Places: Maps

squire: Here are some maps to look at.


Maps and the text


squire: Start with the triptych I’ve labeled A.

Christopher Tolkien, of course, was working directly from his father’s sketch maps, but here he enlarges the detail and adds highly specific contour-lines in the course of making a larger-scale map for the third volume of LotR. Fonstad and Strachey, each in their own way, are re-interpreting Tolkien’s map for later generations of fans who demand more information than the original map seems to give.

A. Which of these do you like best? Which do you dislike? Or don’t you care?

drogo_drogo: Favorite map Since map-reading and geography are not my forte (Beren IV and Arquen have more expertise in that area), I'll comment on my layman's uneducated reaction to the maps.

Strachey's maps have a nice, artistic flair to them, but unlike Karen (again, whose passing I mourn), she was not a professional cartographer, and didn't always do an accurate recasting of CJRT's map or of the landscape as described in the text.  She makes the southern expanse of the mountains much longer than the other two, and I wonder what the little patches of forested areas means?  It seems to differ from the description in the text.

Now Fonstad has some elements in her Atlas that I quibble with (for example, she uses early HoME writings to place the Calacirya in Aman way to the southeast of ME and Numenor, and I sense that Tolkien wanted them more to the due west as we see in the David Day composite map from his Bestiary, but I digress), but here I like her depiction of Ithilien.  It fleshes out the features CJRT, another amateur, barely sketches out.

So from my non-geographical perspective, I still like Fonstad's the best, even if I wish Houghton Mifflin had used some other color than beige!


squire: Read the following sections with an eye for where the road is in relation to the mountains, the steeper slopes, and the shallower slopes. Also pay attention to where the hobbits stop for rests, stop for the night, and decide to go on the road instead of beside it.

For many miles the red eye seemed to stare at them as they fled, stumbling through a barren stony country. They did not dare to take the road, but they kept it on their left, following its line as well as they could at a little distance. At last, when night was growing old and they were already weary, for they had taken only one short rest, the eye dwindled to a small fiery point and then vanished: they had turned the dark northern shoulder of the lower mountains and were heading southwards.


     With hearts strangely lightened they now rested again, but not for long . . .  So soon they struggled on once more, until the dawn began to spread slowly in the wide grey solitude. They had then walked almost eight leagues; and the hobbits could not have gone any further, even if they had dared.


The growing light revealed to them a land already less barren and ruinous. The mountains still loomed up ominously on their left, but near at hand they could see the southward road, now bearing away from the black roots of the hills and slanting westwards. Beyond it were slopes covered with sombre trees like dark clouds.


As soon as the land faded into a formless grey under coming night, they started out again. In a little while Gollum led them down on to the southward road; and after that they went on more quickly,  . . .


Now they climbed up the westward bank and looked abroad. Day was opening in the sky, and they saw that the mountains were now much further off, receding eastward in a long curve that was lost in the distance. Before them, as they turned west, gentle slopes ran down into dim hazes far below.

squire: B. Do you agree with Christopher Tolkien’s topography, based on the texts cited here?

Arquen: Maps and reality Well, the text and CJRT's map are the best match.  The significant bits are

1. They can see the Eye for quite a few miles.  CJRT's map shows what the text shows:  a floodplain that evidently carries drainage from Udun, turns, skirts the foot of the mountain, and dumps into Anduin.  An arid-area floodplain ('wash') would be stony and barren, and not undulate up and down because they are travelling parallel with the direction of deposition, not perpendicular to it.

squire: Not sure I go along with you on floodplains, etc. I disagree that either alluvial aprons or floodplains are the kind of territory that Frodo is traversing on the Road south of the Morannon. The problem is that Tolkien defines the Ephel Duath range as an impassable barrier range of mountains, the kind that in our understanding only occur through extremely rapid uplift with accompanying outwash or sedimentary soils at their feet. But his description of the topography, waterfalls and the foliage are consistent with Mediterranean highlands of limestone or other rocky slopes, descending relatively steeply from the foot of the mountains down to the river valley, perhaps a drop of two thousand feet in ten miles. One might imagine a fairly narrow floodplain down by the Anduin -- but up where the road is, it is quite rocky and hilly. That is why I think of the Rhone valley and uplands of Provence or perhaps Romania when looking for map features that might evoke Ithilien, even though the Alps really aren't like the Ephel Duath, as you note.


The terrain changes from the Morannon neighborhood to Ithilien proper, of course, and that change seems to coincide with the "bend" in the mountains. Since the Ephel Duath seems to be a single range, it's hard to tell what causes the climatic and vegetation changes between the Morannon and Ithilien, unless it's the combination of elevation and wind exposure.


How can they see the red lantern in such country? It is easy to imagine the lantern behind them and to their left, not immediately behind them, and thus visible across the downslope no matter what the immediate valleying may be. The real problem with the lantern, in my opinion, is that it only disappears when they go around the "bend" in the mountains, sometime late in the night of their first journey. That is perhaps 3/4 of a 24-mile hike, according to the text -- are we to imagine a single red lantern visible from 18 miles away?


Anyway, my feeling is that Christopher Tolkien's map does not do justice at all to Tolkien's description of this landscape. I'm prepared to concede that perhaps Ithilien, as I conceive it above, is geologically "unlikely" in combination with the adjacent extraordinarily steep and raw slopes and 'glens' of the pathless Ephel Duath. But that is what he has written, I think. CT's simplistic contours do not look like any real landscape to be found in Europe, and my search for examples of river/hilly slope/mountain wall cartography was driven by a need to see how real mapmakers draw what JRRT describes. It is going backwards to speculate about Tolkien's landscapes from such inadequate mapmaking.


squire: C. Do you agree with Fonstad’s or Strachey’s placement of Frodo’s route and campsites, based on the texts cited here?

               *maps heard rustling*


squire: D. Note some of the “changes” or “additions” that the two more recent mapmakers have made. Are they justified by the text, or by any other logic?

Arquen: They can see the Eye for quite a few miles.  That leaves out Strachey and Fonstad:  Both of their maps require that they go over alluvial aprons, which would entail going up and down and up and down, as is shown on their maps topographically. 

 squire: The other two mapmakers follow C Tolkien down the same odd path. Fonstad draws all her mountains and highlands with an unfortunate hatching that implies alluvial fans here, there, and everywhere - a very unattractive graphic device and utterly uncommunicative of the nature of real landscapes. Strachey I find more interesting, in that she seems prepared to fill in a bit what Tolkien leaves out, suggesting additional topography, etc with her contours. Her Ithilien section differs significantly from Tolkien's in detail -- the only problem is, I can't figure out why she does it, when half the time Tolkien's map is perfectly adequate. So her changes seem arbitrary, rather than purposeful. Meanwhile she does not dare add really important things, like more rivers and tributaries, more woodlands, more roads and more hilly terrain, that Tolkien leaves out because they just do not occur in the story.


Maps and the real world


squire: Take a quick look at diptych B. I’ve tried to find topographic representations of southern European geography that match Tolkien’s imagined region that he calls Ithilien. I apologize for the crummy graphics and distracting placenames, but I wanted to see how “real” maps represent “real” landscape forms.

E. Do you find the ‘real’ maps satisfying as representations of geography?

                *stifled giggles from behind the furniture*


squire: F. Do Tolkien’s vivid and clear descriptions deserve more ‘complex’ maps than his own schematic sketches, his loyal son’s translations of those sketches, and his fans’ reworking of the same material, can provide?

squire: In the end, of course, Tolkien's landscapes are symbolic. His descriptive language fleshes them out beautifully and makes them seem real, because his descriptions are based on his own real observations of landscape -- but his maps almost sabotage his language, because they reveal the symbolic basis of the geography that his language hides. Tolkien himself commented on his son's map of Gondor and Mordor, that we are examining here: "The map is hell! I have not been as careful as I should in keeping track of distances. I think a large scale map simply reveals all the chinks in the armour" (Letter 161).


squire: G. Would an illustrator be justified in creating an Atlas of Middle-earth based on the vision Tolkien provides in his writing, but with a topographic complexity that more closely mirrored real life, even if it diverged from or elaborated heavily on the ‘canonical’ maps?

            *"Quiet, you guys! He'll know we're here!"*


squire: H. Did you ever think of the encircling Carpathian Mountains, and the Transylvanian plateau within, as a geographic analogue to Mordor?

Arquen: That also leaves out both the Carpathians and the Alps.  Both have rivers in the right geometry, but the topography just doesn't work.



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