J.R.R. Tolkien: The Painter

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Painter

When I was little I was fascinated by these three pictures:

The Hill Hobbiton-across-the Water (Left)

Taur-na-Fúin -Fangorn Forest- (Center)

Barad-dúr (Right)

These pictures graced the front cover of the Spanish editions published by Minotauro of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King that were in my school’s library. Every time I went there (more often than most normal eight year olds should) I’d grab one of the books and look at the front pictures mesmerized. This was a time when Peter Jackson’s trilogy did not exist and the only film adaptation was Ralph Baschi’s underrated classic, back when The Lord of the Rings was known primarily to book readers.

The first time I read The Lord of the Rings I was fueled by the fascination with this other world that my brother was obsessed with and my natural curiosity about this “Middle-earth” and all the creatures and adventures in it. (Random Trivia: I remember that I kept an apple nearby when I first read it because I had seen Bastian do the same in The Neverending Story. I was so cute) However in my head, there was also something about these three pictures that imbued these books with a mystic lore – there is also the Middle-earth map which is just enthralling –.

I only found years later that those pictures had been created by J.R.R. Tolkien himself, and thus followed the purchase of J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (Random Trivia: purchased in abebooks in very good condition. The copy I bought apparently belonged to the Elsmere Public Library but had never been taken out. Alas! Worry not! Even if you are quote “No longer the property of New Castle County Libraries” your journey across the Atlantic has led you to a nice comfy home).

There are two aspects that I found particularly interesting when I read this book and that I want to keep in mind when I write this review. First is that Tolkien himself doubted the quality of his artwork and second is that I got the impression that Tolkien was at heart both a writer and a painter.  With this in mind, let’s look at the highlights of each chapter.Lostwethion_TolkienWhitby.jpg

Early Work: the most biographical section of the entire book – necessarily so to understand Tolkien’s first steps in drawing – the artwork presented is usually a backdrop to the period of Tolkien’s life. This chapter has some of the first drawings he made as a child, but is mainly dominated by his paintings of the English country side. My favorite is Ruins at West End of Whitby Abbey. I think it manages to capture the sensation of decay and of the forgotten place eaten away by time. (Random Trivia: I just had a geek-gasm. Those same ruins are also in -my current reading- Dracula!)

Visions, Myths and Legends: I liked that this book wanted to cover all of Tolkien’s work and not just The Lord of The Rings because I wanted to see the full picture (pun intended). This section presents an embryonic Middle-earth. Ideas are forming and Tolkien’s world is expanding but is not yet fully developed.

One of the highlights of this chapter is the -full page- painting chosen for the front cover of this book which depicts a landscape of the Silmarillion and is titled The Halls of Manwë on the Mountains of the World above Faerie. I also learned that Taur-na-Fúin originally depicted a moment of The Silmarillion and that it was later redrawn in ink for The Hobbit and retitled Mirkwood (image below), and that the original also had its name changed to Fangorn Forest.


Art for Children: this is the one section in the entire book where I paid far more attention to the words rather than the pictures.

J.R.R Tolkien has to be one of the coolest dad’s that have ever lived. He began telling stories to his children about Father Christmas and his adventures in the North Pole, and later on Father Christmas began sending drawings and letters (written and drawn by Tolkien) to his children with illustrations of the events he narrated. The children also received pictures from North Polar Bear a friend of Father Christmas with his very own lettering style. How cool is that?

This particular chapter was heartwarming and sweet and the book is worth it just for it.

The Hobbit: I found this chapter very interesting because it shows the steady hand of Tolkien the writer clashing with the dubious hand of Tolkien the painter. Tolkien prepared a lot of illustrations for The Hobbit with the intention of including them in the book, but he doubted their quality and was uncertain if they were up to standards of the text. These doubts grew after it was released and the book’s pictures received criticism from reviewers.

I do not understand the criticism.J.R.R._Tolkien_-_Rivendell.jpg

The composition, style, look and relation with the story is very smart and crafty. In a painting like Rivendell there is a gateway into the picture. We follow the river and with it the eye observes the rest of the picture. The Gate to the Elven Kingdom shows the road our heroes are walking and manages to put us there with them. The Trolls I liked even more because we are a partner in crime, we are also spying on the three trolls like the dwarf at the bottom is doing.

Tolkien’s drawing fit perfectly with the story and I’m saddened that they received bad criticism.

The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien did not consider that he was up to the task of creating the illustrations for The Lord of The Rings (outside of material like The Gate of Moria or the Runes in Balin’s tomb). Whether it was the criticism received on The Hobbit, the weight of writing or simply his own doubts about his skills, I think that this ultimately benefited the final product.

I like the drawings in The Hobbit because they fit tonally with a children’s book – and make no mistake, no matter what Peter Jackson aimed at, The Hobbit is a children’s book –, but The Lord of the Rings works best with the epic style of Alan Lee. This chapter was surprisingly short in content and I did not find it that interesting outside of the covers Tolkien designed for each book.

Patterns and Devices: I liked the sample images of the mail envelope or the newspaper where Tolkien doodled and drew some of his first attempts at patterns, but unfortunately this chapter suffered a bit of The Silmarillion syndrome. There are lots of names being mentioned left and right in regards to devices and small amulets. This chapter did not make for a very interesting reading (perhaps the more hardcore Tolkien reader disagrees with me).Tolkien Artist.jpg

This book is fantastic and definitely worth buying. I haven’t covered nearly 10% of the drawings included in it, and it is amazing seeing how productive Tolkien was both as a writer and as a painter. The only negative aspect is that sometimes the text  would refer to a picture either on the next page or on the previous page and it is rather tedious flipping constantly between pages to observe all the details being explained (this is a minor criticism).

I’m trying to figure out if, through this book and this post, I’ve managed to identify why I was so drawn (pun intended) to those three pictures.  The book helped me notice that in The Hill Hobbiton-across-the Water there is a small bridge at the bottom of the picture that seems to invite you to follow this long road to a faraway place, and -to a degree-  the following pictures managed to perpetuate that fascination: What is hidden in that forest? Where is that tower? What is in it? What surrounds it?

Unfortunately, this does not provide a satisfying reason to explain my childhood fascination.

Note for future-me: your original ending to this post was much more “Well! I guess I’ll never know” but after sitting on it for a bit the following realization happened.Der_Berggeist.jpg

This drawing by Josef Madlener is called “Der Berggeist” (“the mountain spirit”)  and it is not featured in the book. What the books says is that Tolkien wrote on the back of a postcard that had this picture “The origin of Gandalf”.

This left me wondering.

How did Tolkien’s mind work so that this little picture on a postcard later became the iconic character?  Did he just see the picture and said “Oh, I know! Gandalf!”? What inspired him? Was it the cloak? Was it the mountains beyond where this old man lives? Was it the water in that brook?

The truth is nobody will ever know how Tolkien came up with Gandalf other than Tolkien, but if this is indeed his origin, there is something comforting in knowing that the same person who painted those three drawings -that I began the post with-, once looked at a picture in a postcard and that, somehow, triggered his imagination. After all, if Tolkien came up with Gandalf by looking at a postcard I think my eight year old version is allowed to imagine magical worlds looking at book covers.

I finished reading this book on the 24th of July 2017.

Random Trivia: I also learned that Tolkien liked Van Eyck and, having had the privilege of seeing the Mystic Lamb in Ghent, this was just one of those little bits of information that just managed to put a smile on my face.

Editorial Bonus (Original ending): Unfortunately, my childhood curiosity remains a mystery (although a smaller one). I will have to simply accept the fact that Tolkien managed to put a spell on me through these pictures.



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