One of the biggest inspirations for this project was the excellent work of fantasy cartographer Karen Wynn Fonstad (1945-2005). In the 1980s and 1990s Fonstad published a series of excellent atlases based on fantasy worlds that attempted to reconcile geographic science with the often highly unscientific whims of fantasy authors, often to surprising and creative results.

Atlas of Middle-earth

Cover for The Atlas of Middle-earth (Revised Edition) by Karen Wynn Fonstad.

Born Karen Lea Wynn in Oklahoma City, she gained a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Therapy and a Master of Arts degree in Geography, specialising in Cartography. She married her husband Todd Fonstad in 1970 and became the Director of Cartographic Services at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. She also served on the Oshkosh City Planning Commission for twenty-four years.

Fonstad first encountered the art of fantasy cartography in 1969, when a fellow student decided to redraft the map of Middle-earth as a term project. She was intrigued and finally read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in 1971. She became obsessed by the “explorer’s need to map and classify this newfound world”. In 1977 the publication of The Silmarillion made Fonstad realise that nothing less than a full atlas was required, which she set to with enthusiasm. Houghton Mifflin, Tolkien’s American publishers, released The Atlas of Middle-earth in 1981 to strong sales. By this time Fonstad had become a fan of fantasy fiction in general and found herself wishing for better maps for almost every book she read. Several more atlases followed, as detailed below:

  • The Atlas of Pern (1984), based on Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series.
  • The Atlas of the Land (1985), based on Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series.
  • The Atlas of the Dragonlance World (1987), based on the Dragonlance novels and roleplaying game materials by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (among others) for TSR.
  • The Forgotten Realms Atlas (1990) based on the Forgotten Realms novels and roleplaying game materials from TSR.
Faerun Fonstad

Karen Wynn Fonstad’s massive map of Faerûn, the main continent of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons, from The Forgotten Realms Atlas (1990).

In 1992 Fonstad returned to Middle-earth, driven by the publication of Unfinished Tales (she did receive a manuscript early enough to include some material in her original atlas, but not all) and The History of Middle-earth series edited by Christopher Tolkien. The latter was vital because it included Tolkien’s own rough world maps for the entire planet of Arda, as well as his maps of the north coast of Middle-earth which were cut out from the final maps. The Atlas of Middle-earth (Revised Edition) was published in 1992 to great acclaim and remains in print today as the definitive set of maps about Middle-earth. Fonstad’s maps and accompanying text present a fascinating look at both how actual geology, geography and cartography all work.

Sadly, Karen Wynn Fonstad passed away in 2005 at the far too young age of 59 from complications resulting from breast cancer.

Fantasy cartography has never since replicated Fonstad’s combination of dealing with the scientific approach to geography with matching the vision of the individual authors and also being able to create clear and vivid maps that get across complex information concisely. This problem has been both increased and moderated by the availability of large, dynamic maps online for fantasy worlds (such as this splendid zoomable map of the Greyhawk world from Dungeons and Dragons, and the excellent work by the contributors at the Cartographer’s Guild), reducing the urge for publishers to commission atlases or companion guides themselves at considerable financial risk. Certainly modern fantasy worlds such as The Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Wheel of Time and (of course) A Song of Ice and Fire are crying out for such companion atlases but it seems unlikely they will ever get them, resulting (of course) in online attempts such as this blog.