Monday, July 16, 2012

Essay & Review: Artwork of Middle Earth

Few modern books, if any, have inspired as much artwork as those of J. R. R. Tolkien. The obvious but incomplete reason is that Tolkien wrote some ripping battle scenes, from the defense of Helm's Deep to the ride of the Rohhirim and the siege of Gondor. I say incomplete because as much if not more attention has been lavished on the quiet and understated moments in the history of Middle Earth. So why should anyone care about the Prancing Pony, Bilbo's foyer, or Theoden's Hall? Why do these created places and spaces take on more significance than actual ones? The answer lies in Tolkien's ability to create a world, and not just a physical one.

While we do relish Tolkien's meticulous descriptions of  Bag End and the seven levels of Minas Tirith, these places also exist in time. If Orthanc, for example, were simply the home of Sauruman it would be, for all its splendor, just a place, albeit one significant to the heroes of The Lord of the Rings. Yet when Orthanc is the ancient fortress built thousands of years ago on the Northern border of the Numenoreans, who in their decline they could no longer maintain it and offered it to Sauruman, it becomes part of the history of Middle-earth, a history we gladly get swept up in. Places in Middle-earth exist not simply now, in the age we are reading about, but they have existed, and this gives them a unique authenticity. The Philosopher said that what appears to have been always what it is, is regarded as real. Indeed. Too, a place which housed great kings and outlasted many battles deserves to endure, a home which has housed generations of a family ought to be the home of their descendants. Their history gives the places of Middle-earth their authority.

Tolkien achieves this authenticity in two other ways, the plainest of which is his use of the languages he invented for Middle-earth. Yet it is not the euphony, novelty, or even uniqueness of the Elvish languages that imbues Middle-earth with authenticity but the logic of the roots and names. Whether it is Nan Curunír, "Valley of the Wizard," or the Noldor "those with knowledge," Tolkien's peoples and realms do not simply have names but feel named. This adds a human presence to all of Middle-earth even where the historical details are not painted in.

Lastly, Tolkien creates his world with details in short, often rather vague, asides. These are easy enough to spot but I would quote one of my favorites from The Two Towers. Treebeard tells Merry and Pippin, who inquire about whether Fangorn Forest is like the Old Forest near the Shire,
Aye, aye, something like, but much worse. I do not doubt that there is some shadow of the Great Darkness lying there still away north; and bad memories are handed down. But there are some hollow dales in this land where the Darkness has never been lifted, but the trees are older than I am.
Tolkien has in fact not told us anything about who is doing what, when, where, or why, rather he has created a sense of the way things are, the nature of things in Middle-earth. In two sentences Tolkien sketches an ancient world full of creatures older even than hoary Treebeard himself, a world which has passed through a darkness so great that evil endures in cracks and crevices. Tolkien's use of the passive voice with," bad memories are handed down" is especially effective, suggesting both that the darkness was so great that it could not be forgotten and that those passing the memories down are still bitter. The information also comes as bit of a discovery about a place we thought we knew.

By these means Tolkien's stories come to the reader not only as romances and mythologies, but as an inheritance of rare histories which invites us to step into Middle-earth. As such, Tolkien enthusiasts have a particular fondness for drawings of Middle-earth. Here are my thoughts on a pair of collections.

Realms of Tolkien and Tolkien's World

Harper Collins published both of these volumes in the early an mid 1990s and they feature respectively 58 and 60 paintings. Fans of Peter Jackson's filmed Lord of the Rings will recognize the many by John Howe and Alan Lee and Tolkien aficionados will recognize the handful of Ted Nasmith's meticulously detailed work, but the remainder, a diverse assortment of drawings from lesser known artists and even amateurs, will be a welcome surprise to all.

In particular, Realms of Tolkien features the work of Dutch artist Cor Blok, whose work so pleased Tolkien himself that the two met and the author bought two of Blok's paintings. Blok's work draws least on the common elements of design we associate with Middle-earth, such as the Nordic look of the Rohirrim and so forth. Without the familiarizing effect of traditional visual design elements Blok's paintings focus on the essence of the action.

The bloodiness of at the Hornburg takes on a new starkness with Blok's orange slashes and tiny lopped heads. His Mûmak is a truly alien creature and our shock at it draws us closer to the fear of the humans in the picture far more than our reactions to any old elephant could. Other styles are far from antiquated, though. Nasmith's (above) captures the grandur and scale of that "moving hill," and Swedish artist Inger Edelfeldt captures its power with billowing dust clouds and scattering men. The variety here is a real pleasure.

In both volumes each painting is accompanied by the corresponding selection from Tolkien, and while some of these could have been longer it is helpful to have some of the text beside, both to have the author's description set the stage and to compare the picture. Many but not all of the paintings are full-page for reasons of aspect ratio. The wide landscape paintings are unfortunately not rotated but printed across the page so they can be viewed beside the text, a reasonable decision but one which results in a significantly smaller image and much wasted space. Yet that's a minor complaint about these volumes, both splendid and rewarding paths through Middle-earth.

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