Over at Tor.com, Alex Acks—a speculative fiction writer who also happens to be a geologist—has written a series of posts discussing geology and various works of science fiction and fantasy. His two most recent tackle the geography of Middle Earth, as represented in Tolkien’s infamous map. I write “infamous” because, as Acks points out, it has spawned countless imitations across all manner of media, including novels, pen-and-paper role-playing games, and video games. If you were a nerdy kid, you probably drew a number of them yourself.
Just as Tolkien’s novels have had a massive influence on epic fantasy as a genre, his map is the bad fantasy map that launched a thousand bad fantasy maps—many of which lack even his mythological fig leaf to explain the really eyebrow-raising geography. The things that make me cringe about the geography of Middle-earth are still echoing in the ways we imagine and construct fantasy worlds today.
In his two posts, Acks explains why Middle Earth makes absolutely no sense from a geological perspective. The mountains don’t reflect any found on our planet, and that’s because their geography is generally inconsistent with the processes that produce mountains. As he writes, “Middle-earth’s got 99 problems, and mountains are basically 98 of them.” The mountains around Mordor come in for particular scorn.
Tectonic plates don’t tend to collide at neat right angles, let alone in some configuration as to create a nearly perfect box of mountains in the middle of a continent. I’ve heard the reasoning before that suggests Sauron has made those mountains somehow, and I suppose right angles are a metaphor for the evil march of progress, but I don’t recall that being in the books I read. And ultimately, this feels a lot like defending the cake in the song MacArthur Park as a metaphor—okay fine, maybe it’s a metaphor…but it’s a silly metaphor that makes my geologist heart cry tears of hematite.
In his second post on Middle Earth, Acks takes on the rivers. Spoiler alert: they’re so very, very wrong. For example, as he writes near the conclusion:
Rivers want to go out to the baselevel—the lowest point—of their drainage basin. They’ll meander once their gradient gets low enough, for certain. But so long as there’s a downhill slope to be found, they’ll be heading down until they’re as low as they can get. So with no area of higher elevation to the east of the Misty Mountains, by all rights the landscape should be gently sloping downward in that direction—and the river should be following it.
It’s the strange drainage basin issues that ultimately cause me to run out of excuses for the rivers of Middle-earth. Even if you grant the mountains as things created by the Valar doing their Valar-thing—which means my mental excuse for the Anduin cutting through mountain ranges is void—it still looks weird from a geological perspective.
In fact, Acks’ reference to the Valar is part of a running discussion about whether his exercise has any real point—other than to communicate interesting things about geology.
One line of argument note that Tolkien didn’t know much about geology, and that some of the problems with his mountains reflect theories that only became conventional wisdom after he crafted Middle Earth.
Another objection, directly referenced above, holds that Middle Earth isn’t a natural landscape. It was created by Eru Ilúvatar and shaped by magical events and interventions.
Finally, there’s the obvious point that Middle Earth is a fantasy world, and if you can stomach elves, rings of power, dragons, orcs, and undead warriors, then it seems churlish to get hung up over its geography. In other words, suspend some disbelief, people.
Acks deals with all of these fairly well. The first may let Tolkien off the hook, but it doesn’t change the fact that his map of Middle Earth makes no sense. The second, at best, only handles some of his objections. The third is kind of besides the point of the exercise. That is, you can wave the “suspension of disbelief” wand to deal with any scientific or sociological objection to aspects of a work of fiction. Either you care about these kinds of concerns, or you don’t.
But as my wife points out, the terms of this debate largely follow a rather jaundiced view of Tolkien’s genre-defining approach to high fantasy. It isn’t that “anything goes” for Tolkien, but that his project was deeply intertwined with his scholarship.
The discussion of geology and hydrology is really interesting, but I think the author misses the larger point. Tolkien is not trying to create Google Maps for Middle Earth. He created an invented medieval map for his invented medieval epic. The iconic map of Middle Earth looks very much like maps drawn in the premodern world. There are lots of implausibilities, but if you look at maps from the period that Tolkien is drawing on, his map of Middle Earth is in the same idiom.
Here, Maia’s thinking of an absolutely masterful essay by Adam Roberts: a joint review of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin. As Roberts notes:
The Children of Húrin, on the other hand, does feel real. It’s a book by a man who knew intimately not only the facts and paraphernalia but the mindset, values, and inner life of his relevant historical period—more Dark Age than medieval, this time, but assuredly not modern. The most obvious, although certainly not the only, level on which this registers is that of the style, which actually does approach the classic elevation that Wollheim wrongly identifies in Rothfuss. The Children of Húrin‘s syntax is compact, declarative and unafraid of inversion (“Great was the triumph of Morgoth”). Its vocabulary is almost entirely purged of words not derived from Old English sources: so much so that the occasional Anglo-French term—for instance, the phrase “Petty-dwarf” with its petit-derived qualifier—jars a little. More, it is a prose written with a careful ear for the rhythms of English; a prose with a very satisfying balance of iambic and trochaic pulses, sparingly leavened with unstressed polysyllables (it reads well aloud)
Later on, Roberts writes:
The question is whether Tolkien’s style here is accessible enough to attract the sort of readership likely to enjoy Rothfuss’s more calculated blandness of tone. Or to put it another way: what must a writer of Fantasy do to reach the many Fantasy fans whose potential enjoyment of (say) Njal’s Saga or Chrétien de Troyes is blocked by the works’ archaic style? How to make a bridge between our modern sensibilities and the medieval matter? Rothfuss’s solution, for good and ill, and mostly for ill, is simply to write the pre-modern as if it is modern. In The Silmarillion Tolkien was widely criticised for writing his antique matter in an unadorned antique style (“like the Old Testament,” reviewers complained; although actually it is rather unlike the Bible in tone and much more like the northern Sagas). Plenty of ordinary readers couldn’t stomach it, although Old English specialists and medievalists, who are used to reading this kind of thing, usually speak of the book in much warmer terms.
The Lord of the Rings was amongst other things one attempt at a solution to this problem, constructed by braiding together modern perspectives (the cosy bourgeois hobbits) and pre-modern (the medieval Gondor, the Old English Rohan), not only in terms of story but style—the hobbit chapters are of course written with a kind of early-20th-century contemporaneity of narratorial voice, where the later sequences inhabit a more antiquated and high-flown idiom, full of inversions, dated vocabulary, invocative and rhetorical stiffness, although at the same time rather splendid and suitably heroic.
What does that mean for Tolkien’s maps? Perhaps the relevant standard of “realism” is not, in fact, geological, but the degree that they capture a medieval cartography—albeit one filtered through the lens of a “cosy bourgeois” hobbit. The map, after all, is supposedly the work of Bilbo Baggins.
And, in fact, some of the features that give Acks hives look an awful lot like medieval maps. Here’s one example that she found, the Anglo-Saxon ‘Cotton’ world map, from around 1040.
And here’s another one from roughly the same period, a world map from the Saint-Sever Beatus:
Notice the perpendicular mountains?
The problem with many of the maps that Tolkien spawned is not that they taught those who followed in his footsteps to make geologically incorrect maps. The problem is that derivative high fantasists often don’t incorporate a premodern sensibility into those maps, just as they adopt the trappings of high fantasy—magic, elves, and so on—without the social and psychological substance.
This isn’t just an issue for high fantasy. The Cadfael novels quickly become unbearable, in my view, because their titular character’s perspective is completely modern. In Eifelheim, Michael Flynn deals with this difficulty by making his primary protagonist part of William of Ockham’s circle. While Father Dietrich’s worldview is still very different from our own, it does provide a site of translation between medieval and modern. Another route, which Aliette de Bodard takes in her interesting Obsidian and Blood series, is to treat her characters as psychologically not dissimilar from their readers: if those readers lived in a world where Mexica mythology and rituals—or, at least, a passable understanding of them—were ordinary.
I’ll conclude by returning to Tolkien’s map. David Turnbull contends that maps are territories. Jordan Branch argues that modern sovereign territoriality is closely connecting to changes in cartography, and that digital mapping may also produce important shifts in politics and culture.
Tolkien’s map is a fantasy map. But the important point isn’t that it’s arbitrarily unrealistic. Rather, it looks like one undergirded by his understanding of medieval mentalities. This kind of anchoring of fantasy is, in turn, a crucial part of what makes for verisimilitude in its various subgenres.
Now, if only fantasy authors paid more attention to, say, the political economy that would follow from having magic that actually works.
PS: given some discussion in the comments, I’m dropping a link to a very short piece that I wrote at the Duck of Minerva about pastiche fantasy in the A Song of Ice and Fire series (I haven’t watched more than a handful of Game of Thrones episodes).