Vermont Softworks

Where good things develop

“Tolkien Anniversaries” symposium before the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo)

    cartography     conferences     maps     Middle-earth

I’ll be reworking the paper I gave a few weeks ago at Tolkien in Vermont at Brad Eden’s “Tolkien Anniversaries” symposium, held the day before the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University.

“The river Swanfleet: A journey from the Misty Mountains to flat fenlands and half-way back again”; or, “How the discovery of Tolkien’s annotated map of Middle-earth by Blackwell’s Rare Books in Oxford extricates Pauline Baynes’s cartographic reputation from the marsh of Nîn-in-Eilph

Just as Christopher Tolkien’s exacting work in The History of Middle-earth has provided both the basis for and the standard with which we measure research into his father’s Middle-earthly subcreation, so too have his maps of the west of Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age long served as both the canonical representation of Middle-earth and the gauge with which we have measured all subsequent Media-terrestrial cartography.

The recent discovery of the map that J.R.R. Tolkien himself annotated for Pauline Baynes’s reference in producing her 1970 poster map, however, now provides a welcome opportunity to explore some issues that J.R.R. Tolkien said “give some trouble,” and which Christopher Tolkien agreed have “bedevilled … representation on the maps.” Of particular interest is the mysterious relationship of “Swanfleet” to the fens of Nîn-in-Eilph and the Glanduin River, about which Christopher Tolkien, Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, and Karen Wynn Fonstad have all implicitly or explictly concluded that Baynes “misunderstood.”

This paper demonstrates that Baynes had it right all along, and that this is a rare case where Christopher Tolkien went astray, taking Hammond, Scull, and Fonstad with him. Along the way, we will also make brief excursions to several little-known rivers in Gondor and through the famed vineyards of Dorwinion.

The full list of paper titles, scholars, and abstracts may be found in this PDF.

— Ð

Tolkien in Vermont, 2017 — at which I give my first paper

    conferences     cartography     maps     Middle-earth

Well, it’s about time. I’ve given my first academic paper:

“Far-away places with strange-sounding names: Endonyms (autonyms), exonyms (xenonyms), and the romance of Tolkien’s toponymy of Middle-earth”; Or, “On the redundancy of Bree-hill, the heady topper of the Brandywine, and how the discovery of Tolkien’s annotated map of Middle-earth by Blackwell’s Rare Books in Oxford extricates Pauline Baynes’s cartographic reputation from the fens of Nîn-in-Eilph

A curious set of circumstances led up to this, but essentially I was prepared to give this paper and was called upon to fill a suddenly empty slot. It worked out well.

A program for the conference may be found at its web site, and quite a few pictures have been posted at its Facebook page.

— Ð

On reading “Here be cartographers”

    cartography     Tolkien

Nicholas Tam, occasional blogger at Ntuple Indemnity, wrote an immensely enjoyable post entitled “Here be cartographers: Reading the fantasy map” last … well, not “last” anything. Last April of 2011.

You know you’re reading a “long-form” blog, when it’s not until the seventh and eighth paragraphs that a writer tells you what he plans to write about:

So when we open up a novel to find a map, we can think of the map as an act of narration. But what kind of narration? Is it reliable narration or a deliberate misdirection? Is it omniscient knowledge, a complete (or strategically obscured) presentation of the world as the author knows it? Or is the map available to the characters in the text? If it is, then who drew up the map, and how did they have access to the information used to compose it? If it isn’t, then through what resources do the characters orient themselves in their own world? And finally, does anyone even bother to think about these questions before they sit down to place their woodlands and forts?

In the post that follows, I am going to informally sketch out a theory of fictional maps, which is to say that I will put up a lot of pretty pictures from novels and talk about why they are neat. There is likely some academic work on this somewhere — I would be astonished if there weren’t — but I’m not aware of any, and certainly nothing that has accounted for modern critical approaches to the history of cartography. Map history and the comparative study of commercial genre literature are niches within niches as it stands, and my aim is to entwine them together.

And so he does. Tam begin’s with “Thrór’s map” printed on the end paper of The Hobbit, observing that it can be thought of as a map drawn by Tolkien for The Hobbit, by Thrór for his heirs, by Bilbo Baggins (copying Thrór’s map), or by Tolkien (copying Bilbo‘s copy). And we’re down the rabbit hole.

With illustrations of different editions of Thrór’s map, and maps from The Princess Bride, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels, Treasure Island, Star Wars, a Soviet Hobbit, the Oz books, Peter Jackson’s movies, the Duncton books, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, as well as pulling in references to Mercator, Cassini, Barbara Strachey’s Journeys of Frodo, Pratchett, and Carroll.

He concludes:

Mapmaking does not seem to permit carefully targeted ambiguity with the same flexibility as prose alone. With other forms of book illustration, one always gets the sense that the visual depictions could always be replaced or re-envisioned some other way. Maps exert a stronger form of authority: any improvements or revisions by readers or in future editions take place within the author’s borders as if they were immutable, objective truths.

It is a strange twist indeed that we are less liable to accept in fiction than in reality that cartography is a form of language: a medium for our perception of place, not to be confused with place itself. If there is a remedy for this, it may resemble the solution we developed for language, and take the form of self-conscious experimentation with maps as narrative voices — subjective, perspectival, and often unreliable. Literary writing deserves a literary map.

For anyone interested in cartography, fantasy writing, publishing, or semiotics (and, truthfully speaking, how many of us are not?), Tam’s essay is worth reading in full. Make sure you have a good half-hour for it; you’ll likely be thinking about it for days.

The database is done


Three years it took. Not full-time work, admittedly, but it’s been the main thrust of my professional work for those three years.

Of course, it got re-designed in the middle, which never helps. The original design was actually working in limited use, but was far too complex for FileMaker to handle with any kind of speed. And — crucially — it would not have migrated well to a PostgreSQL or other database in iOS.

For rendering formatted text, of course, the better answer was light HTML formatting and intelligent CSS. It does mean that hundreds of little HTML text files are now proliferating on my Mac, but using the same Mac’s built-in web server and FileMaker web views is actually working perfectly.

At any rate, this is a great relief. References to maps, artwork, and text can easily be entered and formatted — and found again and selected and sorted and output and….

I’m so looking forward to finally getting on to the real work, now that the necessary tool has been written!


The climate of Middle-earth

    maps     humor     climate     Middle-earth

It seems that one Radagast the Brown (of Rhosgobel & The Cabot Institute) has published a paper presenting the results of his climate simulation modelling for Middle-earth. Though obviously mock-serious, the modelling and the science are real enough. Definitely worth a few of your hard-won free minutes.

(Not surprisingly, these last two seem to be merely nicely formatted font-transfers.)