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Mapping Middle-earth: Questing for “real facts” in a fictitious world

  • North American Cartographic Information Society annual meeting 235 East Main Street Norfolk, Virginia 23510 USA (map)

Fantasy authors nearly always include maps in their books to show the region or world in which their stories take place. These maps are typically drawn by the author or redrawn by a publisher's artist, and they are accepted by readers as absolute canon. Though most authors probably heed the advice of J.R.R. Tolkien, to start their world-building “with a map, and [make] the story fit, … [since] the other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities,” Tolkien himself did not — and the results were much as he stated.

Join the fellowship as we explore the challenges of making maps where descriptions are the data, where fictional characters’ conflicting accounts are primary sources, where “impressionistic” contour lines are DEMs, and where even the author’s own conceptions of a landscape change over time. The forensic map maker must be wiley, and wary of the lures of conjecture, inference, and imagination. For even with such modern tools as relational databases, normalization of decades-old maps, and vector-based cartography software (all to be demonstrated!), making the map of Middle-earth that Tolkien would have made had he had the time is a quest not for the faint of heart.

[Nota bene: No love of — nor indeed even familiarity with — The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, or Middle-earth is assumed.]