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  • Writing “TO” the Map
  • Karen Wynn Fonstad (bio)

"I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit ... The other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities."

—J.R.R. Tolkien1

When I first started my work on The Atlas of Middle-earth, I envisioned designing the site maps first, then filling in larger and larger "pieces of the puzzle" as parts were completed. Tolkien's world had so many wonderfully detailed descriptions that it seemed best to begin with those places that were most completely described.

Houghton Mifflin had requested that I provide them with a few sample maps so they could decide whether my work was acceptable for them to offer a contract. I had chosen: Minas Tirith (site map), the Downs, the Wold, and the Emyn Muil (regional map), and the Battle of the Pelennor (battle map) to give some variety. [End Page 133]

Developing the Process

As soon as I began on the Minas Tirith map, a whole gamut of questions arose: What was the bedrock? What could have caused the "towering bastion of stone"? What materials might have been available to build the "white city" and "white tower," yet provide the black wall of the first level which was similar to the rock of Orthanc? Elevation was given, but not the shape or diameter of the hill. How could those best be determined?

As I sought the answers to these questions, my research took me farther and farther afield, until I finally realized that all the research had to be in place first. The overall patterns had to be established so that I could see howthe piecesfit into the whole. To do this, the text had to be checked for clues such as terrain descriptions, slope, minerals, caves, springs, vegetation, rock color, stream patterns, glaciation, precipitation, temperatures, and more. The maps also provided information about the ways the mountains, hills, rivers, and coastlines were related to each other. Distances had to be cross-checked to be sure that the features appeared where the text placed the characters. Only when the completed 'world" view was analyzed closely, could the small pieces be superimposed on the whole.

I had learned in the end what Tolkien had known at the outset: that the overall picture was necessary before the detailed stories could be fitted into place.

Applying the Technique

Because Professor Tolkien had worked with such care when he wrote his stories, my task was immensely simplified. Only occasional difficulties arose, most over distances and chronology. In reading through Letters and the History of Middle-earth, it has become apparent that some of the difficulties which I have encountered were ones of which he was aware even while writing, but apparently never satisfactorily resolved. The greatest difficulties were the chronology—and therefore the scale—of Shelob's Lair and the distances in The Hobbit compared with The Lord of the Rings. In the former, the difficulty appears to have arisen from the re-envisioning of the two stairways' relationship to the Lair (War 180, 187) as well as from the chronology having been out by a day (Treason 182)

The differences between the journeys in The Hobbit and those in The Lord of the Rings arose, I believe, because there was no scale on the map in The Hobbit. While Tolkien worked to reconcile the locations in the two stories, he apparently did not attempt to make the daily journeys comparable (Atlas 101). Only a few key dates were available for The Hobbit, and those led to extremely slow travel based on simple division. [End Page 134]

Details of many of these decisions are described in The Atlas:

  • • The OUTWARD-facing Downs present in Eriador (centered on Weathertop)—with the steep wall behind Tom Bombadil's giving the key to which direction for the Downs the steep face and gentle backslope must lie.

  • • The similarity of the Weald, with its adjacent INWARD-facing downs, aligning with the two distinct ridges of the western Emyn Muil, and the lower cliffwall of Rohan.

  • • The ridges of eastern Emyn Muil were more faulted and did not fit as well into the comparison.

  • • The great "hogbacks' climbed by Frodo...


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pp. 133-136
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