Book Review: The Atlas Of Middle Earth

The Atlas Of Middle Earth, by Karen Wynn Fonstad

In the lengthy introduction to this book, the author comments about how much in-demand an updated and revised and paperback version of this book had been in demand from the time the book was originally published.  While I am no slouch when it comes to enjoying Tolkien’s writing [1], this book is aimed at someone whose fondness for and especially knowledge of Tolkien’s work exceeds my own.  If all you know is the Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, you will likely get lost here.  I happened to know the Children Of Hurin myself and I still found myself puzzled and confused at times because I was not familiar with the entire Simarillion and Unfinished Tales.  If you too will find yourself in this position, consider yourself properly warned.  This book treats the mythos of Tolkien’s Middle Earth with the detail and solemnity of geography about the real world, and is the sort of work to be especially treasured by those readers who take their Tolkien extremely seriously.  Casual fans who only know the series because of the movies will find a lot in here that makes no sense at all, and even readers with more familiarity with the larger world-building efforts of Tolkien will find a lot in here they likely have forgotten.

This book is constructed in a logical and rational way, especially if one sees this as a work of historical geography rather than a work of fiction.  Indeed, the author begins with a lengthy and scholarly introduction that proves her seriousness of purpose, and then the first part of the book consists of various maps and lengthy historical explanations of the First Age of Middle Earth, including creation, the early elvish kingdoms, the coming of men, and the six great battles against Mogorth.  The second part of the book looks at the second age, including the movement of refugees and the arrival and voyages of the Numenoreans.  A discussion of the third age and the kingdoms of the Dunedain, the battles of the period that Gondor and other nations were involved in, as well as the migrations of hobbits and dwarves, then follows.  At this point the book turns to lovingly created and immensely detailed regional maps that go from Shire to Mordor.  For many readers, the next two parts will be the most familiar–they were for me–in that they look at the events of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, respectively, in cartographic form.  After this come some thematic maps as well as various indices and supporting material.  Make no mistake, if you like Middle Earth treated as seriously as the real earth is when it comes to historical geography, this is a fantastic book for you.

As is often the case in my reading, there is a clear audience that will greatly appreciate this book.  Simply from the point of view of someone who deeply loves maps and who enjoys seeing the spacial and temporal orientation of events and the visual representation of changes over time, this book was one I found very impressive.  There are many geographers at the National Geographic, for example, who would be well-served to treat their maps with the same degree of seriousness and to provide the same degree of content and detail that these maps provide.  The author/cartographer here has clearly done an immense amount of reading as well as thinking about Middle Earth and the results are plain to see.  I do not know how many readers feel as I do, but speaking for myself I enjoy reading books like this as often as I can find them–whether they are lovingly created atlases of fictional worlds as this one is or equally loving and detailed treatments of the world in which we happen to inhabit.  If you either love good maps or love Tolkien’s Middle Earth in all of its complexity and rich detail, and especially if you love both, you will almost certainly love this book.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to Book Review: The Atlas Of Middle Earth

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