Close this search box.

John Gast, Fantasy World Cartographer

Now that my The War of the Dragons trilogy is becoming available again (or in the case of the third volume, available for the first time), the moment has arrived for me to pay tribute to one of the people who hopped on the wagon of its creation for a while, and whose contribution deserves a special nod.

As a kid in the 1960s, even as I was just starting to get into tales of imaginary worlds, and did not yet imagine I might come to write any such material, I delighted in the maps that were included in those volumes, even the one John R. Neill did for the classic Oz volumes that featured the overly inventive touch of putting the west (the Winkie Country) on the right side and the east (the Munchkin Country) on the left. So even as I began my initial, crude attempt at composing a chronicle of the adventures of Alemar and Elenya, I drew maps to go with the text. I took it as a given that if I ever succeeded in selling novels about the twins to a publisher, the books would include maps.

And so they did, with the first, The Sorcery Within, making its appearance on bookstore shelves in 1985. I didn’t even have to arm-twist Ace Books into going along with the plan, not after I explained that they would not have to hire anybody to do them. I was making my living as a graphic artist during the time period when that book and then The Schemes of Dragons went through production. I did the maps myself. My editor didn’t even have to worry about safeguarding the original art. I delivered the maps in the form of negatives already sized to fit the interior of the paperback editions, ready to be handed over to the printer. What you see at the top of this blog entry is an image-file version of one of those maps, scanned from the proofs I made in the mid-1980s.

(Apologies for the low-resolution here. The BVC blog is not a venue for high-rez images. If you want to see more than the token display above, feel free to go to the maps page of my website.)

I didn’t get there alone, creatively speaking. The maps may have come into their final form in the mid-1980s, but they had their genesis over a decade earlier. There once was a fellow named John Wingfield Gast, a man of bwwhaahh-ha-ha mirth and a deep appreciation for living in the moment. He died at age fifty-three, an event that was simultaneously a misfortune for the world at large and a minor miracle given how many recreational drugs he had consumed in oh so many ways, the worst of those ways being the straight-into-the-vein method. John did not know how to pursue an interest in a half-assed way. He plunged in, be it consumption of pharmaceuticals, or studies of esoteric subjects, or all-nighters spent playing elaborate games of Risk only on a board that featured the continents of Atlantis and Lemuria in addition to the usual ones, along with bent rules that favored boldness and unprecedented temporary alliances. He was a nudist, a philosopher, an astrologer.

Some time about 1972 when John had just finished high school, one of his fascinations of the moment was coming up with a fantasy-world map. He was not the sort of person to create an actual narrative populated by named characters engaged in fleshed-out plot arcs. What John was into was the worldbuilding. He craved the chance to develop not the action and dialogue of scenes, but the environment and backstory. He loved elaborating upon the history, the geography, the climate, the cuisine, and technological level of his made-up place — the equivalent of what Tolkien put in the appendices of The Return of the King. The only story-like elements he bothered with came in the form of notes (typically just mental notes, not written material) highlighting the widespread effect of migrations or major inventions such as the smelting of iron or the addition of stirrups to saddles. At that point he also had a deep interest in astronomy, meaning not the fast-and-loose generalities an astrologer might incorporate in a horoscope to make their pronouncements seem to have credibility, but actual-science astronomy. John could rattle off the names of the hundred closest stars. One of those happened to be Achird, as in Eta Cassiopeiae. That binary system has been attracting attention in recent decades as a spot to look for life-bearing worlds. Back in 1972, no one had the means to generate verifiable evidence that exo-planets existed, much less any around a specific star, but as far as John was concerned, so much the better. He was free to imagine Tanagaran, home to people and sword-and-sandal civilizations located on an Earth-sized moon that circled a Jupiter-like gas giant planet. With that vision blossoming in his mind, John got out a big piece of poster board and rendered said world’s two main continents, and populated them with countries, cities, rivers, ruins, forests, and more.

I’ll be blunt: He got obsessive about it. He didn’t just draw any old configuration of continents. He looked at reconstructions of the structure of Earth’s continents through the history of our planet, and took inspiration from interesting features of what was once Gondwana, Laurentia, and Pangaea. He wanted a stretched-out strait or inland sea in the fashion of the Mediterranean where he would have his equivalent of the Roman Empire sit, but once he had that feature, his sense of creative responsibility demanded of him that he work out where the currents and weather patterns would be, and determine where and in what direction the tradewinds would blow, where the largest schools of fish would be, where the volcanos would be. He put the largest cities only in places where natural resources, defensible terrain, and beneficent climates would cause them to spring up. He didn’t approach the project like a teenager; he did it like a cartographer. Yes, it was obsessive, but that was why the end product was so good.

John brought the map along to college and for years it hung in his dorm room. (Yes, he lived in the dorms for years. Ordinary dorms tend to be populated almost entirely by freshmen. Throughout the 1970s into the early 1980s, the residential community at Sonoma State University was operated by the residents, and succeeded in being an environment that students would want to inhabit for their whole college stint. And many of us did.) When I saw the map there on the wall of John’s room, I instantly saw how I could fit the existing tales of Alemar and Elenya and their ancestors into its bounds. Immediately I spoke of that possibility. From the start, John was on board. He loved the idea that someone would build upon creative work he had done. (Later, after the publication of The Sorcery Within, he spent untold hours coming up with flags and coats-of-arms for the various realms of Tanagaran, both the countries he had invented and the ones I had added.) Knowing that my project was going to take years, I wanted to be sure I had the map available, even if John and I lost touch. In those days before scanners and cell-phone cameras and what-not, the thing to do was make another by hand. John loaned me his precious original, temporarily leaving his wall bare as I traced out the various coastlines and features and drew them onto a new piece of poster board with carbon paper.

Now is when I should mention, my version was not the same as John’s. I took what worked for the trilogy and set other parts aside. For example, the Eastern Deserts were not part of John’s original. Nor did I keep all of the place names. Not only did I prefer to use my own, but too many of his were inside jokes, such as the city of Rubba Chubba. (It’s still there but abbreviated as Ruba.) A few were place names from Earth history, such as the Catuvellaunium River — obscure, yes, but recognizable if one knows the reference. For the time being I kept Achird as the name of the sun, unaware as I wrote the early drafts of The Sorcery Within that it was yet another of John’s borrowings. (Back then, I sure would have found an internet search engine to be a very handy thing. I would have sworn that name was something John had pulled straight from his ass.)

John will never see the 2024 presentation of the trilogy, but he loved seeing the maps in the Ace paperbacks, even if he did bemoan some of the pseudo-cartographical alterations I’d made. (I can hear him now: “Good grief, Dave! Do you not understand about fractals?”) He would buy copy after copy of the books to give away to friends, and gleefully tell them about his contributions. He loved it that I’d named a character after him. He will never see this tribute, but I know he would have loved seeing it and reading what I wrote about him. I will have to be content with that.



1 thought on “John Gast, Fantasy World Cartographer”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *