Karen Wynn Fonstad’s The Atlas of Middle-Earth

9780618126996-us-300I overheard an interesting conversation that took place during High Tea in The Robert Graves Memorial Reading Room here in the Estate Library on a rainy afternoon while our Librarian was taking a break from fussing over the edition of Green Man Review he was assembling which is devoted to J. R. R. Tolkien and his splendid literary affairs. What follows is the condensed version of what was said as I took notes but didn’t write it all down. I found it to be fascinating, and I suspect so will you!

A Several Annie 

Why maps? Isn’t the geographic descriptions in the text of work such as The Hobbit and  The Lord of The Rings enough to give the reader a grasp of where things are? I never had any trouble following narrative!


Sigh. . . . I see that you’re early in your apprentice here in my library; possibly even your first year, I gather. (Mackenzie never remembers which of the Several Annies he’s talking with as there’s been dozens of them down the decades. Many aren’t even really named Annie!) Have you not see and appreciated the splendid map that Ursula Le Guin did for her Earthsea series? She’s said that it was for the children reading about Ged and his adventures so she gave them a map of Earthsea so they can orient themselves to the world. (Adults can benefit for this map as well.) Other notable maps include the one you’ll find in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, Frank Herbert’s Arrakis map in Dune, China Mieville’s map of the city in Perdido Street Station (but not in the concluding volumes of this trilogy), Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance trilogy, and Philip Pullman’s Lyra’s Oxford to name but a few/

That Several Annie Again

Ok, so they’re pretty. But are they useful? Other than for overweight, pimply boys into role playing games? I’ve never seen you actually looking at one of them while reading say The Hobbit. Are you simply being an advocatus diaboli?


Not strictly true. See the copy of The Hobbit over on my desk? Go get it. see the silk bookmark in the back? Open to those pages. That’s the map of Wilderland, which gives you an excellent look — literally! — of where Bilbo, our reluctantly wandering hobbit, and his band of compatriots go as thenarrative in The Hobbit unfolds. A good map enhances the pleasure of a novel. And bad maps, which are fortunately rare, can just be ignored. 

Another Several Annie

I’ve been cataloguing and shelving the new edition of Karen Wynn Fonstad’s The Atlas of Middle-Earth. Am I correct that maps to Tolkien were more than just an afterthought to the text? Certainly the sheer number of maps in this book suggest that the maps in his books were just as important to him as the narrative was.


Ahhhh, The Atlas of Middle-Earth. A book that belongs in the library of any serious fan of Tolkien’s work. This edition is the first one since Houghton Mifflin first published it in the States over a quarter of century ago. I was traveling in Amsterdam in that time and even the Dutch Tolkien fans were excited about this book. Granted, not as excited as they would be about John Howe and Brian Sibley’s  The Maps of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, about which our reviewer noted, in a comment apt to our conversation: “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.’

Now I know that some academics weren’t very pleased as it wasn’t written the way they would have done it — go look at the so-called lead review on Amazon to see what I mean, but the rest of us will find it invaluable, as the author’s a qualified geographer and cartographer who first mapped Middle-Earth in her 1981 edition and has since added new details based on those endless reams of drafts, abandoned and much modified passages in published texts, alternative versions that were used in some editions, and laundry lists of places and situations published since Tolkien’s death. Or at least what the holders of Tolkien’s papers have allowed researchers to see. Only they know what has not been made accessible. prolly as much as has been made available!

The other Several Annie

But The Atlas of Middle-Earth is more than just maps? Isn’t it really about the process of creating a fiction that is grounded in a place which feels as this building and its grounds are? Maps for me are a way of saying that there really is something underfoot that I can feel. I think Professor Tolkien felt the same way as I remember you quoting him as saying that ‘I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit . . . . The other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities.’


Indeed it is. Glad to see that you’ve been paying attention during our afternoon seminar on Tolkien geography. Even in works without maps, most of us create our own idea of the geography,i.e., how far did the murderer in that not so quaint English mystery by your favourite writer travel in the middle of that dark, rainy night to kill her victim? We fill in details even when they aren’t offered up by the author.

But the genius of Fonstad’s work is that it is as if it was an actual atlas of a place as real as the Republic of Scotland is. The maps are discussed as if they were real landscapes, drawn according to the restraints a map maker would have in drawing the bonnie banks of Scotland. For each area of Middle-earth, the history of the land is taken into account, as well as geography as it related to the whole of Middle-earth. David Langford said in a review that ‘he fills in gaps and details in the familiar Third Age maps from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, goes back in time to map Middle-Earth’s First and Second Ages, and reconstructs the route and timescale of every important journey in the stories.’ I wouldn’t suggest that reading this book is a must before reading The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings but I will be having all of you read it next month as part of the Tolkien seminar we’re doing.

Now don’t groan — learning’s good for you. And there’s more to becoming a Librarian than the technical aspects of the job. A good reference work like Fonstad’s will add immeasurably to the appreciation of a reader for the sheer breadth and depth of the ‘mythology for England’ that the good Professor created in all of his Middle-earth material. just pair it with the aforementioned Maps of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and you have the core texts of a fine course on the geography of Middle-earth which is why I use them in your seminar. As soon as we get through reading The Hobbit and looking at Bilbo’s journey with attention to the geography described, we’ll turning to these texts.

Now I know a cup of tea and a tatty scone or two; there’s no finer room in the place for a bite and a gossip over High Tea than in the Library staff room that overlooks Oberon’s Wood. But I hope the real attraction is the books here. It had better be, so let’s get back to our seminar. Now which of you wants to describe how Bilbo Baggins and his journey to the Lonely Mountain?

(Houghton Mifflin, 1981)


I'm the Pub Manager for the Green Man Pub which is located at the KInrowan Estate. I'm married to Ingrid, our Steward who's also the Estate Buyer. If I'm off duty and in a mood for a drink, it'll be a single malt, either Irish or Scottish, no water or ice, or possibly an Estate ale or cider. I'm a concertina player, and unlike my wife who has a fine singing voice, I do not have anything of a singing voice anyone want to hear!

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