On Tolkien’s art


It’s disingenuous to write about a show that I haven’t seen, and perhaps may not see until this August in Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, or worse, will have to wait for the Morgan show in 2019. But in this case it is an exhibition that, in a way, I have waited almost my entire life to see and so I’m happy to allow a little mythology precede it. I feel it’s safe to assume that everyone is familiar with the written works of JRR Tolkien and am fearful of even summarizing the “Lord of the Rings” in case of a defamation lawsuit from the Tolkien society or accusations from the many devotees of a ham handed or poorly nuanced attempt.

Much less is known about his visual artistry which I have admired since the first time I saw them published; this is likely to change and it’s not hard to predict a deeper understanding of the writer and his work will emerge, and perhaps that it’s important in light of the commercialism, even misrepresentation, of his two great novels. Movie goers, particularly young people, have been exposed to rather silly, violent and action packed adventures, who knows what pressure the film maker Peter Jackson was under when making his films of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, but I had to watch them between my fingers with the same kind of fascinated horror as if witnessing a road accident. They were proof of the assertion that the poetry, sounds, scents, climates, landscapes and passion for nature which is at the very core of his books could never be successfully transported to a big screen. To imagine that an audience with a low attention span with popcorn and oversized soda’s would have the ability to appreciate the real nature his work was ambitious, perhaps the best hope was the films might lead them to the books. I believe this exhibition will tell a story of a young, sensitive man who suffers early losses, witnesses one of the greatest human sufferings during World War One and turned his early passion for fantasy to something else entirely, something much more vivid, a completely new invented world materialized which was pure, necessary and visually complete.

Tolkien grew up at first in South Africa but left with his mother and brother to England and never saw his father again as he died shortly after the family had arrived. By the time he was twelve his Mother had also passed away leaving him and his brothers orphans and at the mercy of relatives and Catholic Priests. By his late teens he had fallen in love with another orphan and persuaded her to marry him when he was twenty one but first he had to go to France for the War. Luckily escaping the first wave of the Battle of the Somme, an unmatched human calamity where in the first morning out of 100,000 participants, 20,000 died instantly, a further 40,000 were seriously wounded. But he remained in the vicinity and witnessed the absolute destruction of nature and the loss of his friends, saw the true horror of the trenches and after about 3-4 months contracted trench fever and a passage back home. He claimed that the experience did not influence his writing or the course of his life but few could believe this.

He was an expert in language and spoke old English, Norse and several more and this kept him nestled within the comfortable institutions of Oxford. The success of his first children’s book “The Hobbit” changed his life and he was put under pressure for a follow up which he worked on through the Second World War only to have the final manuscript rejected by the publisher. Finally it was taken on with the intervention of the publisher’s son and the rest is history.

I am struck at the way the novel emerged from the premise of a children’s book to an adult one with the characters largely intact, what adult would want to read about a Hobbit? a small hairy footed creature….. It’s a testament to the depth of the world he created to make this slightly absurd vision, devised to entertain his children, into beloved, fully rounded characters and it’s worth asking what drove him down this tunnel into making the fantasy world complete. His childhood tragedy, participation in one of the most horrific battles in history and the loss for two of his closest friends must have played a large part. I have already seen many of the items in the show in Oxford in reproduction and they add up to a person not just creating a fantasy novel but a person visually creating their own world. It is a beautiful one and his talent with watercolor and typography does more than just complement his writing, it adds to its authority and depth. The paintings themselves are of his time, with a distinct leaning towards art nouveux and the influences of the arts and crafts movement but that is just style, the content feels absolutely unique as does the intensity and urgency of some of the sketches that were made on scraps or on the back of examination papers. He was a product of the short but progressive Edwardian age in many ways, looking outside the confines of his small island to the rest of the world, with the luxury and seemingly robust certainty of the colonialism and wealth brought over from the Victorian period. He did not travel much, obviously to France, but he also visited Switzerland, and the illustrations of mountains and the hazardous conditions he experienced found their way into his books and drawings. This lack of travel has some poignancy as we conclude that many of the illustrations were the product of his own mind while resting comfortably in Middle England, not so very unlike the Hobbit we meet at the beginning of his book of the same name, or the seventeenth century engraver Hercules Segers who was said to have never left Amsterdam but made detailed and wondrous landscapes of imagined places.

I sometimes wonder how many of his most devoted readers have some form of emotional trauma’s themselves that lead them to his books. In my case I was read “The Hobbit” when I was about ten years old in a nineteenth century Victorian red brick building on the outskirts of Stroud tucked in the Cotswold Hills by the oldest teacher in the school who I remember wore a waistcoat and smoked a pipe. I was captivated and my keenest desire was for a copy of the Lord of the Rings, which was delivered reluctantly one Christmas later by skeptical parents, sizing up the book by its weight. On reflection I wonder now what was at the root of my own troubles and the intense need to stay inside my room pouring through these pages. I remember the sense of relief to get away from my parents whom I only saw at dinner time, my father in a permanent, inexplicable rage, which as children we felt that we were somehow responsible for without knowing why, and my mother delivering her unhappiness through the evening meal. In England in the late 1960’s bland, over cooked and under prepared food was not exclusive to our family, but my Mother transformed it into an inedible art form. The dinners themselves I remember as silent and morose, the metallic sound of knife or fork scratching on the plate, the only conversation being one way, in the form of threats should any of the food be wasted. I would try to sleep every night attempting to ignore the shouting of my parents permeating up through the thin walls; it was a relief to feel safety in my room and in the company of Frodo.

Obviously the book was written for me alone, it was clear that the Shire was a description of my home in Gloucester, and my walk to school, through tunnels of overhanging and interlocking tree’s, passed rough dry stone walled lanes where it would not be so unusual for a badger to quietly cross my path or to find a taught, athletic fox walking indifferently by my side for part of the way. I read the book once or twice a year after that but when I was sixteen I had a sickening realization to find that it was read by others, equally as passionately (I felt profoundly let down by JRR Tolkien) and also that there were some serious critics who hated the book; both seemed impossible at the time. Many years later I found out that I had literally passed his door step in Oxford on route back to the Cotswold’s by bicycle but by then he was famous and in hiding from people exactly like me.

Why is his work so important and vital today? Let’s ignore for a moment the critics who point out that it’s full of Edwardian class barriers, Frodo the officer and Sam his servant and the blue blood purity of the ruling class. It has a central message that is still relevant today; if you leave your home and venture to foreign places there is the likelihood that you will encounter other cultures, many richer and more complex than your own, you will encounter kindness and civility that exceeds anything you have encountered before, and when you return you may understand yourself for the first time. But there will be a cost that takes the form of restlessness and frustration by your own kind, never allowing you to settle amongst them again. The book remains the same, but we are human and grow older, and each time it is revisited different viewpoints and observations emerge. When I first read the book aged eleven, the end was joyous and the Hobbits were hero’s, the coda of their return to a changed and industrialized Shire did not bother me, nor the fact that Aragon, the real hero had died but his elfin wife Arwen, immortal, was left to remain forever as Middle Earth turned to ash, becoming the sole witness to the unraveling of his fantasy. Now I cannot bear these last pages, and a few years ago I poured again through the preceding thousand or so, but the last two or three I was not strong enough to read, such have my priorities changed, the book may be immortal but we are not.


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