When I was younger and read fantasy voraciously, I often judged a book not by the cover, but by the map that came in the front (or back). I still love looking at this sort of stuff, especially the parts that don’t get touched in the books’ main narratives.. Like, what the frig is going on in the Sea of Rhûn area? None of Tolkien’s main works go there. Neato. Using all my other knowledge of the world of Middle Earth, I can sort of piece together what MIGHT be out there. It’s like a plane of possibilities, with the “realities” of the novel being only one dotted line across the map. Anyway, Lev Grossman is looking at the genre within a genre here.
maps aren’t just window dressing, they’re fundamentally a part of fantasy as a genre. Before it’s about anything else, fantasy is about landscape: green fields, green hills, a place to which the characters and the reader feel connected in a way that’s no longer possible in our alienated postindustrial age. Fantasy is about longing, about the yearning to be not here but elsewhere. Maps are about the same thing. A map is not an idle exercise: It’s a plan to go somewhere.