Some thoughts on why we’re so intimidated by fantasy maps; part 1 of a mini-series focused on maps

by Tineke Bryson, Staff

What reader doesn’t get a thrill from cracking open a book and finding a map between the covers? Nothing says adventure better than an aged map with deliciously foreign place markers.

Writers themselves love their story maps even more. If you write fiction, chances are you create maps for your story world—or want to.

Some people don’t consider mapmaking a serious part of writing. But mapmaking is not just a diversion or a disguise for procrastination; it’s useful for immersing your reader in your story world; and it’s necessary to immerse yourself as the writer. Your novel may need you to make it some maps. The more we as writers make sense of our landscape, the more believable our story will be.

Story World Maps - Worthwhile or a Waste of Time 500px

Read Daniel Schwabauer’s post about the maps he is using for his swordpunk work in progress.

I was a pretty generic young writer in two respects: I spent a disproportionate amount of “writing” time actually drawing divinely beautiful heroines (not useful), and I spent hours working on fantasy maps. My early love for world building has been very helpful to me as an adult writer because it taught me how much passion can achieve.

I’ve discovered that many of my fellow writers don’t share the preteen confidence I had to blaze into the whiteness of a paper landscape and make up a map off the top of their head. Many fantasy and sci-fi writers are not just daunted by the task of map-making, but positively intimidated.

Practical skills and pointers go into pulling off a wonderful story map, and we will explore the how-to aspects of mapmaking in our next posts. But before we push into Mapmaking 101, it’s important to address the intimidation most of us writers feel about undertaking a map at all.

There’s no doubt about who’s to blame, and it’s the usual fantasy suspect: J. R. R. Tolkien.

Tolkien’s body of work breaks norms left and right. One of them is that he made Middle Earth itself a character—dare we suggest even the main character?—of his stories. He did what fantasy writers are not supposed to do: focus the reader on place. Had his characters proved less compelling, he could not have pulled this off.

Growing up on literary Ent draughts and elven feasts, we absolutely want our story world and its maps to wield the same entrancing power.  But the more we learn about Tolkien the man— his linguistic prowess alone is staggering—the less we believe ourselves capable of like world-building.

Plus there’s the fact that he was a gifted artist. The stylization of his illustrations and maps breathes the ineffable. Why did he get to be so smart and so artistic?

When most of us sit down to draw a map, or even just fill out our Other Worlds workbook, we want to do what Tolkien did. We want to be awesome and blow the minds of our readers with intricacies of language, culture, history, and geography. We want to create a world as fascinating and compelling as Middle Earth.

But when we try to understand Tolkien’s process, I think most of us are awe-stumped sooner rather than later. Which is a shame. Because Tolkien’s process was in some respects simple:

He played with what he knew. He played to his strengths. He did what any kid does at play: mix up adventure out of things borrowed as well as new.

What Tolkien really did is not what we think he did. Yes, he was a very smart and educated person. But the foundation of his world-building is not brilliance; it’s familiarity. Middle Earth feels both old and new because he fashioned it out of what he already knew and cared about: Old English, and English geography. He was a professor of Anglo Saxon and of English language and literature.

By doing this he achieved what we all need to require of our story world: a balance of the familiar—the commonplace—with the intrigue of otherness.

I think if we are frank, many of us try to simulate the otherness of Tolkien’s work without understanding its dependence on the familiar. We are just not going to be able to create a Middle Earth if we are not likewise professors of Anglo Saxon and English language and literature. And that’s all right. Because the world we can create using what is second nature to us may be the breath of fresh air the fantasy and science fiction genres need.

Here are some examples.

  • Hobbiton: While Tolkien’s hobbit is in the tradition of English hob- words, it is still an invented term. So he gives it a handle by pairing it with an ordinary English place name. Hobbiton just means “hobbit town.” Nothing fancier than Kingston and Charleston.
  • Tolkien’s work is full of plain English names: The Lonely Mountain, the Misty Mountains, Mirkwood, etc. These types of place names don’t stick out, but that’s the point. They give us solid ground to stand on as we take in other things more strange.
  • Meduseld: The name is derived from the Old English for mead hall—an idea we are familiar with. That’s it. Easiest thing in the world for someone who taught Old English for a living.
  • Middle Earth cosmology: Even if you take the view that Middle Earth is on a flat disc plain as opposed to a globe, Tolkien did not invent a whole new solar system and cosmology. He based Middle Earth on Europe. He worked with the same planets and stars. Constellations are known by other names, and bear different stories: Earendil’s Star, most notably, represents Venus, and the sign of Durin is based on Durin’s Crown— Ursa Major.
  • Elvish: Okay, so Tolkien invented a whole new working language. I’m not going to pooh pooh that. But when you get past the fact that he did this, all the Quenya place and character names reduce to a normal lexicon. He didn’t pull them out of thin air. He was a linguist with imagination and determination—that’s why he was capable of creating his own new language. And he did not make it from scratch. Quenya was influenced by Finnish; Sindar by Welsh. Tolkien took pains to disclose the ways in which he built on existing language structures.

Contrary to what we may believe, readers don’t want a world so utterly unique they will be perpetually disoriented and at best distracted by our imaginative powers; they want to find some solid toe holds and guard railings so they can actually enjoy themselves in our book.

So you’re not sure your fictional world is aesthetically mind-blowing. Does it need to be? It is not as hard to make a story beautiful as it is to make it real. Concentrate on the unexpected details that celebrating the commonplace can yield. If a story world feels real to your reader, and its story is meaningful, it will feel beautiful.

Know your limits, and don’t be ashamed. Comparison will only hold us back. If we expect to create a world like Tolkien’s, we may never create anything we can be proud of.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a country where I learned more than one language. Yet even I am not a linguist by a long shot. Even after 12 years of French grammar in school, I still wouldn’t know where to start in building a new language.

If you aren’t in a position to pay somebody to help you invent a language, don’t speak anything but English, and aren’t passionate about the field of linguistics, it’s time to let the fictional language goal go.

Letting go of comparison can mean choosing to create a “light” version of story-world language.

Or it can mean building a beautiful, compelling world out of the ordinary building blocks of English itself.

Many fantasy writers manage more modest linguistic creativity with grace. And we respect them for their lack of pretense. A discerning reader will always prefer a limited but honest presentation over a flashy one.

Can we stop waiting for a completely original landmass, peopled with never-before-seen species, spouting unknown tongues, to appear on the horizon of our imagination, and take inventory of what we already know?

There is always room for expanding our knowledge—learning more about language, culture, and history. But if we take a long look at what is familiar to us and stop comparing it to what others know, we have half the pair of every commonplace + otherworldly combination we need.

When it comes to making a map for our story, and to building a story world to begin with, yes, we should do what Tolkien did. But not what we think he did. What he actually did was have fun with what he knew.

So what do you know?

Next post: Practical tips!

About Tineke

Tineke (TEE-neh-keh) Bryson grew up in West Africa. She was one of those kids who would raid the shed behind the backs of adults and build herself a fort on their carefully-tended lawns. Or start her own summer school to teach her friends to read. She wasn’t afraid of much. Except growing up. And telephones.

Now almost 30 and married, Tineke still champions the cause of imagination, and finds nothing as demanding or as satisfying as playing with words, whether by writing or editing.

Before working for Daniel and Carrol Schwabauer, Tineke studied creative non-fiction at Houghton College and then worked as an editor. Taking The One Year Adventure Novel class live gave her a lot of reasons to now try her hand at writing fiction.

This Post Has 17 Comments
  1. Love this, Tineke! And, I must say, you made me laugh, especially with these two gems: “There’s no doubt about who’s to blame, and it’s the usual fantasy suspect: J. R. R. Tolkien.” and “Why did he get to be so smart and so artistic?”

    I love interesting sentences, so I had to mention those. 😀 But your point is awesome! It can be incredibly intimidating to tackle storybuilding in fantasy and sci-fi, and too often we set aside good stories for lack of courage. I think I’ve swung a little too far in the direction of trying to be impressive with my work-in-progress, and, in editing, I want to get back to what I envision for the storyworld – a Greek-inspired, somewhat techy fantasy land. Thus, I combine something familiar and something otherworldly. Thanks for this post; I’m inspired to devote the effort to that goal, now!

    1. I am grateful to have encouraged you. It really IS intimidating. And even when we push past the initial sense of not measuring up, we are faced with all the WORK Tolkien-level world-biulding requires. When I think about how much time and dedication he gave to his work, I am provoked. I can’t expect similar results by merely puttering about in my stories.

      Your story world sounds interesting!

      1. Hehe, yeah, he did devote a year or two…or three.. or fifteen to his story world. 😀

        Thank you! I’m pretty happy with in concept.

  2. GREAT article!! Loved it… am going to share it and read it again tonight 🙂
    For the “fun fact” section in your brain… there is a great book on the Botany of Middle Earth. It covers how Tolkien did the same with plant-lore as he did with map making and cartography. Fascinating stuff! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Kris! Thanks for the book recommendation. It doesn’t surprise me that Middle Earth botany is grounded in real world botany. Recently I thought I saw a plant with a scientific name of athelas (too bad I can’t recall where).

  3. Thanks so much for this post. It was really helpful to me since I am writing in a fantasy/sci-fi world and I need tips on making it better 😀 I am looking forward to your next post.

  4. Love it! Really helpful. Is your family descended from the Dutch? Tineke is a name i never thought i would see outside of Holland 🙂

    1. Thanks for reading. 🙂 I am half Dutch, yes. 🙂 My father is from the Netherlands, although I have never lived there. I visit as often as I can!

    1. Thank you for pointing that out! You can tell that my most recent “reading” has been via audiobook! 😉

  5. Thank you for an insightful article. It’s Middle-earth, not Middle Earth.

    The maps of Middle-earth produced for LotR, The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales were drawn by Christopher Tolkien, based on his father’s rough sketches. J.R.R. Tolkien did. himself, produce the maps in The Hobbit.

  6. I loved the article!!! I think a new writer who did great job with her fantasy world is K. W. Andri and her book ‘The Altar of the five mountains’.

  7. Thank you. I’m glad to have stumbled across this blog. Clarifying the fantasy writer’s process of grabbing the familiar while creating a world of his own allows new writers the space to identify potential. A writer’s ambition can become grounded and realistic in terms of knowing one’s skill, knowledge, talent and limitations.
    It seems to me that you are a gifted teacher.

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