The Middle Earth Illustrators J.R.R. Tolkien Loved—and the Ones He Abhorred

While Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, and now The Hobbit movie may be how many modern folks see Middle Earth, it's important to remember that the first person to illustrate J.R.R. Tolkien's world was Tolkien himself. Tolkien had a very clear sense of how Middle Earth should and should not look, and while he had doubts about his own abilities as an illustrator, he also had very strong opinions about other artists who tried to draw his world and his characters. Here are some of the illustrators whose works found favor with Tolkien—and a few who attracted his artistic ire.

Top image: "The Mumak of Harad" by Cor Blok.

Tolkien's Own Illustrations for The Hobbit

We may as well start with Tolkien himself, who provided the very first illustrations of Middle Earth for The Hobbit. While Tolkien was confident about his abilities as a writer, he didn't feel he had much skill as an illustrator, and constantly apologized for his artwork in his letters to his publishers, George Allen and Stanley Unwin. But Allen and Unwin found the illustrations charming, though besides Tolkien's maps, only one illustrated plate, of Mirkwood, was included in the first printing and was omitted in the second printing.

But even as he deprecated his own skills, Tolkien reached for a sort of visual "truth" in his illustrations. He had clear visions for the rustic fields and pathways of Hobbiton and the varied grays and greens of Rivendell. He drew from fairy tale illustrators like Jennie Harbour for some of his more narrative illustrations, like "The Trolls," adding menace to the dark magic of the woods.

If you're interested in seeing more of Tolkien's art, Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull's new book, The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, features more than 100 pieces of Hobbit art created by Tolkien.

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In his 1947 essay Tolkien wrote:

However good in themselves, illustrations do little good to fairy-stories. The radical distinction between all art (including drama) that offers a visible presentation and true literature is that . . . literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular

Nevertheless, there were some Hobbit and Lord of the Rings illustrators Tolkien quite liked, including some he worked directly with and some whose artwork he purchased for his personal collection.

Tolkien-Approved Illustrators:

Pauline Baynes' Illustrations for The Adventures of Tom Bombadil

Pauline Baynes (whom Tolkien calls Mrs. Gasch in his letters to her) is often called Tolkien's favorite illustrator. But Baynes didn't rise to face because of her illustrations of Middle Earth; in fact, before she first illustrated Tolkien's works, she illustrated those of his fellow writer and friend, C.S. Lewis. Her illustrations for The Chronicles of Narnia combined scenes of the natural world with a light wash of the fantastical, which made her an ideal artist in Tolkien's mind. After Baynes illustrated Tolkien's fable Farmer Giles of Ham and provided the cover art for the 1961 Puffin edition of The Hobbit, Tolkien entreated her to provide the illustrations for The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, stating in his December 6th, 1961 letter:

And I thought of you, because you seem able to produce wonderful pictures with a touch of 'fantasy', but primarily bright and clear visions of things that one might really see.

In a 1964 letter to the composer Carey Blyton, Tolkien described "some (but not all)" of Baynes' illustrations as "akin to my own inspiration." Baynes would also illustrate two map posters and, after Tolkien's death, create the illustration for "Bilbo's Last Song." However, Tolkien didn't want Baynes to illustrate The Lord of the Rings. He said in a letter to Mary Fairburn that Baynes' illustrations could not "rise to anything more noble or awe-inspiring," and called a picture she had done of a dragon "ridiculous."

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[PaulineBaynes.com]

Mary Fairburn's Lost Lord of the Rings

This chapter of Tolkien illustrations came to light just this past September, revealed by University of Otago English Department senior lecturer and researcher Dr Paul Tankard in the Times Literary Supplement. Although Tolkien was not eager to find an illustrator for The Lord of the Rings, he was so pleased by the illustrations he received from then 35-year-old Mary Fairburn that he actually considered an illustrated edition. He called the illustrations, "splendid. They are better pictures in themselves and also show far more attention to the text than any that have yet been submitted to me." However, Tolkien was never able to work out an edition featuring Fairburn's illustrations with Allen & Unwin, although he did offer to purchase some of Fairburn's pieces himself to alleviate Fairburn's financial hardship.

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[Times Literary Supplement]

Queen Margrethe II's Danish Lord of the Rings

When she was still Crown Princess of Denmark, Margrethe II sent her own illustrations for The Lord of the Rings to Tolkien, and according to one of the queen's biographers, Tolkien was struck by how similar her illustrations were to his own. After ascending the throne, Margrethe II would become an official Tolkien artist, with her illustrations appearing in a 1977 Danish edition of The Lord of the Rings under the pseudonym Ingahild Grathmer.

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[Folio Society]

Cor Blok's Minimalist Illustrations

In addition to being an illustrator, Cor Blok was also at one point a professor of art history, and when he set out to illustrate scenes from Tolkien in the early 1960s, he wanted to experiment with a kind of "pictorial shorthand." In the 1950s, Blok invented the fictional nation of Barbarusia, a setting in which he could invent artistic styles from different eras. His Tolkien illustrations came from the Medieval mural style he developed for Barbarusia. The results are strange and sometimes unnerving, but Tolkien liked Blok's approach well enough that he purchased two of Blok's paintings. He did not, however, think Blok's pieces worked well as illustrations to accompany text.

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[Tolkien Library]

Tolkien-Disapproved Illustrators:

Horus Engels' German Edition

The London-born illustrator Horus Engels contacted Tolkien starting in either 1945 or 1946 about the possibility of publishing a German edition of The Hobbit. But Tolkien wasn't overly impressed with the illustrations Engels sent him. In a 1946 letter to his publisher Stanley Unwin, Tolkien said of Engels:

He has sent me some illustrations (of the Trolls and Gollum) which despite certain merits, such as one would expect of a German, are I fear too 'Disnified' for my taste: Bilbo with a dribbling nose, and Gandalf as a figure of vulgar fun rather than the Odinic wanderer that I think of…

Despite Tolkien's distaste for Engels' illustrations, Engels' work did appear in a 1957 German edition of The Hobbit.

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[Babel Hobbits]

Robert J. Lee's "vulgar" Unexpected Party

In 1967, Tolkien received a copy of The Children's Treasury of Literature, which collected selections from Golden Press's (known to Americans as Golden Books) series of children's literature. One of the selections was a 1962 excerpt of "An Unexpected Party" from The Hobbit, illustrated by Robert J. Lee. While the colorful visuals are very much in keeping with the Golden Books style, Tolkien was not pleased with Lee's interpretation, writing to Joy Hill (his secretary, who had sent him the treasury):

I think a great many of the illustrations are very good, including some of the modern ones. Illustrations to The Hobbit extract seem to me worst of all, vulgar, stupid, and entirely out of keeping with the text which Robert J. Lee does not seem to have read with any care.

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[Mythoi]

Barbara Remington's Oddball Cover Illustrations

To say that Barbara Remington's cover illustration for the American edition of The Hobbit is mystifying would be an understatement, but you can hardly hold her responsible. She was asked to make the cover illustration without being given an opportunity to read the book, and despite the appearance of elements totally irrelevant to the story, Ballantine slapped it on the cover of the American paperback edition. Tolkien wrote to Rayner Unwin:

I think the cover is ugly; but I recognize that a main object of a paperback cover is to attract purchasers, and I suppose that you are better judges of what is attractive in USA than I am. I therefore will not enter into a debate about taste—(meaning though I did not say so: horrible colours and foul lettering)—but I must ask this about the vignette: what has it got to do with the story? Where is this place? Why a lion and emus? And what is the thing in the foreground with pink bulbs? I do not understand how anybody who had read the tale (I hope you are one) could think such a picture would please the author.

Remington did, however, go on to illustrate a triptych for Ballantine's Lord of the Rings paperback covers.

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Maurice Sendak's Hobbit Mix-Up

Author and illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi reported on this story last year for the LA Times' Hero Complex. In the late 1960s, Maurice Sendak was invited to illustrate a new edition of The Hobbit, and Tolkien demanded to see samples of his work before approving him as an illustrator. In an interview with Gregory Maguire, Sendak said that he sent two finished pieces to his editor to be sent to Tokien. Unfortunately, the editor mislabeled Sendak's illustration of the book's wood-elves, calling them "Hobbits." Tolkien rejected the pieces on the grounds that Sendak must not have read the book very carefully. DiTerlizzi doesn't indicate that Tolkien said anything about Sendak's artwork specifically, but apparently it did not appeal to him enough to overcome the editor's blunder. Sendak donated his drawing of Bilbo and Gandalf, as well as the edition of The Hobbit he annotated and sketched in, to Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The Middle Earth Illustrators J.R.R. Tolkien Loved—and the Ones He Abhorred

[Hero Complex]

Sources:

"Interview with Cor Blok about the Tolkien Calendar 2011," Tolkien Library, 03 September 2010.
Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien: The Authorized Biography, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977.
Tony DiTerlizzi, "‘The Hobbit' illustrated by Maurice Sendak? The 1960s masterpiece that could have been," LA TImes, 25 March 2011.
Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995.
Paul Tankard, "An unknown vision of Middle-earth," The Times Literary Supplement, 12 Sept. 2012.
Morgan Thomsen, "Tolkien and the Illustrations of Robert J. Lee," Mythoi, 31 July 2012.
J.R.R. Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," 1947.