Review: The Art of The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Art of The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull


Of my various stupid human tricks (lactose intolerance, short hamstrings, that thing where I can bend my thumb behind my hand…), I’m usually most fond of my browsing sense. An urge to get up and go browse somewhere usually means that there’s gold in them there hills (hills being, of course, thrift stores, libraries, and, occasionally, curbs), and I often return with, say, a copy of The Cake Doctor or a Wonder Woman t-shirt from my adventures. Such an urge gripped me while at the library for the Jessica Hagy event, and, afterwards, I meandered upstairs to find a copy of The Art of The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien, one of my long-shot books to read, just lying there in the new books. Oh yeah.

The Art of the Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien is a lush art book that collects and examines the various illustrations Tolkien created while writing and preparing the manuscript of The Hobbit for publication. Each illustration is given a chapter, usually with several images to show the evolution from sketch to final product printed in the first few UK and American editions. These illustrations include Hobbiton, Rivendell, Beorn’s home, Laketown, and, of course, the great dragon Smaug.

In On Writing, Stephen King compares writing to a magnificent form of telepathy. If I write the words, say, a Conan O’Brien-headed rubber duck (it’s the closest thing on my desk), you have now visualized said waterfowl. But, of course, you haven’t pictured it exactly as he is in reality—I have told you nothing of his serene, wise gaze. Such room for interpretation is the art of adaptation. Now make that duck an idea in someone’s head instead of a physical object, and try and put the exact same image on the page so I might take it in as well. That’s the art of writing, but there’s also the avenue of actual art to communicate your vision. I’m speaking specifically of images here, not narrative. (I don’t know if The Lord of the Rings would be as effective as a graphic novel, which is probably why no one’s attempted it yet.) So it’s a thrill to see art by Tolkien’s own hand visualizing the rich world of Middle-Earth as, more or less, he saw.

I say more or less because Tolkien is not, say, Donato Giancola, one of my favorite Tolkien artists. As the introduction outlines, Tolkien was a self-taught artist: the love of landscapes that informed the clear geography of Middle-Earth is clear in his work. But his ability to draw people was quite limited. As someone whose interest in Tolkien was sparked by Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, it’s hard to reconcile the dwarves I’ve come to love with the cartoonish little figures briefly glimpsed here and there in illustrations like “The Back Door”, which depicts the dwarves exploring the Lonely Mountain’s secret gate. Of course, all of these illustrations predate The Lord of the Rings and its loftier tone, as well as the revisions that make The Hobbit clearly linked to the larger novel. But it’s hard to tell where Tolkien’s talent expires and where his understanding of his own work at these moments in time deviate from one another.

Tolkien’s real talent lies in rendering the architecture and landscape of Middle-Earth, so it’s in sketches that focus on these that you see, wonderfully, Middle-Earth as Tolkien specifically visualized it. I was particularly struck by the process sketches for Beorn’s house, which Hammond and Scull believe are based on an illustration by one of Tolkien’s friends. It’s such a clear space, but seeing the ways Tolkien changed the view of the piece and sketched out grids so the angles would all line up lets you construct the same hall he did. It’s a marvelous and thrilling threat. His landscapes bear, to me, a resemblance to the works of Aubrey Beardsley (whom I adore). The necessity of working in limited color, due to printing costs, force him to delineate geographical features by line work, recalling Beardsley’s own intricate lines. It’s these monochromatic illustrations that grab me and root me in Tolkien’s world—a little wild, a little mythical, and a little practical. You can see this in Tolkien’s cover art for the first edition of the book. Seeing it displayed as it would have been back in the day (when books were a little broader) just made me smile.

Of course, seeing how these are Tolkien’s own papers, there’s some wonderful artifacts of the man himself—on one page, we find evidence of him practicing his calligraphy (I cannot make out his handwriting worth a damn) and testing out paints. We even find him writing “Fangorn Forest” underneath an already repurposed illustration of Mirkwood, just in case he needs it for the next go around. Like I said, Middle-Earth is mythical, but it’s also practical.

As a book unto itself, I wasn’t particularly happy with the layout of it. It’s a glorious coffee table book, with several unnecessary fold-outs, but the text itself feels a little cramped. Plus, each section usually refers to images that are pages behind or pages ahead, making it a little difficult to take in the art and the words at the same time. I would have vastly preferred captioned images. The text is informative but not much more than that; this is an art book, first and foremost, and one that only diehard Ringers will love. Luckily, that’s exactly me.

Bottom line: An art book that only diehard Ringers will adore; good thing I’m one of them! An interesting look into how Tolkien visualized Middle-Earth, although the layout leaves something to be desired.

I rented this book from the public library.

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