Napoleon Versus Fantasy; The Role of the Map

Napleon is rumored to have declared, “Geography is destiny.”

Of course, Napoleon was dumb enough to invade Russia and spent the last six years of his life in prison, so it’s not as though he had everything figured out, but still, if he’s right on this score, then fantasy novelists are wrong.

After all, fantasy novels are supposed to be books about people (or demons, or trolls, or dragons, or whatever). The unspoken premise from Tolkien and Lewis right on down is that what matters is human character and the decisions that unfold from character in conflict. No one advises Aragorn not to worry about Sauron because the trade routes, dominant weather patterns, and resource distribution of Middle Earth won’t support a long-term orcish presence outside of Mordor.

For the past ten years I’ve been teaching history (mostly world, some ancient and medieval European), and there is a school of thought (out of fashion at the moment) that accords with the fantasy mindset: the Great Man approach.

As you might infer, the Great Man approach, championed by Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Carlyle, and other major 19th century figures, suggests that history is more or less the story of the great men (and, despite the shitty name of the theory, women), individuals of genius, daring, charisma, and insight who more or less single-handedly wrench the course of history in a direction of their choosing.

One thinks of Shi Huangdi, the first Qin emperor of China, or Genghis Khan, or Joan of Arc. Jesus springs to mind, and Mohammad. Cleopatra. Queen Elizabeth. Had these folks never been born, the argument goes, or had they died in infancy, the great sweep of human history might have been fundamentally altered.

We don’t need to make much of a jump to see that this is the fundamental assumption behind almost all epic fantasy. It matters what Raistlin and Shea Ohmsford do. Had our fantasy heroes made different choices, different shit would have happened, usually some very bad shit. Want to give Boromir that ring, Frodo?

Interestingly, as I mentioned above, the “Great Man” theory has largely fallen from grace in historical circles. Many historians now see different factors as formative and transformational: climate (Jared Diamond in Collapse), trade patterns (Cunliffe in Europe Between the Oceans), indigenous plants and animals (Diamond again, in Guns, Germs, and Steel, along with plenty of others), and, you guessed it: geography. Unfortunately, these elements don’t lend themselves to story:

In the third age of An’Abar, when the Leper King ruled from his blighted throne, a new strain of wheat was introduced, the cross-pollination of which allowed the formerly sterile maize…

The importance of this boring stuff is, however, hard to dispute. I used to begin every class on a new civilization with a full day or two studying the relevant maps. It was amazing what conclusions my students were able to draw simply from the geography without so much as a glance at political or cultural history. Ancient Egypt, for instance, sheltered from foreign influences and invaders by the Sahara to the west, the cataracts of the Nile to the south, the sprawling Nile delta to the north, and the deserts of Sinai to the east, was predictably insular for thousands of years, its government remarkably stable. Or Greece: just take a glance at those islands, peninsulae, and mountains and you know that it’s going to be a land of city states, autonomous units that will resist all attempts at unification or central control.

But Alexander the Great was so… great! He kept Greece unified! He swept through Persia and brought the Hellenistic culture to the east! Well, yeah. I hear that. On the other hand, you don’t see Macedonians running Iran these days. (Although, to be fair, you don’t see Zoroastrian Achaemenids running it either.)

The point is, there aren’t too many fantasy readers out there who want to read a six-book series about the effects of river-silting on the rise and fall of a civilization (although I’d be curious to see some insane writer take up that gauntlet). We want to read about people doing stuff and we want that stuff, at least in epic fantasy, to matter. So what about geography?

I’d argue there’s still an important role for geography to play, and here we come to the map. I’m not sure how most writers work, but my impression is that sometimes the map evolves hand-in-hand with the story while other times a writer lays out the plot then drafts up a map as a sort of background against which the events can play out. By now it’s probably clear that I prefer the former approach (although I’ve read and loved plenty of books in which I’ll bet the writer employed the latter). It’s not so much that it’s bad to use the map-as-backdrop strategy, but I find that the map can be a priceless source of inspiration. A plausible harbor might suggest a merchant oligarchy; scant forests, a lumber monopoly.

I know, I know. No one wants to read about tariffs or fiat currency, and I’m not suggesting they should be the extent of the novel’s scope, merely that these factors can help enrich a world, can make for plausible and exciting politics, trade, and migration against which the human drama that we’re all excited for can unfold. Most importantly, they all spring from the map.

In some novels, the interplay between map and plot strikes me as plausible. In others… not so much. I’m curious to hear from readers here: does geography matter in fantasy, or have my long years teaching history infected my brain?

26 thoughts on “Napoleon Versus Fantasy; The Role of the Map

  1. I think geography *should* matter in fantasy. If the author is A) giving a rich account of why things are the way they are, or B) exhausting the potential of world-building, geography should become necessary at some point, maybe even at most points. This post got me thinking about the difference between asking “Why did it turn out this way?” and story. I think the difference might be exactly what you were talking about–that the latter is about people and their motivations and decisions.

    And I just have to say, merely by knowing about the “Great Man” theory and its opponents, you have shown yourself to be many, many times a better-informed history teacher than most I encountered. Unless they were realllly holding out on me…

    • Funny thing is, when I started teaching, I had no history background at all. I applied for an English job, but it came with a section of history, and so, when asked in the interview if I could teach history, I said, “Of course!” Thus ensued a summer of panicked reading! Great decision, though. I ended up teaching a lot of courses in the dept.

  2. I actually composed a map, then had an artist take it to full-on production level before I wrote the epic fantasy I just finished. As it turned out, I loved looking at the map even more when I was writing than I did when I was reading. I found it influencing many of my characters’ decisions. Obviously, history is guided by both the decisions of individuals and their milieu, and sometimes the decisions themselves are shaped by geography, and sometimes they shape geography. This is not an either-or proposition where we are forced into one of two endpoints, but a spectrum with infinite gradients. In the real world, it would be impossible for us to say where our regions/cultures lie on that spectrum, or even how quickly our position on it changes. However, people turn to fiction for exactly that sort of certainty. When we create a world, we get to say exactly how important each factor is to the development of the story. That’s why, even in a really terrible, scary, evil fantasy world, reading still offers some escape–the escape of knowing /why things happen/. Then, when the book is over, we go back to labeling the things in our lives with meaning, and trying to see that meaning as truth. That can be exhausting work.

    • Hi Mark — I agree with you completely about the nature of the spectrum/gradient. Turning to real history, it’s hard to say how important someone like Joan of Arc really was. Maybe the English would have ended up back in England anyway. But the geography influenced her understanding of her role, and her role, in turn influenced the geography.

      As for the relationship between meaning and truth. I usually settle for one of the two!

  3. For geography to take on a major role in the plot would make for a potentially dull novel (of course, anything is possible in the right hands). However, if you have a civilization, the geography and history should at least mesh plausibly. A landmass divided by a mountain range should yield different cultures on either side, at least until technology renders those mountains less of a barrier. Keeping this sort of thing in mind in the background is good but I don’t know that it ought to make too many appearances in the foreground.

    I try to do this in my own work.

    • I think you’re right that it’s probably easy to overthink this stuff, especially for someone (like me) who loves maps. I find that I usually include heaps of geographical and historical detail in a first draft that gets cut by the final. I hope that the process yields a richer end product, but maybe it just lets me stop worrying about the geographical and cultural context…

  4. When I first started reading, I was thinking I was going to end by pulling my hair out because you were going to say that maps don’t matter. I was please to see the very opposite. I completely agree that almost no one wants to know that one of my cities, Freeport, located in a harbor has a great population of local fish that is brought in and that … bla bla bla, however it is important for the writer to know why that city is as prosperous as it is, and why x, y, and z are placed where they are on their maps. My whole world was created before I ever started the plot.

  5. I just finished writing my second novel and your discussion on geography intrigues me. I believe the feedback you’re looking for is a matter of perspective. Imagine your novel as play. The geography is the stage while climate and things like geology and botanical instances are props within that story. Combined, the geography and the props work to the ambience necessary for setting the mood. Geography matters more than the props. Without the geography, you have a character and a story but no canvas in which to display them. I, however, don’t create the map. The character’s needs dictate the geography needed to create the illusion of substance.

    A man can hum any song and inspire people, but with the right instruments and the right setting, he can turn that song into a catalyst that can change the world.

    Characterization is impossibly important. Geography is necessary. The right geography can overwhelm a character or drive them insane. Indiana Jones without the desert or the jungles would barely be worth reading or watching.

    • The secret though is that those deserts and jungles were added because of the plot. It wasn’t coincidental that the movies went there. That golden idol could have been in a warlord’s private collection, buried on a beach, or locked in a crate in a government warehouse. The screenwriter wanted it in a jungle temple filled with traps, though, and so it was.

      Geography in fiction is the same way. You have the option to create the geography that your story needs. Until you publish a map that says otherwise, you can have it however you like. The effects of that geography should be consistent though. I talk about the benefits of the map-as-you-go approach in a blog I wrote earlier this year:

  6. I haven’t drawn a map yet for my fantasy world (because I’m scared I’ll suck at it) but I’m about ten thousand words in, so I would have to stall my writing right now and give it my best shot.
    Hopefully, since it’s still early in my manuscript, it can still make a lot of difference and help me understand my fantasy world a lot better.
    Thank you for this post, I’m sure my writing would be richer for it!

    • I find the map hugely helpful. You don’t need to go crazy trying to make it look nice. Even a rough sketch helps to flesh out nascent conceptions of the world…

  7. Geography is very important in my fantasy novel in progress because I have a race whose magic controls and manipulates geography. Also, the main plot is to prevent the Disruption of the Planes, which might change the geography of the world for the favor of the evil gods.

  8. I like it when the map in a book is presented as the map that was seen/used by the main character(s). Treasure Island might be a classic example. That tends to draw the reader into the book. Also, it must be a useful for the author, as such a map would certainly be a bit inaccurate and incomplete, leaving the author free to add or remove details. The map could even be completely wrong or falsified, allowing the author to completely change geography without compromising the integrity of the plot line. So a map given to a character in the book would be more of a guide than a constraint for writers (I would imagine). This also allows the map to look more interesting and artistic, such as having monsters drawn on the oceans.

    I think geography is very important in a fantasy novel, and maps help the reader to understand what is going on. I refer to them many times when I read and like to imagine what is in the areas not covered by the text. However some very good books have been written without maps. Also, in medieval times or before, where many fantasy novels seem to be set, maps were rare and inaccurate. People might know there is a desert to the east or mountains to the north, but wouldn’t have much more information. So if a reader has more cartographic information than the characters, then the reader could identify with those characters slightly less. The reader would not share the character’s sense of mystery as to what lay over the horizon.

    This article reminded me of the first (and last) time I tried to play Dungeons and Dragons the board game. I had spent several hours the night before drawing a nice colored map on a piece of graph paper, but didn’t think up any plot to go with it. I was the dungeon master but didn’t really understand the game. My friends spent an hour or so traveling to every crossroads, mountain, and town, looking for adventure, but just being randomly attacked by wolves, etc. I was so focused on understanding the mechanics of the game, I couldn’t think up any plot on the fly. So a map can be important to a story, but won’t write the story itself (in my very limited experience).

    • Love the D&D anecdote.

      I’m also really intrigued by the idea of an imperfect or downright incorrect map. Taking the idea a step further, there could even be multiple and contradictory maps. Of course, the plot would need to hinge somehow on the characters’ understanding of the geography, but I can see ways to make this pretty exciting.

      I ran into a similar issue with my glossary of the various gods in The Emperor’s Blades The characters have a certain understanding of those gods which may or may not be correct. In the end, I titled the glossary, “The Old Gods and New, as Understood by the Citizens of Annur”. Similar to having an imperfect map titled, “The World, as Understood in the 5th Age,” or whatever.

  9. Pingback: So I Think My Fantasy World Needs A Map | I.D

  10. Pingback: Maps And Getting There And Back Again: Part 2 – Fictional Modes of Travel « The L. Palmer Chronicles

  11. Thank you! Finally an author who knows the importance of maps in fantasy. True, you argued from a very different (but nonetheless convincing) angle…but the conclusion is the same. How can you write a fantasy story in a fictional world and not have a map?! I will never understand it (as a corollary: how can you have a map for your writing and NOT putting it into the book when it is published…another thing i’ll never understand?!).
    That said, any chance you can show us your map, Brian? I am a map fanatic an like to study the maps in fantasy novels in detail. I’d like to follow the protagonists, map-wise, and want to know where cities lie in relation to each other etc. etc. .

    • Like you, I love a good map! Unfortunately, the most basic reason a lot of fantasy novels don’t have maps is economic — publishers have to pay an illustrator, and that ups the cost of the book. I’m thrilled that there WILL be a map in The Emperor’s Blades, but I haven’t seen the final copy yet. I just have the scribblings that I sent to the illustrator. Can’t wait to see it myself!

      • Thanks for the reply, Brian.
        I’m sorry but any publisher who wants to tell me that the marginal cost of hiring a map-artist is the reason that there is no map in the book will never ever get my money again. Because that’s laughable. I know many a map artist who would like to be able to be published in a fantasy novel, so s/he might even do it for free. Even if not, the cost for a b/w map in a size suitable for bookprint is like 50-100$ tops, divide that with the number of books printed and you have…almost nothing. As i said, there is no reason for not having a map in a book that is set in a fictional world.
        Btw, Brian, i’d really like to see your “scribblings”! I always like to see the original 🙂 That said, i’m also looking forward to the finished piece. I hope you can share it with us on your blog when it is done?

        • I’ll definitely share the final when it’s done! The scribblings — I think they’re too raw to do much more than confuse everyone…

          I’ve also taken to making small-scale maps for battles and whatnot (I have a post about that on here somewhere). These are really useful to me when writing contained climactic scenes…

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