A physicist loose among the liberal arts

What do I do for an encore?

My abstract has been accepted for the Mythgard Midatlantic Speculative Fiction Symposium 2016.  What am I going to talk about?  It’s not really done yet, but half-baked ideas are the soul of this blog, so here goes.

Applying geography to LotR worked pretty well. How do I extend this to other books?  Since Tolkien, it’s almost required for fantasy novels to have maps in them. Fantasy novels that include maps invite geographic analysis, but it’s rare to find an author who spends the effort to build the understory of a world to the extent that JRRT did.

In a nutshell:  Speculative fiction begins with world-building, so it ought to be the easiest genre to which science-based criticism could be applied. However, scientific approaches were invented for the real world, which is much larger than any one sub-creator’s imagination. How do I constrain the breadth of the analysis to a scope that is consistent with the author’s intent?

So my talk will show three examples of where geographical analysis gets you.  I’ll start with re-using parts of this summer’s project for The Lord of the Rings, in which geography illuminates implicit references in the text.  Then I’ll review Lyman Stone’s analysis of A Song of Ice and Fire, which runs aground because George R.R. Martin didn’t use geography for anything — Stone’s analysis exceeded the bounds of the requirements of the story.  My third example will be Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay.  Kay has lots of maps in that book, but doesn’t use geography for the story per se.  I think he’s using it like a website theme:  there are countless details about his world that don’t interest him; his maps and the references to them in the text give the reader permission to fill in any gaps with Renaissance Italy, and it will be fine.  There’s a tangible virtue to that – Kay’s story is the only one of the three that fits into a single volume.


Canons and Chains




  1. Never read Kay, but when I look at Tolkien’s map I feel like I am looking at a real map of a real place, as if I were looking at a map of Italy or New York or Virginia. I’ve read all five books of A Song of Ice and Fire and I’ve consulted the maps frequently, but I don’t get the same feeling. There’s some kind of disconnect, or rather, a connection is never made in the first place. The maps are of a high quality and quite detailed. I feel the same way about the genealogies. I also feel the same lack of connection to the maps in Earthsea, and I think LeGuin is a magnificent writer.

    When I consult the maps in Martin or LeGuin, I am consulting reference works. When I consult Tolkien’s maps, I am seeing a whole world. Just as language and myth are inextricably linked in Tolkien’s world, so are maps and geography. I don’t know that I could positively assert that all those descriptions of nature and terrain and the days and months of journeying that go on are what make the maps feel so real, but that may be the case.

    All those great connections you found with the names and the relationships among the characters and the places in the Shire operate in the same way. They make the Shire more real. All the details of geography and flora and fauna make the maps more real. And that in turn makes the story more real.

    • Joe

      As usual, you said it better than I did – most maps are reference works. GRRM said in an interview that he thinks of the world as a character in his novels, but he’s apparently using that word some other way than I do. Once again, Tolkien is qualitatively different. The landscape really is a character in LotR – it even has a speaking part!

      This paper’s going in an unexpected direction, now – I think the world created by ASoIaF fans is much more interesting than Martin’s own conception.

      • yes, but just as one might expect the part of the world that actually speaks is a place where the elves lived. I have been thinking a lot recently about all the suggestions that the world and the creatures in it are far more conscious than we expect. Aside from the Old Forest and Fangorn, we have of course the stones of Hollin, Caradhras, the thinking fox, the birds and beasts whose languages Gandalf and Radagast and presumably Saruman know. And Treebeard does say that the old elves wanted to talk to everything. Goldberry, too, daughter of the river.

        • Joe

          Tom, is this related to the discussion you all had in Session 8 of “The Lost Road”? I just got to hear the part about (how shall I say it?) postmortem career options for the Elves?

          That would definitely explain some things about who exactly Goldberry’s mother is. Was she the river, personified as a woman, or an elf-woman’s sprit?

          • Joe,

            Actually not, since with one thing and another I haven’t actually heard that episode yet. I’ve been trying to finish my own midmoot paper, and I think i finally did so early this morning, except for some tweaking and polishing. The idea that the world is much more aware than we tend to think of it as being has just been rolling around in my head for a while.

  2. I can’t but feel the same about maps, landscapes and geography in Martin vs Tolkien books. Tolkien’s geography has depth, great depth, and I’ve never had the same feeling with Martin’s geography. It never ceases to amaze me how much history and meaning there is behind each place name in Tolkien’s world. Places have their names for a reason, not for the sake of just having a name. His landscapes and places are alive and active as opposed to being static and somewhat inanimate in some other books.

    • Joe

      You know what this comment reminds me of? In Silverado, when the four heroes are riding into town for the showdown, there’s a long shot of the buildings toward which they’re headed. That’s a shot you never saw in classic B-movie Westerns, because the “town” was just a bunch of wooden facades with nothing behind them. JRR Tolkien and Lawrence Kasdan both built the entire town, not just stage props.

      You also get to see the herd of cattle in Silverado, not just hear them, for the same reason.

      • Marie

        I think that’s a brilliant comparison – the effort to create a real world, not simply to give the appearance of the existence of one.

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