As fall crept up and sofas beckoned, two streaming giants went head-to-head with fantasy offerings: Amazon Prime with the laboriously titled The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, a prequel to (you guessed it) The Lord of the Rings; and HBO with House of the Dragon, a prequel to Game of Thrones. Similar as these offerings may initially seem, they are at different ends of the fantasy spectrum. Where Rings of Power is high-end — think elven Kings and noble quests across vast lands — House of the Dragon, with its street brawls and brothels, is more a pint of lager than fine wine. Delighted to delve into any fantasy world, I was happy to bounce between the two. Both eschew streaming’s all-at-once cadence for weekly episodes, leaving me plenty of time in between to do some light background reading on Middle Earth and Westeros. That reading led me back to Adrian Daub’s 2017 Longreads essay “Here at the End of All Things.” 

In his piece Daub focuses on the role of maps in building fantasy lands (particularly the two lands that birthed these series, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth and George R.R. Martin’s Westeros), and recounts with pride how much he relished such maps as a child. I remember the same thing: poring over deliciously unfamiliar names, elaborately penned on an inky map under a book cover, constantly looking back as quests reached new lands. For a reader, a map brings a new world to life; for a writer, it can help them craft it in the first place. Tolkien was one of the first to use such maps, and Daub details how crucial this was to the writer’s storytelling: “Through map design, Tolkien could telegraph some of the complicated culture he had dreamed up for Middle Earth: the maps for The Hobbit were full of Runic inscriptions and historical notes, to the point that several scholarly books have devoted chapters to a detailed reading of these maps alone.” 

Even as those worlds leapt from the page to the screen, their cartography remained crucial. The Rings of Power uses maps between scenes to track location in the huge world portrayed, which this time reaches far beyond Middle Earth. Daub explains that Tolkien based Middle Earth on medieval Europe, with the land beyond deemed something more “exotic.” Westeros, too, has been compared to Europe, despite its American creator, and Daub reminds me of Game of Thrones’s glorious opening credit swoop over its inverted-UK terrain. Sadly, in House of the Dragon, the map has been replaced by what seems to be some very viscous blood seeping over stone. (With less travel in this series, it’s not as crucial for story-building.) 

Revisiting this essay was a treat, filled as it is with both nostalgia and fascinating information. Daub refers to himself as a “geek,” but I will dub him an expert. We are roughly at the halfway point of both House of the Dragon and Rings of Power; read this lovely essay before the second act, and remind yourself of how such elaborate fantasy worlds come into existence.

For every moment when we take in glumly how far our heroes still have to travel, there are ten moments of the opposite: of luxuriating in how much world is yet out there for our heroes to traverse, a burning desire to see the lines and shadings filled in with people and story. This, too, is part of Tolkien’s maps. Between the world wars, the British Isles were seized by a hiking craze. Maps, organized tours, and walking guides proliferated during the years Tolkien began charting Bilbo’s great hike towards the Lonely Mountain. Thror’s Map, which Tolkien himself drew and which his characters use as a guide to get into the Mountain, may look like the map of Treasure Island that Robert Louis Stevenson included as a frontispiece in his 1883 novel. But the paths and pointers, the famous sight at the center, and the reams of text and historic markers make it feel like a hiking map.