by JRR Tolkien
Review by Helen Armstrong
The Art Show at the annual World Science Fiction Convention exhibits fantasy illustrations by hundreds of amateur and professional artists, most of it beautiful, accomplished, stylish and lavishly coloured. Bonanza! The trouble with being a fusspot is that you go looking for the ones that stand out even further, and find one American whose name you know not (it wasn't on the print), and Alan Lee.
I'm not saying Lee would be my first choice in everything. In colour, he strives after monochrome to an almost obsessive degree, and his people (his elves in particular) sometimes look slightly damp, as if they have just washed their hair and the artist has started work before it has quite dried. Frame after frame in The Hobbit is wringing with wet trees, streaming rocks and louring cloud. But how many of his pictures I have enjoyed without even trying - particularly the kelpie (in Faeries, 1978). You can't get damper than that. Alan Lee is a watercolourist, of course.
Naturally, it follows that the first plate in The Hobbit, Bilbo standing outside his green door, is full of sunshine. He looks (appropriately, I think) like Jasper Carrott, down to the receding hairline and pop-eyed innocence. He's a bit slim, but that is a quibble. Lee nearly always follows the text very closely, living proof that you don't need to avoid your author in order to produce art. I wish more illustrators would grasp this. This is icing on the cake, though. The artwork stands up by itself. Pic 2 is taken from the other side of the door, as a heap of dwarves arrives suddenly on the floor. They don't look at all amused. I am, though. Gandalf is framed thoughtfully in the round doorway. There is a small printing flaw in our copy (unless Bilbo's tea-towel is catching fire).
Pic 3 is in the bronze/sepia tone that Lee uses often, and shows Bilbo, Gandalf and 12 dwarves (find dwarf 12, fail to find dwarf 13) discussing Thror's map. Another favourite Lee colour, gloomy-day grey, dominates Pic 4, a discouraging view of the travellers struggling along in murk and drizzle. But Pic 5 is grey and bronze, catching the trolls at sunrise, turning to stone. Only Bill has begun to look alarmed. The others are watching his face, wondering what the problem is, their comprehension dawning slower than the day.
Pic 6 is a long shot of Bilbo and Thorin crossing the bridge at Rivendell. Invisible lanterns shed a gold light, leaves are green, and the river is a dark, luminous grey, rushing over rocks. A waterfall shines out of the evening gloom. Then flip to goblins: Alan Lee's orcs are a pattern of their kind now, grotesque Boschian faces with a family likeness. The Great Goblin, a horrible barrel of overweight strength, recoils (but not much) from Orcrist, while another, much younger, family likeness sits unconcerned at his feet.
Pic 8 is the riddle scene, with a classically skeletal Gollum, Bilbo more Carrott-like than ever and Sting glowing with a wan, anxious light against a backdrop of stalactites. Pic 9 shows Bilbo about to make a break for the east door - another chance to see Lee's almost-comic, deadly serious goblins.
Pic 10 is another study of suddenly arrested action - dwarves up a tree! And eyes - lots of eyes - in the shadowy forms of wolves far below. As usual, the light seems to come from two angles, giving an eerie effect. Unusually, a patch of blue starry sky glows serenely through the branches. Pic 11 (out of the frying pan, into the daylight) is an aerial landscape of the party on the Carrock, with green hills, the blue river rolling out of a northern distance, and bright sunlight on the crag. Golden eagles floating in the middle air add another touch of pale gold.
The next three pictures are in Mirkwood - first (and one of my favourites) a long shot of the dwarves taking leave of Gandalf, surrounded by an ominous tangle of twisted trunks and branches. This one is on the back of the dust-jacket, too. The next is Bilbo, alone in the treetops. I was disappointed here not to see more of the black butterflies, which are only shadowy. The third - ugh - is a close-up of the dwarves hanging in the spiders webs, with noses and the occasional eye sticking 'through the wrappings, like a nightmarish accident in a bandage factory. The presence of the spiders adds an almost domestic touch: how many dwarves in your larder, dear?
Pic 15 is a view of the Elvenking's gate, a Dartmoor valley landscape with a game of spot-the-guards among the trees. Next, the barrels are the star, literally barrelling down an overfilled river beneath trailing branches.
This is so real it's almost surreal, as if the barrels were off on an errand of their own.
Pic 17 is a static view of Laketown. I find that the light from the hall and the architectural detail is not enough to prevent this picture seeming detached and unfocussed. But the swing-bridges at the edge of town may be familiar to our friends in the Netherlands. Pic 18, the dwarves climbing to the side door, displays Lee's virtuosity in placing tiny figures in a huge landscape without "losing" them.
Then we get a dragon! Bronze-tinted Smaug - also on the dust jacket - is entirely a Lee dragon, and yet a fair likeness to Tolkien's Smaug, a real worm, curled up on his gold-horde with his chin on his tail. In the next portrait, he loses his temper in a flame of copper and smashed rocks. Then quiet descends on a craggy, dripping, Welsh-looking view of the main gate. The gate is the only detail in the book that looks false, like a sketch on the mountainside, more appropriate for Moria than the Lonely Mountain.
Pic 22 is another view of Lake-town - ex - and the best picture in the book, one of those things that stands out among the outstanding. At first view it could be any maritime disaster, lifeboats low in the water, the ghastly underlit smoke-cloud, dark beyond the edges, and the horrible burning mess in the middle, which turns out to have coils and a wing and even the ghost of a face beside an equally ghostly hall-sized gable, crumbling away into fire and water. Water becomes fire, fire turns into water again.
This is the point where the story gets serious. The next stop is back at the Lonely Mountain, where Thorin, who arrived in a heap on Bilbo's doorstep, is now a raging war-leader on the doorstep of a dragon. Next comes a very characteristic Lee battle, with levelled spears, multiple heads and a swirling murky sky. Pic 25 is another outstanding one, Thorin's pall-bearers descending to his tomb through torchlit caverns carved into vast Romanesque arches.
The final plate has something of an Italian Renaissance scene about it, with tall spindly trees, a winding river and a blue distance, and small figures in the foreground (Bilbo and Gandalf retrieving the trolls' gold). I admit I would rather have had Messrs. Grubb, Grubb and Burrowes at the auction, but you can't have everything, and this is a serene ending to the tale.
If you thought these were all the good bits, The Hobbit has a wonderful bonus in the form of pencil drawings every few pages. They are often very small and detailed, otherwise bold, faint but clear, anything from a single thrush to a group of eagles carrying the travellers across the page. My favourite is Thorin putting a helm on Bilbo, and one of Bilbo under the mountains, underlit by Sting's light.
The book has gold blocking, green cloth, a Tolkien dragon on the front board and red-and-black maps fore (Thror's map) and aft (Wilderland). The dustjacket showing Smaug asleep, with gold lettering and black runes, is attractive in itself.
You'd think I would be content with all these lovely pictures reproduced in such a book for only £20, wouldn't you? The trouble is - I want a real one! Back to the lottery.
Now also in paperback.