Collin Project Proposal

The Fantasies Implicit in Fantasy Cartography

Project Participant: Collin Rastetter

Project Description:

From Tolkien to a Dungeons and Dragons group, maps are numerous and useful to the participant in a high fantasy universe. From an external perspective, these maps serve many of the same purposes as maps of the “real world.” They typically are designed to better understand the spatial contexts of the fantasy universe’s lore and story progression, much as maps of the Earth can help contextualize the geographic relationships between people, environmental features, events, etc. Furthermore, fantasy maps frequently possess an aesthetic quality comparable to the desirability of a visibly enticing map of the Earth or one of her regions. However, fantasy maps are also susceptible to many of the same biases and distortions that geographic maps do. These biases can be just as cached as the implicit assumptions transmitted to geographic maps. Much as the real-world cartographer can easily assume that they are just representing the world as is, so too can the fantasy cartographer by believing they are mapping an objectively created universe.

The issues hitherto mentioned constitute those that will be addressed in the exegesis of fantasy cartography and its methods. Fantasy maps are attached to a specific set of assumptions, particularly in an aesthetic sense. Many fantasy maps are created using pseudo-medieval typography and symbology. This may seem reasonable, given that many fantasy settings are tinged with medievalism and a kind of bucolic spiritualism. The observer or participant in the universe, through using the map, can feel immersed in the lore by imagining that the map was made according to the in-universe style. However, this medievalism can lead to several complications, which will be explored further in the project. One example, though, is the placement of monster symbols throughout the map. Historically, these indicated unknown places, tall tales, or mere artistic flourishes in real-world maps. Fantasy universes may actually have monsters, so the map conveys ambiguity to the viewer. Is it the case that these monsters represent real creatures or the tall tales of the universe’s inhabitants?

An important detail that must be taken into account is how individual bias may factor into these fantasy maps. If they do indeed affect fantasy cartography, then the question must be raised as to whose biases they are: the real person making it or an assumed cartographer in-universe? In the case of the former, it can be quite indicative of the preferences that the participant has toward specific in-universe cultures, nations, etc. Consequently, this can inform how one, in addition to the map’s viewers, interprets and interacts with the fantasy world in which one is engaged. For the latter case, however, it gives insight into how an in-universe character’s culture might view that of other societies. One strain of bias affects the external interpretation of the universe, the other the internal interpretation of the universe. This is an example of the types of problems that will be analyzed with regard to subjectivity in high fantasy mapping.

Ultimately, I plan on using a number of resources to exemplify and illuminate the aforementioned problems in fantasy mapping. Most importantly, and obviously, I plan on using fantasy maps. Among these maps are the ones that my own Dungeons and Dragons group created for the world of Sae. In addition, I plan on examining maps made for more prominent fantasy universes, like World of Warcraft and Game of Thrones.

Project Outline: 

  • Introduce the subject of fantasy maps
    • Provide Examples
    • Broader question of what defines a fantasy map?
      • What assumptions do we make, and how do we relate territory to maps in a fantasy context?
      • What is the difference between our conceptualization of real places from real maps and fantasy places from fantasy maps?
  • Discuss the symbology of fantasy maps
    • Influence of “real-world” historical maps
      • How does this style affect our imagination and interpretation of the world?
    • Influence of in-universe biases
      • Who creates the bias: the in-universe cartographer or the external cartographer?
      • How does this bias the viewer’s immersion and imagining of the world?
        • Does this bias affect how one views a certain fantasy society’s towns, farms, or the general culture that yielded these settlements?
    • Influence of absence
      • Why are certain things depicted and others not?
        • Fantasy worlds exist in the imagination, so what does the absence of spatial data do to color our comprehension of the fantasy universe?
  • Discuss the typography of fantasy maps
    • Discuss many of the same issues as those related to symbology, though probably with greater brevity
    • How does our understanding of in-universe places get affected by the font and languages used?
      • What does the use of in-universe languages suggest about the cultures represented by the map?
        • Do these suggest implicit biases in the fantasy map? If so, whose?
  • Throughout the project, examples of fantasy maps will be used to illustrate these points.
  • Concluding thoughts

Annotated Bibliography:

Alan Isley: Dungeon Master

Alan Isley is the Dungeon Master for my Dungeons and Dragons group. Furthermore, he created a substantial portion of the universe that is depicted in our fantasy maps. He would be able to help articulate any errors or partialities conveyed in our maps.


Jacob Reese: Our Cartographer

Jacob Reese is a member of my Dungeons and Dragons group, and he primarily created the set of maps that we’ve used. Although the software he employed, Inkarnate, is limited in its capabilities, there are still many conventions and biases entrenched in those maps.


Ekman, Stefan. Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings. Wesleyan, 19 Feb. 2013.

This is a scholarly textbook written in the field of fantasy studies. Its main purpose is to examine how in-universe landscapes, and by extension maps, influence how the author and reader interpret fantasy stories. Specific attention is dedicated to analyzing maps of Middle Earth.


St. Onge, Tim. “Imaginary Maps in Literature and Beyond: ‘Not all those who wander are lost’.” Library of Congress, The Library of Congress,  25 Sept. 2017.

This blog post is part of a series on imaginary maps, with this post specifically dealing with the maps of Tolkien and George R. R. Martin’s universes. Within the blog post, the author comments on the shared, simple pictorial design choice for the in-book maps of these respective worlds. Furthermore, the author discusses the ways in which these maps further immerse the reader through the use of in-universe languages for toponyms.


Röhl, Tobias, & Regine Herbrik. “Mapping the Imaginary—Maps in Fantasy Role-Playing Games.” Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research [Online], 9.3 (2008): n. pag. Web. 27 Sep. 2017

This is a scholarly article that documents a study done on the utilization on fantasy or imaginary maps in role-playing groups. Primarily, the piece argues that fantasy maps allow players to synchronize their thoughts of the in-game world and that they allow for the imagination of the landscape within the set confines of the map.


Jacob, Christian. The sovereign map: theoretical approaches in cartography throughout history, edited by Edward H. Dahl. Translated by Tom Conley, University of Chicago Press, 2006.

I haven’t picked this book up yet, though it looks like it will be useful. According to notes on the book, it contains a section on imaginary maps as well as a potentially helpful discourse on toponyms.


Krygier, John. Making Maps: DIY Cartography. Accessed 26 Sept. 2017.

The blog has several posts that can provide information on and examples of differing types of map symbology. Symbology plays a crucial role in how subjective attitudes, be it valorization or prejudice, can affect a map’s representation of place. This is as true for fantasy maps as for maps of the “real world.”


The History of Cartography, Volume 3. Edited by David Woodward, University of Chicago Press, 2007.

The twenty-first chapter of this book contains an rigorous outline of map symbology, or signage, during the Renaissance, with many of these symbols being carried over from Medieval cartographers. Since many fantasy maps are stylistically tinged by maps from this period, it is beneficial to know the types of symbols, and their implications, that different cartographers used.

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