Mapmaking is a modelling technique – it reduces a complex, messy landscape, with all its layers and human factors, to something that a stranger can work with and use. Maps have always been incredibly important to two of the classic fantasy staples, the Invader and the Occupier, and that’s completely historical – the Survey of India is a central feature in many Raj novels, and overlaps firmly with intelligence work (the Great Game) in Kipling’s Kim. Terry Pratchett satirises this in Jingo, when the Ankh-Morpork generals plan their campaign on an “existentially satisfying” map of Klatch modelled from sand, and when the giant sweeping arrows shown on tactical maps turn out to be accurate models of (some) troop formations.
Oddly, maps are relatively obscured inside fantasy texts themselves, in favour of the metadata at the front of the book. That comes in two basic types – window-frame maps, the ones that are useful illustrations of the maps the characters are using; and picture-frame maps, the ones that are blatantly only there for the reader. The Lord of the Rings, of course, gives us a good example of the second kind; right up front, we have a rather beautiful map of all the sections of Middle-Earth that our protagonists are going to visit, and a few more. It’s a nice piece of art, and it’s a good way of orienting the reader and foreshadowing some of the later events, but it completely changes some of the themes of the book – we don’t discover the extent of the world with our hobbit viewpoint characters, as they emerge from the bucolic, peaceful, and protected Shire into the world beyond Bree and then into politics on the global scale, but instead we’re waiting for them to catch up to the wide picture of their world that we have from the map.
(And if you’re dubious about the extent to which having a wide picture, rather than a narrow and clouded window, can change your perception of the story as a reader, imagine how it would feel to be following along on a map, clearly showing the narrow bridge and the exit, as the Fellowship stumble through Moria in the orc-haunted darkness.)
In a fascinating twist of publishing irony, the best example I’ve found of a window-frame map is The Hobbit; the map at the front is done in a faux-early-mediaeval style, with Old English runes, and it’s very clearly labelled as “Thror’s Map”. Arrows point off the edges, making a very, er, pointed reminder that the map is not the territory, and the orientation (with east at the top, in the traditional dwarvish style, mirroring the mediaeval preferences) helps with our sense of dislocation and reminds us that unlike modern people, the characters have no conception of global geography. All maps are contingent and relative.
In most fantasy books, maps are like wizards; they rarely if ever lie to you. There’s a scene in KJ Parker’s Memory where an inaccurate map wastes a lot of time, but then the problems when model meets reality are a frequent theme of Parker’s. Tellingly, none of her books have maps at the front, avoiding presenting any overarching geographical reality to the reader.
By definition, a real map will always leave something out (Borges’s story “On Exactitude in Science” demonstrates one of the problems with completely accurate maps) but most fantasy books treat them as completely reliable once you know how to read them. Most fantasy underestimates the difficulty of traversing real landscape, travel times, packing, and everything else related to travel – it’s all terribly romanticised. (The Princess Bride in particular satirises this, with S. Morgenstern’s “translator’s note” eliding the fifty pages of packing and unpacking that were in the “original version”.) Handwaving a lot of this stuff away in the interests of fun is entirely reasonable, but maps in particular do make a political point. A map is a useful abstraction of a place, something a stranger can roll up and keep in her pocket for instant understanding and ease. Given that, it’s very hard to escape some colonialist implications.
And since (in the LotR-style books, which are by far the more common) the map is explicitly there for the reader’s benefit, we’re being quite colonialist ourselves. Of course, these are entirely imaginary worlds, but there’s a thriving subgenre composed entirely of cryptogeographica: maps, atlases, travel guides, and bestiaries of imaginary lands. It’s a point of pride with some of the writers, in fact, to make them functionally indistinguishable from the equivalent for real places.
There’s one way in which a fantasy map is always functionally equivalent to a map of a real place: it’s a reassurance that the setting is mappable. The whole of The Lord of the Rings takes place on the single curved world (though at the end, they depart on the level seas to Valinor, literally leaving the map) and wherever the action takes us, we can look it up; nothing’s going to veer off into otherworldly realms, or strange places that bear an ambiguous relation to the real world of the setting. (Or, on occasion, the real world itself – consider the dwarf-tunnels under Alderley Edge in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. They’re eldritch and otherworldly, but, well, that’s tunnels for you.)
There are always blank spots on any picture-frame map – Marlow, in The Heart of Darkness, is obsessed with them, in a neat twist on the colonialist viewpoint. They may contain dragons, tygers, Monopods, ants the size of dogs, spaceports, or lost cities of gold, but they only contain things that can fit; the Euclidean geometry of the map enforces this. Well, apart from the Hollow Earth, of course. But that’s fairly trivially mappable, using both sides of the paper.
With a window-frame map, on the other hand, we’re always reminded that the world extends beyond its edges, and there are far more things in heaven and earth than the book we’re holding dreams of. Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is probably my favourite example here; we’re always shown most of the area in which the action of any given book takes place, but not all, and not how it connects to the rest of the world. In addition, there are always references to events and places that the characters know well, but we don’t see mapped; and that’s without even considering that a large proportion of the action takes place within other realms (generally referred to as warrens or holds) which can be inaccurately conceptualized as additional layers of reality with very different characteristics. Since Erikson’s an archaeologist, much of his work is concerned with the layers of history, and how the ancient worlds never quite go away. (Indeed, the long climax of Gardens of the Moon involves a literal grave-robbing.) So the idea of world layered upon world, with bewilderingly different aspects, and a multiplicity of ways to travel between them, is entirely appropriate there.
Some books, on the other hand, are aggressively not mappable. Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest is largely about city geography, as a reified metaphor, and providing a map would really be nothing more than an extended point-and-laugh sequence directed towards the book’s theme. On a similar note, China Miéville’s The City and The City would be very hard to map, and any map that could be provided would ruin the pacing. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series is famously not mappable at all—cities and entire countries move around between books, because the author just didn’t bother writing to the map, and I suspect the books are better for it.
I’m fond of books without maps myself, for the thematic aspects – I’m significantly less fond of stories that take place entirely on a mappable plane, and I like the ambiguity and the focus on the text that the lack of a map provides. But it’s a downright pity on the artistic front, because it’s one of the very few ways remaining to provide decent artwork along with fantasy novels. With a very few exceptions, books don’t have interior artwork any more (sometimes, when the author is also the artist, as with China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun, or when it’s a deliberate stylistic pastiche, as with Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road) and covers are mostly shite.
Which brings me neatly to my next example, Robert Jordan’s (& Brandon Sanderson’s) Wheel of Time series. Whilst the Darrell K. Sweet covers are nigh-universally mocked, the maps inside are extremely pretty. My first-UK-paperback Eye of the World (the first book, before the series became so popular and so bloated) has a rather basic computer-drawn world map and some charming hand-sketched local maps, but they go through a few more iterations as the series progresses. By the time of Crown of Swords (book seven of about nine thousand), the hardback editions have not only detailed black & white double-page maps by Ellisa Mitchell, but a different version in full colour inside the front endpapers. Many of the books also have a map of a particular location, usually a city, somewhere inside when it becomes useful; most of those are really nice pieces of art in themselves.
Fantasy books with maps are often derided as being only for strategy-and-tactics wonks, but (like so many things about SF & fantasy) that’s a very naive and shallow reading. They have a lot of different effects on the text and the reader, and they’re lovely things in their own right.