Top of page

Imaginary Maps in Literature and Beyond: “Not all those who wander are lost”

Share this post:

This blog post is part of a summer series on imaginary maps, written by Hannah Stahl, a Library Technician in the Geography & Map Division. Read the introductory post to the series here.

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

– J.R.R. Tolkien

The poem above is from J.R.R. Tolkien’s series The Lord of the Rings. It makes a perfect start to this week’s post on the most famous and influential imaginary map: the map of Middle-earth. The map of Middle-earth included in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings allows the reader to wander freely around his fantasy world simply by letting their eyes roam around the map. Does this mean that the reader is lost? Lost maybe in the wonder of the story, but not actually lost in descriptions of places in Middle-earth in Tolkien’s books because the reader has the map for guidance.

The map of Middle-earth we know today started with the maps Tolkien created for reference while he was writing the series to help him visualize the story. Realizing that these reference tools would be incredibly valuable to his readers as well, he decided to include a version of these maps in the published books. Because Tolkien was having difficulty making the geography of Middle-earth fit exactly on the page the way he imagined it, he enlisted the help of his son Christopher to create the maps. The first edition of The Lord of the Rings contained three maps: a general map of Middle-earth, a map of the Shire, and a detailed map showing Rohan, Gondor, and Mordor. The first edition received praise, including a review by author and friend of Tolkien C.S. Lewis. Since then, scholars have fought over its literary merit and The Lord of the Rings has had a profound effect on the fantasy genre. It is summed up best by a post on The Map Room blog:

The Lord of the Rings doesn’t just give us the ur [original, earliest]-text of modern fantasy; it also gives us, in its map of the western part of Middle-earth, the ur-map: the progenitor map from which the modern fantasy map design is descended. All the elements Ekman discerns in the typical modern fantasy map can be found in the maps in The Lord of the Rings: coastlines and rivers, oblique mountains, towns and territories.

One example of the influence of Tolkien on modern fantasy can be found in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. In an interview at the Edinburgh International Book Festival George R.R. Martin mentions that Tolkien has been a huge influence on his work: “I revere Lord of the Rings, I reread it every few years, it had an enormous effect on me as a kid. In some sense, when I started this saga I was replying to Tolkien, but even more to his modern imitators…I wanted to combine the wonder and image of Tolkien fantasy with the gloom of historical fiction.” In other words, Martin wanted to create a rich fictional world a reader could lose themselves in, like Martin felt when he read The Lord of the Rings. While Martin’s story and themes in A Song of Ice and Fire are different from those in The Lord of the Rings, a large part of both of those worlds consists of topography and the journeys of characters through it.

Let’s take a moment to examine the maps that appear in each work. The maps below are from A Game of Thrones, the first book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and from The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in The Lord of the Rings.

Middle Earth
Map of Middle-Earth from The Fellowship of the Ring. Library of Congress, General Collection.
North Westeros
Map of the North (North Westeros) from A Game of Thrones. Library of Congress, General Collection.

As mentioned earlier, the quintessential elements of the fantasy map are present in both illustrations: oblique mountains, rivers, and coastlines. Both maps have a compass rose that only indicates where north is on the map. Both maps also have a similar style: They are vaguely pictorial in design. Their design is more illustrative than technical. Compare these maps to a road map and the difference becomes clear.

Road maps and other maps that are more technical in nature are generally less artistic. There are also almost no blank spaces on a road map. Every inch of Roberts’ Road Map of the District of Columbia above is covered in lines of all different types. Some signify roads, others boundaries, and still others rivers. A pictorial map is meant to emphasize certain elements of an area, which the map of Middle-earth does well. All of the important areas and topography mentioned in The Lord of the Rings are illustrated here. Blank spaces on the map of Middle-earth signify unimportant or obvious elements of Middle-earth that are unessential to the story.

Roberts' Road Map
W.F. Roberts, Roberts’ Road Map of the District of Columbia and adjoining portions of Maryland and Virginia. 1896. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Speaking of important topography, it is interesting to note that on the map of Middle-earth and the map of The North, there are barriers between the rest of the world and evil forces. For Middle-earth, mountain ranges including Ered Lithui (Mountains of Ash) and Ephel Duath (Mountains of Shadow) form a protective barrier between Mordor and the rest of Middle-earth, making it hard for enemy forces to invade Mordor. In Westeros, The Wall separates the rest of the world from evils such as the giants, the Wildings, and the White Walkers. The Wall is a 700 feet tall and 300 mile long fortification made out of ice. It separates the rest of Westeros from the Land of Always Winter, where the White Walkers dwell.

Mordor Detail
Detail of Mordor in the map of Middle Earth from The Fellowship of the Ring. Library of Congress, General Collection.
Wall in the North
Detail of the Wall in the North from A Game of Thrones. Library of Congress, General Collection.

It is also important to discuss the significance of place names in The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire. Place names chosen by Martin and Tolkien convey the rich history of Westeros and Middle-earth. Place names also show the influence of history on Tolkien and Martin. For example, “Middle-earth” comes from the Old-English word Middangeard, which became middel-erde in Middle English. In a letter to Houghton Mifflin Co., Tolkien translates Middangeard/middel-erde as, “the name for inhabited lands of Men ‘between the seas.'” He goes on to say that he uses this name to indicate that the stories of The Lord of the Rings are meant to take place “in a period of the actual Old World of this planet.” Using a variation of an Old-English word as the name of his fantasy world shows the influence history had on Tolkien, and therefore on the characters and history of The Lord of the Rings.

In addition, the place names in The Lord of the Rings are tied linguistically to the history of Middle-earth. Gondor, for example, was originally populated by Númenóreans. These peoples inhabited Middle-earth during the First Age and formed an alliance with the Elves. Because Númenóreans spoke Elvish, generally place names in Gondor are a form of Elvish. One example is Minas Tirith, which means the “tower of the guard” in Elvish.

Minas Tirith
Detail of Minas Tirith in the map of Middle-earth from The Fellowship of the Ring. Library of Congress, General Collection.

The place names that appear on the maps of Westeros in A Game of Thrones show the seats of powerful noble families, like Winterfell and Riverrun. Like Tolkien, this use of place names harkens back to history in the real world. Martin, heavily influenced by medieval history, places importance on seats of power in the kingdom he has created. In medieval society, and in A Game of Thrones, the system in place was a feudal one in which the king owned all land but gave lands to members of the nobility to rule in his stead. Power and influence in A Game of Thrones is centered on this system, and on the castles that powerful families hold. Everyone knows that the Starks command Winterfell in the North and that the Lannisters command Casterly Rock in the South. Comparisons have been made between the enmity of Starks and Lannisters to the enmity of the Lancasters and the Yorks during the Wars of the Roses in medieval Europe.

Winterfell in the North
Detail of Winterfell in the North from A Game of Thrones. Library of Congress, General Collection.
Wall in the North
Detail of the Wall in the North from A Game of Thrones. Library of Congress, General Collection.

Also like Tolkien, Martin’s assignments of place names reflect the language and history of the worlds he has created. Instances of this include the names of settlements on the Dothraki Sea in Essos, which are in Dothraki instead of English. The city of Vaes Dothrak (City of Riders), where Daenerys, Khal Drogo, and Drogo’s khalasar travel to in A Game of Thrones is one example. The names of settlements in Westeros are in English, and look familiar to those of us who speak English. One example is the fortress Barrowton. “Ton” is Old English for estate or homestead. Examples of its use in modern day include Boston, Brighton, and Southampton.

This is where we end our analysis of the maps in A Song of Ice and Fire and The Lord of the Rings. We’ll be focusing on modern mapping of these fantasy worlds in the next post. Be prepared for some gorgeous maps of Westeros and Middle-earth next time, map lovers!

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.