The Maps of Middle-earth

April 30, 2019
Marissa Wood

I can’t say that my love for Lord of the Rings led me to be a cartographer, but I do vividly remember picking up The Hobbit as a middle schooler, bored and home sick with the flu, and spending a lot of time with the map illustration tucked into the first pages before I even joined Bilbo on his journey. As a map maker, I endlessly appreciate J.R.R. Tolkien’s attention to detail, the depths he went into to build his world, and yes, I love Tolkien’s maps. I know that statement is not without controversy.

Marissa's Tolkien collection including the Lord of the Rings series, the Silmarillion, and several others.
Nerd status: my current Tolkien collection. Hopefully adding new books soon!

Ode to the Writer/Artist/Cartographer

The cartographic process was quite different when Tolkien was building Middle-earth in the 1930s and ‘40s as compared to now. Today, I spend 98% of my time on the computer, digitally drawing in Arc GIS, Adobe Illustrator, or adjusting shading in Adobe Photoshop. In 1937, cartographers were hunched over stereoplotters and maps were mass produced through lithographic printing and copper plates. Computers were barely a science fiction dream. Tolkien had a very different set of tools and process in terms of map creation than he would today even as a fantasy author.

In addition to being a literary genius, Tolkien was an amateur artist and sketched as he visualized the world he was creating. The escape of the Hobbits in The Fellowship of the Ring, something I could so clearly visualize as they struggled to get out of the Shire, Tolkien had mapped as he wrote. Later, as the story of Lord of the Rings grew more complex, he maintained a map to scale of the various journeys of the characters to keep track of when and where they were in space and time so that the ring could be destroyed in Mount Doom as hope for victory dimmed at the Black Gate. And then all could be save by the eagles. Again. Wired did an article on The Art of the Lord of the Rings, a book which I have now added to my personal wish list.

Tolkien visualized and detailed his world, down to the sketch of a contour and the runnel of a little stream, but he passed his maps on to either his son, Christopher Tolkien, or professional artist, Pauline Baynes, to adapt for the reader. Baynes was an English artist who spent time as a child in India. During World War II, Baynes’s skills as an artist were pressed into service, and she found herself making maps and nautical charts for the British Admiralty. It was during this time that she was first introduced to Tolkien, and they began collaborating. Tolkien loved her art and found it to be the perfect companion for the worlds he was creating.  While the original plan of having Baynes fully illustrate the entire Lord of the Rings became unwieldly, her adaptations of Tolkien’s scribbled maps aided the reader through adventures of Elves and Rangers. For more information on the incredible life of Pauline Baynes, see this article.

An original Tolkien sketch of Middle-earth on graph paper with detailed contours and rivers and a variety of notes in different colors.
A Tolkien sketch on graph paper from the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford/Wired article.

Modern Criticism

Some people have managed to look at the maps of Lord of the Rings with a degree of skepticism and disapproval. Not me. But the critics do raise a few interesting points. One of the big complaints is over the actual geographic make up of Middle-earth. Alex Ack, for, goes so far as to say “Middle-earth’s got 99 problems, and mountains are basically 98 of them” because of the rules of geomorphology and plate tectonics. He’s got a few good points. Mountains definitely “don’t do corners.” But still others, including Jeffrey Peters, have responded to Ack, calling his position an oversimplification. I see both sides of this argument. I think, unlike Ack, that Tolkien had a good understanding of geography, but unlike Peters, who attempts to link the geography of Middle-earth with Europe (after various rotations and mirrorings), I would guess that Tolkien utilized the idea of cartographic conveniences to move his story along.

The map of Middle-earth with red highlights emphasizing the corners of the mountain ranges.
Alex Ack’s mountains of the Lord of the Rings doing corners.

Modern Reinterpretation

More than just me alone think the maps of Lord of the Rings are wonderful. Callum Ogden went so far as to develop a methodology to convert a modern map into something that would belong tucked into Bilbo’s copy of There and Back Again. He used Scotland as his example and the image manipulation program GIMP, but one could also use Adobe Photoshop or other photo editing tools. I think his map is beautiful and am very much looking forward to a rainy day to play around with his process.

A map of Scotland illustrated to match the style of the Lord of the Rings maps (sepia tones, textured mountains, little tree illustrations).
Callum Ogden’s map of Scotland in the style of Lord of the Rings.

I love Lord of the Rings and have found Tolkien’s attention to detail and style an inspiration in my writing, but Tolkien’s works have also played a role in my development as a map maker. As a cartographer, I am always trying to emulate the balance and simplicity of design of the maps and illustrations of Middle-earth despite my usual subject matter being situated very much in reality.

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