Essential writing skills: it’s OK to write square mountain ranges

It’s almost a cliche these days to say that modern fantasy writers all stand in J R R Tolkien’s shadow. Or George R R Martin’s.

But it’s true. Obviously, having two middle names beginning with R is a pre-requisite for greatness in the genre. And it was Tolkien who really defined the field for so many author who came after – the languages, the complex world-building, the maps.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

Maps are an excellent way to help a fantasy novel along. They make it possible for readers – and author – to orient themselves – and, more crucially, help suspend disbelief. Realistic geography makes the world more real. I’m talking about having rivers fall from mountains into valleys, thence into alluvial plains; by having swamplands in depressions, and deserts on the far side of mountains and the prevailing wind. A lot of authors deliberately build their worlds along these lines.

The odd thing is that the master in whose shadow we all stand didn’t do any of that. The geography of Middle Earth, like the stories, grew in the telling – and was essentially dictated by plot. The Misty Mountains divide the wilderness in two – ruler-straight, in The Hobbit version of the map – as a barrier for the heroes to overcome. Then comes Mirkwood – another massive barrier.

It’s no different in The Lord Of The Rings, where half the tension comes from the fact that Mordor is guarded by impassable mountains, conveniently blocking easy entry to the country from three sides. Unless you’re in Switzerland, real geography isn’t likely to hem you in that way, of course. Tolkien explained his geography by its internal history: Mordor’s mountains were raised by Sauron, deliberately, in that shape. But to me, at least, it’s always been irksome.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Fantasy geography. Part of the world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG.

But then it occurred to me. In The Lord Of The Rings, especially, Tolkien was always describing real geography – details of the landscape, often down to the highest levels of fidelity. And he often did so by revealing how it affected the mood of his characters – making it completely real, in a literary sense.  The Dead Marshes; the pleasant woodlands of Ithilien; the horror climb over the Mountains of Shadow; all these things became real because of the way the hobbits experienced them – and thence, of course, the reader.

Part of the way he did that was by taking real things and inserting them into the story. Old Man Willow was apparently based on a real willow Tolkien used to sit under. The Dead Marshes were, explicitly and graphically, a description of the Western Front, where Tolkien served with the Lancashire Fusiliers.

This was how Tolkien made his geography work. Writing is all about transfer of emotion – and by writing landscapes that he drew emotion from – and by making the response to the landscape emotional, Tolkien also gave his wider geography a credibility that could not have been gained any other way.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

Click to buy

Click to buy print edition from Fishpond

About these ads

9 comments on “Essential writing skills: it’s OK to write square mountain ranges

  1. I agree totally. I always found the features on Tolkien’s maps a little too convenient and angular, but like you accepted them because he made them come alive in the stories. I also accepted them as our ancestors accepted the crude maps of old. After all, one might assume those of Middle Earth lacked modern mapmaking tools. Did I mention that I’m changing my name to Christina RR Hawthorne?

    • I agree. I’ve seen interpretations of the Middle Earth cartography by others in which they’ve tried to introduce more ‘realistic’ shapes. Google (I think) did a pretty cool faux-photographic map http://middle-earth.thehobbit.com/map – but it’s quite different from Tolkien’s drawings.

      Funny you mention your new middle initials as, by coincidence, I’m intending to become Matthew R R Wright… :-)

      • ROFL! :D That map is cool! I wish someone would pay me to spend my time creating maps. Oh how I envy the person given that assignment. I dearly wish it continued south.

  2. jjspina says:

    Nice post – signed by J R R Spina
    I kind of like the sound of it. Lol!

  3. I agree – it works because the story is what matters, and the geography exists to serve the story (not the other way around).

  4. So right. Maps can help the writer in so many ways. The emotional part is often overlooked.

    • Maps can even suggest stories. That certainly happened with the role playing game I used to do with my friends. The adventure evolved to a very large extent on the back of the map – meaning we had to draw more of it as the blank bit approached.

Join the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s