The Maps of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

John Howe and Brian Sibley, The Maps of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003)

There were two things that evolved in tandem as Tolkien came to write his fictional works: the language of his made-up world, and its topography. Indeed, his fictional languages were the inception of his great works of Middle-earth, while the maps he drew were ever considered a necessity. As you will find in the introduction Brian Sibley wrote to accompany John Howe’s maps, Tolkien would not hear tell of publishing The Lord of the Rings without an appropriate map.

In this collection of maps, John Howe (who also worked on the recent film adaptations) and Brian Sibley have attempted to recognize the importance of maps to Tolkien’s world. In their intention to honor, they have not failed: there is no doubt that these maps are beautiful. Printed on a heavy poster paper, they are reasonably sturdy. There are four maps in total, measuring 28″ x 28″, all done in lush colors with gorgeous illustrations around the edges.

The map of Numenor depicts the island of Andor, or Elenna, surrounded by illustrations of ship, shore, and tower. Though these illustrations may evoke feelings of the gift of the Valar, of the traveling by the light of Earendil to Andor, for those knowledgeable of Tolkien’s mythology, the map is otherwise simply pretty and prosaic in its composition. The map of the Beleriand and the lands to the north, then, reveals an expanse of mainland, bordered by knotwork (that greatly resembles the Celts’) and shield illustrations, as well as a few landscapes. ‘There and Back Again: The Map of the Hobbit’ is a glorious illustration of Smaug encircling the map and a depiction of the dwarf gathering in Bilbo’s Bag-End. While, finally, the glory of the map of Tolkien’s Middle-earth lay in the exterior illustrations, depicting the flying beasts of the Nazgul, more landscapes described in the text, and featuring such famous folk as Gandalf, Gollum, Legolas, among others. To say John Howe has outdone himself in making these maps a work of art would not be much of an exaggeration.

However, while these maps are beautiful and collectible, they’re not exactly detailed or useful. Anyone wishing to use these maps to follow any routes closely, to see details of particular regions, is going to be disappointed. These maps are overviews — they give country names, river names, some major cities, roads and the like, but no more detail than that. As such, should you have one mounted on your wall while you’re running a role playing campaign, you could throw out your hand in a sweeping gesture, showing your players the general area in which they were now traveling. You couldn’t show them the intersection of roads, though, or the proximity of one town to another, because they’re simply not featured.

Nor can you satisfactorily follow the route of any of the stories. You want to follow Bilbo’s route with the dwarves precisely? Forget it. Smaug is too busy being a gorgeous border illustration to allow for much in the way of map detail. (For being based on a story subtitled “There and Back Again,” it is rather ironic that Bag-End, as the starting point, doesn’t even make it on to the map.) To be fair, the map of Numenor is sparse on detail because the written material is the same. But the maps of the Beleriand and Middle-earth should be treated with more topographical detail and slightly less border decoration. In fact, across the board, the border illustrations are given precedence over map detail. While I find these illustrations to be beautiful, a border should never dominate more than half the page, especially not when to do so is detrimental to the actual map.

The key to these maps comes in the form of an accompanying eighty-page book, chock full of encyclopedia-formatted entries and information reminiscing on both Tolkien’s life and the details of the stories related to the maps. While scholars of Tolkien’s work may find the prerequisite recounting of the tales themselves tedious, the idle collector may find them useful in reminding them (or informing them) of the story the map is based on. Each map gets its own recounting before launching into place names that are accompanied by more identifying information.

While this encyclopedia format is easy to flip through and compare back to the map, it’s also rather prosaic in its execution. For example, a walking tour of these stories would have been of much greater interest to me. Not only would it have more of a narrative feel, but it would cast Tolkien’s world in a new and brighter light, rather than leaving it as dry information in easily digestible bits.

I do like these maps, but overall I’d say they’re not what I was expecting. Diehard collectors of Tolkien will, of course, want to possess them. More casual readers will no doubt find them illuminating, to a degree. But for us in the middle road, we’d like something a bit different. More details, perhaps, in presentation, and certainly more creativity in any accompanying narrative.

This review was originally published at Green Man Review on July 4th, 2004.