Posted by: Sally Ingraham | April 12, 2013

Tolkien Wields a Paintbrush

Sorting through my library books this morning I rediscovered a book I had checked out almost a month ago – J. R. R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator. I think I shouted out loud when I came across it initially. When I was a teen and deep in my The Lord of the Rings obsession I read every single book my library had that even mentioned Tolkien – and I inter-library loaned a whole other pile. Somehow I overlooked this one. Today as I flipped through it I was flooded with intense memories, and with the same utter delight of getting to venture deeper into the world of Middle Earth that I experienced as a kid.

Those were the days! I somehow managed to make my obsession count as “school work”, marking hours spent studying history, mythology, linguistics, etc. on the chart my parents used to track my progress. I took meticulous notes while reading LOTR and The Silmarillion, read Beowulf to cross reference, investigated how Tolkien structured his languages and was working on creating my own alphabet.

When Peter Jackson’s movies started coming out I took pleasure in being highly critical, but was somewhat swayed in the end by the epic scope of them and how visually interesting they were. I forgave their glaring faults. Looking back now, I think the movies tamed and even tainted my love for LOTR and I certainly lost sight of some of the things I loved most about the books. My interest peaked and then waned dramatically after ROTK came out. I haven’t read the books in 7 or 8 years.

The release of the first Hobbit movie brought all the pain and passion of that affair back. Even though I hadn’t read The Hobbit in years I remembered it well enough to be more than a little miffed over Jackson’s treatment of the story. I’m going to get really worked up if I go into the issues I took with it here and now, but suffice it to say I had about a dozen WTF moments. Still, Jackson got a few things right…and so I’ll be led once again, lamb-like, to watch the next two movies (seriously, two more?! ridiculous.)

My Dad said something while talking about the Hobbit movie that kicked me in the gut – the movies, with their distorted take on Tolkien (the limitation of one person’s interpretation) do a disservice to a whole generation who deserve better. They deserve to READ the books and think about them and come to their own conclusions, but far too many won’t because, heck, even the Extended Editions take less time to watch than reading LOTR (I watched ’em in one sitting – took 9 hrs I believe!) That makes me sad…

Anyway, what I really sat down to say is “Hurray for Tolkien’s artwork!” Looking through this book provided a clear reminder of one of the big differences between Jackson’s and Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Jackson does location and sets well, really well at times, but his Middle Earth is darker and heavier by far than the one that Tolkien drew and painted and wrote about.

JRR Tolkien's Art

JRR Tolkien's Art

JRR Tolkien's Art

I had seen a smattering of Tolkien’s illustrations, but this book collected a large quantity of everything from sketches, to decorated envelopes, Christmas cards, preliminary map ideas, dust jacket concepts, and completed works. I especially enjoyed seeing the progression from sketch to finished piece, and the variety of styles Tolkien employed.

JRR Tolkien's Art

JRR Tolkien's Art

JRR Tolkien's Art

I’ll have to come back to this book and properly read it someday, but for now I’m content to just lose myself in the pictures, which are surely not worth a thousand of Tolkien’s words, but come pretty dang close!


  1. Thank you for sharing these! My edition of The Hobbit includes some of Tolkien’s paintings, and I love looking at them.

    Regarding the movies, I enjoy them, but I have to remind myself that they’re as much Jackson’s vision as Tolkien’s, something that’s especially true with The Hobbit. I’d love to see a version of The Hobbit that has the same tone as the original, but once I saw Jackson was making three movies out of it, I abandoned all hope of getting that and decided to look at the movies on their own terms, as totally separate works. That worked out fine for the first movie, which I thought was mostly entertaining, but too long and loud.

    • I nearly swore off movie adaptations after one particularly traumatizing screen version of Captains Courageous, but since then, for the sake of sanity, I learned how to separate my expectations and experience of a movie from the book it was based on. As you say, this is especially necessary with Jackson’s The Hobbit! He did get the tone of the book down pretty well on spots (the dwarves in Hobbiton, the scene with Gollum under the mountain) which was nice. I’m not a fan of some of the plot points he added which will surely contribute to the continuing exceedingly silly length of the thing (seriously, THREE movies?!) but like you pointed out – it’s his Middle Earth, not Tolkien’s. I just hope that a few folks who see the movie will still go off and read the book – and not find it disappointingly quaint and boring comparatively… That would make me sad.

  2. You’re right, some time spent just with the artwork is time well spent.
    Good thoughts,

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