Kaveny reviews JRRT Artist & Illustrator

Here’s a review by UW Tolkien Society member Phil Kaveny. It originally appeared in a recent issue of the Science Fiction Research Association’s SFRA Review. Used by permission of the author.

J.R.R Tolkien Artist & Illustrator, By Wayne G. Hammond & Christiana Scull.
Houghton Mifflin Company Boston and New York.
207 p. ISBN: 0-345-748-16x,1995. Includes index Price $40.00

Right off the bat I wish to say that it is my feeling that Wayne Hammond’s and Christiana Scull’s collection of J.R.R. Tolkien’s graphic work, consisting of high quality B&W and color reproductions of over 200 drawings, water colors, book illustrations, calligraphy, and doodles, done by Tolkien across his lifetime, is not a coffee table book meant to sit in one’s living room and inspire idle conversation. However, I am sure that its presence would have at least that effect even on those
only marginally familiar with J.R.R Tolkien’s 1892-1983 works. It is in my opinion that it a book that is meant to be read to pieces, just like we did with Tolkien’s fiction when it first became accessible to many us (who could not afford the hard covers) in paperback 30 years ago. I feel it is meant to read to pieces and contested, reflected upon and returned to, as is any other really good book that you do not put down after the first time through.

One returns to it as I am doing just at this instant, as I turn to page 161 fig. 156 to Tolkien’s rendering of untitled third page of the (Book of Mazabul)…” “in the three ‘pages’ from the fragmentary record book of the Moria Dwarves found by the Fellowship in book 2, chapter 5… ‘It had been slashed and stabbed and partially burned, and it was so stained with black and other dark marks like old blood that little of it could be read’.” The Illustration is more than the words in this case, for the page appears like nothing else I have seen in a book. It is not an object of art but, simply put, an embodiment of the doom of Moria’s Dwarves. It is a historical document, which still speaks even after flame and fire and war. It is almost like a rift into another world which it was Tolkiens role–only–to chronicle.

Yet Wayne’s and Christiana’s text gives us more to deal with, as they raise the context of Tolkien’s creation of this page. As they point out, Tolkien insisted, but was overruled that this
Illustrated fragment be includes in the first edition of “Lord of the Rings “, along with accompanying text. Seeing it won me over to Tolkien’s point of view. And forced me to
reconsider my position in a critical area. I have tended to think of many of Tolkien’s concerns with the final form of “Lord of the Rings” as kind of a professorial fussbudgetery. If it was not perfect he never wanted to let go of it. Surely in this case and probably several others I was wrong. One wishes Tolkien might have seen this presentation of his art in his lifetime.

But it not just the big heroic things that are presented in this work. Tolkien’s Doodles produced on newspapers almost till the time of his death are equally interesting. As Hammond and Scull point out; influenced as he was by Morris, the Pre-Raphaelites, Rackham, and other pre WWI figures, he and his doodles were right at home with the OP art of the late 60’s. This is quite consistent with the surge of popularity of his written work on a cultural level in the late 60’s. After all the photograph ( not presented in this collection) of the sign Frodo Lives painted on the wall around the University of Wisconsin Humanities building while it was under construction in 1969, and 1970 has become almost a semeiotic embodiment of the spirit of UW-Madison and it’s sister campuses in the late 60’s. Space does not permit me to [fully] detail the contents of this book I will leave it to the reader to do that.

Rather I wish to speak about something else: There is an art in the manner of production and, presentation of this book. The way it is woven together in order to integrate it with the details of Tolkien’s Literary, artistic and family life his own words, and even the physical geography of England, stretched across the over two 2/3rds of a Century period that this book covers. It’s scope ranges from the early 20th century well into the 60’s. They succeed more than anything else because of they allow Tolkien’s artistic images resonate with the mind of the reader.

I feel ” J.R.R Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator” is a text which is meant to engage, even ensnare the reader. This because of the manner that Wayne and Christiania, who are librarians, book collectors and lifelong Tolkien scholars have chosen to weave it together. They can include themselves also as they paraphrase Tolkien to say: we must not forget the role of the cook in preparing the broth.

This is not a modest book any sense of the word it has a central theme which carries through the entire body of the work . Hammond and Scull throw right out there in our faces very early on.

“We have long felt Tolkien’s art deserves to be as well known as his writings” p.7

This sentence which states Wayne and Christiania’s thesis and intent which is immodest when one considers the impact of Tolkien’s writing in world wide in the 20th century , and the cultural depth, both academic, and popular that he has penetrated.

There are now 648 (MLA) Modern Language Association Indexed articles dealing with the works of J.R.R Tolkien. The fantasy game of the game Dungeons & Dragons, invented by Gary Gigax in 1967, and loosely based on “Middle Earth” really gave birth to the fantasy gaming industry.

There have been numerous productions, audio, cinematic and video productions of The Hobbit & Lord of The Rings. Unfortunately for J.R.R Tolkien, with the exception of a B.B.C (Radio Production), all of them after his death. It has also been brought to our attention that recently interactive licensed CD-ROM versions of The Hobbit & Lord of The Rings have made their appearance. There is a great deal of interest in Tolkien on the Internet and World Wide Web, and now a number of Tolkien Listserv, and World Wide Web Hompages. “The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings” was translated approximately a score of different Languages.

Yet, I agree with them. I think that their work goes a long way towards proving their thesis as much as any thesis like this can ever be proven. I think if one looks at artistic creation as anything other than compliance with formalistic criteria, then their work makes their argument. However, I don’t agree with everything the say, far from it. On page 26 they say that Tolkien turned away from his first hand experience of the horror of World War one. I think not. I see it as the palimpsest underlying many of his figureless drawing’s with almost barren trees, looking to some of us as if made so by shellfire. I think Tolkien’s graphic art overlays but does not fully mask his and
his generation’s experiences with “The Great War”. Indeed one feels a strange resonance with H.G. Well’s theme of “The Babes in a darkening wood”, in Tolkien’s immediate pre World War II work.

J.R.R Tolkien Artist & Illustrator by Wayne Hammond & Christiana Scull is much, much more than just another pretty book. It represents a significant contribution, perhaps the most significant since Tolkien’s, deaths to our understanding of the life and art of J.R.R. Tolkien.