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Features Maps

Fantasy job: Making maps for A Game of Thrones

UK-born fantasy illustrator Jonathan Roberts was sat at home in New York one day when he got an email from US book publisher Bantam. “Would he be interested,” they asked, “in drawing the official maps for A Game of Thrones?”

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Well, yes he would, as a matter of fact! Jonathan has been drawing fantasy maps since he was a teenage boy, with a long history of playing Dungeons and Dragons-style roleplaying games. Drawing fantasy maps is his love and his life.

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“All of those games need maps,” he tells us. “They help to activate the players’ imaginations and give them a good sense of the sandbox they’re playing in.”

Jonathan has managed to turn what he loved as a hobby into a career. His paper maps of dungeons, cities and faraway lands were already on sale in roleplaying stores like RPGNow.

So it was a dream contract. But the Game of Thrones project was not without complications.

As everyone now knows, A Game of Thrones (or, more correctly, the A Song of Ice and Fire saga) is vast in every conceivable sense, already spanning more than 5700 pages of printed text, four continents, plus many smaller islands.

And George R. R. Martin is a very busy man. Notwithstanding his publishing and publicity commitments, he’s still working on the sixth book in the saga, with a seventh and eighth allegedly planned.

So how would Jonathan be able to make the maps accurate to Martin’s vision?

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Two ingredients helped to make the project possible.

First of all, it turned out that Martin had already created maps for the series that Jonathan would be able to access, albeit in a rough-and-ready format. “They were spread over many pages of A4 notebook paper, with hundreds of annotations and notes,” Jonathan recalls. “Incredibly detailed: I didn’t have to ‘make-up’ any part of the maps. My main job was creating the style and adding visual detail.”

Second, the publishers had a really clever idea. “They recruited two of the editors from the fan-based Wiki of Ice and Fire as fact-checkers and editors. Those guys know every detail of the saga and gave me invaluable help. In fact, the last map in my series, the Journeys map showing where all the main characters travel, is based entirely on their input.”

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Deciding on the style for the maps posed a different, interesting problem.

“You see, the style of the books changes as the series progresses. The world sneaks up on you. It starts off with a pretty realistic gritty-medieval setting. But then, gradually, magic starts creeping in. And before you know it, zombies and dragons.”

So how does that impact on the visual style of the maps? Should they be high or low fantasy?

“I actually went through three different versions of the colouring. I started off quite realistic, with fairly mild colouring. But when I talked to Martin, he was like ‘no - make it more vivid’. The version we ended up with was the most vividly coloured of the three.”

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“Martin had an extremely specific vision. As just one example, there are actually five different kinds of ‘arable land’ marked on the map. Though they’re not in the key, so only me and him know that.”

Particular areas highlighted the tension between high and low fantasy in the work.

“There’s an area called the Bleeding Sea and I didn’t really know how to approach that since it’s not described in the books. I took it to be metaphorical: like the Red Sea isn’t actually red. Maybe it should be a bit brownish?”

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Once again, Martin had very clear ideas: “I want it red. Blood red.”

After nearly five months’ work, the project was finished, with the final work comprising 12 maps, each 2ft by 3ft and amazingly detailed.

So how do you top that? What would be Jonathan’s next dream project?

“Well, it would be hard to top doing Middle Earth. That’s the boss of all fantasy maps. I did the maps for After Earth [the 2013 action movie]. That’s got a lot of stuff going on with a kind of expanded universe that was really rewarding to try to visualise.

“After that, The Hunger Games has a really interesting world. It’s a post-apocalyptic North America, which is a fun twist on a fantasy map.”

image credits: All maps copyright George R. R. Martin, reproduced with permission

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