Throughout my teens and early twenties I read a lot of fantasy. The likes of JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and David Eddings still fill my shelves. The epic stories of heroes, quests, war, and political intrigue provided an escape from the reality of day to day life. If you've ever gotten stuck into a good story you couldn't put down for hours, you know what I mean. One of my favourite aspects of the fantasy genre are the complex, huge, carefully crafted worlds in which the stories are set. Not only the physical worlds and characters but societies, cultures, traditions, languages, songs, religions, histories, and folklore. The depth of creation and creativity is astounding. Unlike fantasy TV shows and movies, though, so much is still left to the reader's imagination.
Most of the fantasy books I've read featured a map in their first few pages. These maps serve not only to help orient you when places are mentioned in the story, but also add a sense of depth and realism to the fantasy world. Often they include places outside the direct scope of the story, adding a touch of mystery and expanse to the setting. To be honest, I'm always a bit disappointed when there isn't a map to refer to.
Cartography is the art of creating maps. Although originally referring to mapping reality, it's now often applied to creating maps of non-existent lands. When you create a fantasy world, though, it's very real to you. I went through a phase in which I really enjoyed making up and drawing maps. I've never planned one out - I always draw the coastline automatically and then place terrain by feel (it's probably unnecessary to say it's more of an art than a science). Once you get into the zone, they're easy to just churn out. I only have a couple shown on this post but dozens more are on the shelves.
Some of my favourite fantasy series were Raymond E Feist's The Riftwar Saga & The Empire Trilogy (co-authored with Janny Wurts); The Farseer Trilogy & The Tawny Man Trilogy by Robin Hobb; and the unfinished A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R R Martin (the basis for the TV adaptation Game of Thrones). My favourite standalone fantasy epic is probably The Redemption of Althalus by David and Leigh Eddings. Each of these books is set in its own huge, immersive, carefully crafted world. I highly recommend them all to anyone interested.
Below is a selection of some of my favourite fantasy maps from books I have read and games I have played. Each has inspired my own work.
When I first started drawing maps, I felt they had an intrinsic link with a story. They were nothing more than a useful reference to understand the book. Since I was introduced to fantasy maps through fantasy novels, I was naturally interested in creating them as part of a wider world creation to support an epic story. After my first few, though, I grew to enjoy drawing them for their own sake. I didn't feel they were just a way to visually represent a formed idea of a world but a worthwhile pursuit in their own right.
Thus far I haven't actually used my maps for anything practical. They're fun to draw, though, and perhaps one day I'll write my own epic fantasy series...
“It was a shack, somewhere out on the outskirts of the Plains town of Scrote. Scrote had a lot of outskirts, spread so widely-a busted cart here, a dead dog there-that often people went through it without even knowing it was there, and really it only appeared on the maps because cartographers get embarrassed about big empty spaces.”