Look at enough fantasy maps, and you’ll start to see a familiar pattern: ocean to the west, land to the east, stretching beyond the borders of the map. The so-called “Left-Justified Fantasy Map” is so prevalent that it even has a trope named after it on tvtropes.org, an extensive catalog of recurring themes within movies, tv shows, and books.
The first prominent example of the Left-Justified Fantasy Map is in the works of Tolkien. He based Middle Earth from the “Lord of the Rings” novels on medieval Europe, so the ocean to the West reflected the position of the Atlantic Ocean relative to Europe.
The same basic structure is replicated in the map of Beleriand for the book “The Silmarillion”, which also takes place in Middle Earth, but in a different area.
Fantasy writers since Tolkien have taken a similar approach to their maps. Below are just a few examples, from Eragon, The Wheel of Time Series, and Redwall. All have ocean in the West and land in the East, although there is considerable variation in the shape of the coastline.
So are all these fantasy maps just copying from Tolkien? That’s one possible explanation, but I think that’s too simple. It could be that these authors are choosing this map layout for aesthetic reasons. According to the tvtropes article, “Most people seem to find this balance with the heavy and the bottom right and the lighter to the upper left more pleasing than the opposite. Many people are righthanded, and drawing a map, or indeed most things, is easier when drawing left towards right.”
Note that one of the most famous fantasy worlds, Narnia, actually has the ocean in the East and the land in the West, as you may recall from an earlier post. C.S. Lewis, who was a friend and contemporary of Tolkien, may have created his world this way to give it more hopeful mood. The sun rising in the East over the ocean gives the impression that the world is getting brighter and better, whereas the world of Middle Earth, with the ocean in the West, is fading like the setting sun. At least, that’s one theory on tvtropes.
For more on how this trope has appeared, or been inverted, in dozens of other fantasy works, check out the trope page here: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LeftJustifiedFantasyMap