Northcote House Publishers (in association with the British Council), Plymouth, UK, 1997
£7.99. ISBN 0-7463-0749-7
Review by John Ellison
This review originally appeared in Mallorn 35, 1997
This little book is one of a series designed to offer critical appraisals of individual writers' works within a limited compass. The interested general reader who encounters an author's, in this case Tolkien's, work for the first time can assess his or her reactions to it in the general context of his or her understanding of literature. The format conveys a slight sense of having been designed with the requirements of a 'lit-crit' study course in mind. It shows itself in the book's division into bite-sized slices headed with rather misleading titles, of which the opening one "The Man" is the most depressing, if the least inaccurate. There is familiar biographical material here, with some useful emphasis on the gap between the social mores of Tolkien's day and those of the present.
A discussion of Tolkien's concept of the storyteller as myth-maker follows, as exemplified in the essays of the 1930s, particularly, "On Fairy Stories", concluding that his claims for the essential truth of myth in a Christian context represent a culminating expression of a philosophy of literature traceable back via Coleridge and Milton to the fourteenth century. Familiar ground for the serious student, no doubt, but probably valuable to the interested general reader as a starting point for further investigation.
The central chapter of the book, "The World of Words", provides a more extended commentary on Tolkien's sources, content and style. There are a number of pertinent observations on such topics as the variety of Tolkien's sources and the multiplicity of styles he adapted or adopted to suit his purposes. The author is critical of the latter, if understanding of the difficulties presented by the material, but it is just here that the limitations of his principally 'lit-crit' approach come to the surface and lead him astray. According to Moseley, Tolkien's descriptive writing is thin and limited, and relies on his maps to bolster it; the delineation of scenes or objects by means of descriptive detail is unconvincing, because Tolkien is not very much interested in it, but only in the broad narrative sweep. This is plausible, one may suppose, if one relies on picking out some individual passages or examples for adverse comment, where the use of simile or metaphor, for instance, is conventional and unremarkable. But to use such examples as the basis of a broad conclusion that Tolkien's descriptive resources are inadequate is as though one was to look at Middle-earth through the wrong end of a pair of opera-glasses. The scenic panorama that constitutes the setting of The Lord of the Rings is conceived on the grand scale, and, interestingly, the evocation of it is often at its most effective when it takes the form of straightforward reporting, without "literary" embellishments.
The author takes the same view of characterisation, which he views as being, as a whole, elementary and not very illuminating; only a few persons are characterised "in a normal sense", and the reader is left "to do a lot of the work". Certainly the central characters, the hobbits, are presented most fully, in close-up, as it were, and some others appear more as background figures. However, the true test of Tolkien's method of character presentation is its effectiveness. The enduring popularity of the works implies that the characters are widely found to be convincing and believable.
After this there is not much left to come. A chapter very grandly titled "Imperium and Cosmos" (wow!) tries to define the moral and ethical values Tolkien's writing embodies, but does not really lead anywhere in particular. A final chapter, "Responses", summarises the post-publication history of the works and the various critical and other reactions to them, but this will be a familiar story for most of us.
The serious student of Tolkien will therefore not find anything particularly
new or original here, and Tom Shippey's The Road to Middle Earth
remains the essential vade-mecum, supplemented by Brian Rosebury's more recent
Critical Assessment, if an alternative, "modernist" literary
view is looked for. At whom, then, is the present book directed? Perhaps to
the uncommitted, if there be any, who like the church of the Laodiceans, are
neither cold nor hot, where Tolkien is concerned? There is another
well-known series of guides which might provide a hint for a suitable title:
Bluff your way in Tolkien?
Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull
London: HarperCollins, London, 1995.
Hardback: £35.00. Paperback: £16.99 208 pp.
USA paperback (typically) $25.00 Houghton Mifflin ISBN: 0618083618
Review by John Ellison
This review originally appeared in Mallorn 34, 1996
That this is the first full-length study of Tolkien's art and illustration
to appear, amid the plethora of writings, good, bad and indifferent, that
have accumulated around this or that aspect of his literary output, is in
its way evidence of the power and prevalence of an inherited 'received idea'.
This is the belief, widely held, that talent, knowledge and expertise in any
one particular field somehow disqualify their possessors from exercising these
attributes in any other one. Tolkien is himself a good example, like many
other academics of the older, long established sort (some of their present-day
successors display no such reticence). Because he was by profession a philologist,
and, stemming from, that, a teller of tales, he was reluctant to put himself
forward as possessing any knowledge or qualification in other fields, including
that of art, illustration and design.
The pictures seem to me mostly
only to prove that the author cannot draw, as he remarked of his illustrations
for The Hobbit.
The old saying that "the cobbler should stick to his last," quite often on the other hand turns out not to be true at all. Outstanding talent or ability in one direction does from time to time declare itself in other and quite different directions, in relation to one and the same person. In Tolkien's case, however, the prevalence of "the received idea," has worked to the disadvantage of his drawings, paintings and artwork in various forms. These have been thought of or treated as a sideline, attractive and sometimes striking accompaniments to the serious business of his writings, scholarly and literary, but of only subsidiary import in relation to his work, aims and achievements. The great achievement of the authors of this book is to show us all otherwise; they demonstrate that all through his life Tolkien's art was as central an expression of his creativity as his writing, and an integral part of the processes that have made his imagined world a living reality for us today.
The authors' approach to their task is, naturally, a chronological one; they take us through the extant material, much of it appearing in published form for the first time, from Tolkien's earliest efforts as a child to the splendid late drawing, "The Hills of the Morning," which they understandably see as a fitting climax and epilogue to his life's work as an artist, and which most appropriately takes its place as the frontispiece to this book. This drawing was shown in the exhibition, at the Bodleian Library, that accompanied the 1992 Centenary Conference, but it has not previously been reproduced, and will come as a complete surprise to many, as will quite a number of other works reproduced here, others also for the first time.
This especially applies to the drawings and paintings Tolkien produced up to the age of twenty or thereabouts, before he started to write the mythology that first took shape as The Book of Lost Tales. These provide the subject-matter of the first chapter of this book, and will alter the perceptions of most readers, for prior to the 1992 exhibition virtually none of this early material had made its appearance. It now seems that Tolkien's gifts as an artist, expressed simply through the media of landscape and topographical art, declared themselves at a very early stage.
The first important change of direction in his art, evident in the works covered by and illustrated in the second chapter of this book, "Visions, Myths and Legends," coincides with his earliest writings, and thereafter the two sides of his creative endeavour are inseparable. In view of the quality of some of his early landscapes and topographical drawings one may indeed regret that he only rarely returned to this form of art in later life, though the authors do reproduce several interesting examples from 1940 and later.
As the story proceeds the correspondences between Tolkien's practice as author and storyteller, and as artist and illustrator, become steadily more apparent. The authors devote a chapter to "Art for Children," principally of course, the "Father Christmas Letters," written and illustrated for his children, and the illustrated story, "Mr Bliss." In these he developed his talent for a light-hearted, "anecdotal" kind of line drawing somewhat akin to the art of the cartoonist, which had been evident now and then in his early work.
In its turn this made available a wider range of reference for his drawings and paintings for The Hobbit which represent the core material of his art, the expression of it that has become the most familiar to readers, and which takes up the central and longest chapter of this book. It reflects the way in which his experience in providing orally told stories for his children eventually issued in the writing of The Hobbit and thereby supplied the essential balance and contrast needed as the counterpart of the heroic legendary world of The Silmarillion.
The volumes of The History of Middle-earth, most of all those dealing with The Lord of the Rings, have helped us to understand and appreciate the almost obsessional care which Tolkien lavished on the shaping and perfection of narrative, as displayed typically in the successive redraftings of the early chapters of The Lord of the Rings. Precisely the same impulse can be seen in operation in the reworking of version after after version, all reproduced here, of important illustrated scenes such as "The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the-Water," or "The Elvenking's Gate." The process by which scenes such as these gradually evolved has not previously been open to inspection in such detail, and likewise it can now be seen how Tolkien's conceptions of sites described in The Lord of the Rings such as Orthanc, Helm's Deep or Dunharrow, were formed out of successive experiments in drawing the details of their appearance so as to work out the finalised descriptions in words.
The authors make the interesting point that many of these "working drawings," are concerned with the architecture and layout of fortresses and strongholds, and seem interconnected. It is therefore rather remarkable that Tolkien's interest in this direction, developed as an aid to the actual description of the places conceived by means of the written word, then has to express itself finally in an elaborate finished drawing, of Barad-dûr seen at close quarters, which is not actually an illustration of a scene in The Lord of the Rings at all. "The Forest of Lothlórien in Spring," likewise not an illustration of any specific scene in the book, provided a similar outlet in its own way for his idealised vision of its tree-clad beauty.
The authors draw an effective parallel between Tolkien's narrative method,
his use of the descriptive imagery of journeying or, "The Road,"
to draw the reader's interest and imagination forward into the progress of
the story, and pictorial devices in his art, such as the use of a central
feature, a path or a river, as in the painting, "Rivendell," to
draw the viewer's eye deep into the picture and towards the distant landscape
of the imagination. Of course this is a familiar and frequently used device
in landscape painting and there are very many instances of it in the work
of the old masters, but Tolkien claimed not to be
well acquainted with
pictorial Art, and his use of the motive must therefore have been primarily
With the completion of The Lord of the Rings, a chapter in the history and development of Tolkien's art also closes. In so much of his later writing (otherwise than "The Tale of Tuor" and the "Narn i Hin Húrin") narrative is left behind in favour of general, more abstract theoretical topics, the construction of a consistent cosmology around Middle-earth, the problematic reincarnation of Elves and the differing destinies of Elves and Men. Storytelling gives way to research, if one can put it that way. In a similar sort of way, his art ceases to deal with the representation literally of scenes and events and turns to the exploration of patterns of always increasing subtlety and variety, represented both by the innumerable "doodles," on old envelopes and newspapers, and by the working out of designs for Númenórean textiles or for heraldic devices for Elves and Men, and their houses and descendants. The late drawing of "The Hills of the Morning," draws the threads of Tolkien's artistic interests together in one, because although it portrays an imagined scene it also represents a sophisticated virtuoso piece of pattern-making in its own right.
Where, one is inclined to ask, did the inspiration for all this very varied output come from, and what were Tolkien's sources, if any? The authors tell us that Priscilla Tolkien recalls that her father visited galleries in Italy with her while on holiday in the 1950s. But apart from the reference, already mentioned, in a late published letter, to his lack of acquaintance with "pictorial Art," there is virtually nothing in his writings of various kinds which provides any sort of a clue to his own experience of the visual arts.
On the other hand, of course, there are plenty of indications, in his descriptions of, for instance, Théoden's hall at Edoras, or of the stone statues of the Kings of Gondor that line the great hall of Minas Tirith, that he thought of the sculptural and decorative arts as being highly developed in Middle-earth, (and conversely, see his references to the crudity and barbarity of orcish efforts). His memory was no doubt quite as retentive in regard to visual images as it was in relation to words, languages and literature, and it might be said that he had trained his visual memory, through his early topographical drawings and paintings, as much as he had trained his verbal and linguistic memory through the medium of ancient languages. The wealth of visual imagery in the narrative, particularly in The Lord of the Rings, is particularly evident in reaction to plants, trees and natural forms, of which he was a constant observer both in life and in his art, topographical and otherwise.
The authors also helpfully remind us of the sources and influences which must have been available to him in the course of reading or of everyday life without the necessity for any special investigations or inquiry on his part - the "Arts and Crafts movement"; the designs of William Morris; the work of illustrators such as Arthur Rackham (an admitted influence) or Edmond Dulac; the influence of Symbolism in various forms; even the Japanese prints which he bought for his rooms in his undergraduate days. Even though he plainly had no direct dealings with the "art world," of his time, he must to quite a considerable extent have become aware of contemporary trends.
The whole book has been most handsomely produced, and the copious illustrations provide by far the most comprehensive overview of Tolkien's artistic output that has ever been made available. Its price may initially seem high, but certainly seems much less so if one takes into account the complexity of the task of reproducing so many works in such a variety of media, water-colour, pen-and-ink, pencil or crayon. The authors have joined the select few who have made an essential and original contribution to Tolkien studies; their devoted work and obvious love of their subject should receive the enthusiastic response from all serious readers of Tolkien's works that they richly deserve.
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