Thursday, August 22, 2013

Artwork of Middle Earth: Three By John Howe

John Howe is today most famous for his collaboration with fellow illustrator Alan Lee on Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, but both artists have for decades illustrated the fantastic realms of J. R. R. Tolkien. I imagine there's a special pleasure in bringing Middle Earth to visual life, chiefly because of the coherence of the geography and its importance to the story. Tolkien crafted a combination of narrative and topographic detail which gives each place a story and story a setting. The result is an interconnected web of context which unifies place, people, and time across Middle Earth into, well, a world. The author's affection for this world shows through more strongly, though, in the minute details of time, texture, and color which describe everything from the mighty Numenorean towers to the hills and dales of the Shire. The result is a rich and exiting picture ripe for painting.

The following are my favorites from Howe's less known paintings, scenes from the Silmarillion. In each, Howe captures the plain narrative of the story, the details of the geography, and the emotional or thematic significance of the action.

The Fleet of Al-Pharazaon
Here Howe tells the story of Al-Pharazaon (Ar-Phharazôn), the last king of Numenor, and his prideful challenge to the Valar in which he sailed for their promised land, forbidden to men. Of foremost prominence are the king's vast sable sails, fully puffed and propelling its haughty golden prow through the sea. The sails cast a menacing shadow of azure–another heraldic color–on the water before it, contrasting the soft blues which pull your eyes back to the rest of the king's fleet and the setting sun, which brings your eyes back to those terrible sails which blot it out.

Slowly the fleets passed out of the sight of the watchers in the havens, and their lights faded, and night took them. . . and the Eldar mourned, for the light of the setting sun was cut off by the cloud of the Numenoreans. . . Ar-Pharazôn wavered at the end, and he almost turned back. . . But pride was now his master. . . [The Silmarillion, 278]

Morgoth's Forces before Gondolin
This is my favorite of the Howe's three paintings of Turgon's hidden city of Gondolin. At play here are the contrasts among the foreground, middle, and background. In the back we see the frosty veins running through the mountains as their peaks glisten in the golden sunrise. Yet for their size and beauty they no longer protect the city from Morgoth's forces, dark in the foreground. The dragon's limbs all arch menacingly toward the white city as troops pour into the valley's snowy mist that surrounds the white city. Both the mountains and mist pull your eyes toward the dragon who in turn points you down toward the city's citadel where all three colors and areas meet, connoting Gondolin's exposure and trapped fate.

The host of Morgoth came over the northern hills where the height was greatest and the watch least vigilant, and it came at night upon a time of festival, when all the people of Gondolin were upon the walls to await the rising sun, and sing their songs at its uplifting. . . [The Silmarillion, 242]

Fingolfin's Challenge
Clockwise motion directs all of the energy of the moment as Morgoth bears his hammer down on Fingolfin, the Noldor king who upon foreseeing the imminent destruction of the Elves in Beleriand, challenged in rage and despair the Dark Lord himself to a duel. Starting at the bottom, the craggy earth points up to the mountains on the left which lean toward the peaks of Thangorodrim in the right background and Morgoth in the right foreground, who points down to Fingolfin, whose shield points back toward the ground and completes the circle. This sense of motion puts great weight into Morgoth's blow as he swings Grond, blurred slightly to heighten the motion, onto Fingolfin. Yet the elven king seems prepared to resist the blow with a triangular, architectural, stability beneath his shield, a stability heightened by the parallel lines of his sword and shield. Notice too how Morgoth's bilious cape, feathered softly into the distance, seems ready to swallow Fingolfin, whose own cape defiantly splays out behind him as he prepares to wound the most powerful, the mighty and accursed of the Valar.

There's some subtle detail on the ground too, which seems not only rent by Grond's blows, but pock-marked and necrotizing due to Morgoth's insidious evil.

Then Morgoth hurled aloft Grond, the Hammer of the Underworld, and swung it down like a bolt of thunder. But Fingolfin sprang aside, and Grond rent a mighty pit in the earth, whence smoke and fire darted. Many times Morgoth essayed to smite him, and each time Fingolfin leaped away, as a lightning shoots from under a dark cloud; and he wounded Morgoth with seven wounds, and seven times Morgoth gave a cry of anguish, whereat the hosts of Angband fell upon their faces in dismay, and the cries echoed in the Northlands. [The Silmarillion, 154]

In painting the scene of Fingolfin's brief success, Howe creates a moment of doomed hope which turns Fingolfin's courageous, impossible stand into a microcosm of elves' entire war against Morgoth.

Extra: The Door of Night
I couldn't pass over this piece which intersects with Tolkien's cosmology as well as the narrative of The Silmarillion. In depicting the door between Arda and the Timeless Void, Howe presents motion on three axes: the huge basalt walls rise up the Y, the dragons crawl along the X, and clouds move into the Z. Combined with the enticing diagonal color gradient, Howe has created a forceful sense of boundary most appropriate for the threshold of the world.

There it still stands, utterly black and huge against the deep-blue walls. Its pillars are of the mightiest basalt and its lintel likewise, but great dragons of black stone are carved thereon, and shadowy smoke pours slowly from their jaws. Gates it has unbreakable, and none know how they were made or set, for the Eldar were not suffered to be in that dread building, and it is the last secret of the Gods; and not the onset of the world will force that door, which opens to a mystic world alone. [The Book of Lost Tales I, 243]

Howe's illustrations are not only masterly but faithful to Tolkien's spirit and detailed descriptions. They're imbued with a grandeur which recreates at once both the sprawl of Middle Earth and the details of its iconic moments. As such they're among the most important and beloved works to spring from Tolkien's realms.

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