To Illustrate or Not to Illustrate? That is the Question...
But why? Why is it a question at all? Anyone new to the world of J. R. R. Tolkien would surely look at my title with utter bemusement. Why should there be any question about whether or not it is right to produce visual images inspired by the writings of Tolkien?
Well, the short answer is that there is a debate because J. R. R. Tolkien himself said that he did not want his books to be illustrated – but at the same time, he allowed several of them to be published with illustrations, by himself and by other people.
Even less helpfully, there was no clear line through time as to which way J. R. R. Tolkien felt. He did not start out approving of illustration and then change his mind. In fact, he seems to have felt both ways at once. At the very time when J. R. R. Tolkien was talking to Cor Blok about not wanting his books illustrated in 1961, he was also deep in discussions with Pauline Baynes about the production of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil – with illustrations. We have all too little context for J. R. R. tolkien's statements about illustration, too, a situation whose dangers are the theme of the important guest editorial by Nancy Martsch of Beyond Bree in the latest Mallorn. So how can we possibly make our minds up, when we don't know what the author of the books we love really wanted for them?
I'd like to suggest that one thing we can try to do is to understand what, exactly, J. R. R. Tolkien meant, what he was worried about, and why he felt the way he did. No doubt as ever there are unpublished letters bearing on this in detail that would be really helpful, but I think that we've got enough evidence to work with. I do think we can actually debate those ideas in a useful way, even – especially – though we can no longer ask the author himself. All of us who love J. R. R. tolkien's work , if we want to see his legacy maintained and expanded, need to think hard about questions like this, so that we can take part in an informed and useful debate, instead of getting stuck in an unhelpful stalemate. In what follows, I'm going to take each of these points in turn.
The first point to look at, then, is not what J. R. R. Tolkien said about illustration, but what he did with it. Several books appeared with illustrations in his lifetime and with his approval: The Hobbit (1937), Farmer Giles of Ham (1949), The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1962) and Smith of Wootton Major (1967 – twice, in the magazine Redbird and in book form). It is possible that J. R. R. Tolkien thought better of having his images in The Hobbit, judging by his comment to Cor Blok that he did not want his books to appear even with his own artwork in them. That, however, still leaves us with the others. What we can say about all of these is that they are relatively small, short books, and that none of them are in the mainstream of tolkien's work on the 'Matter of Middle-earth'. Bombadil is shoehorned into that, but on any sensible examination it doesn't count.
Otherwise they vary radically. Farmer Giles is a comic quasi-childrens' book; Bombadil was designed expressly as a 'gift book', a precious artefact as much as a reading volume; Smith is an overt 'fairy tale' with hidden depths of thought.
There doesn't seem to be anything in common there. However, if we come at this from another direction, we might see something useful. All these books ended up looking very much as if J. R. R. Tolkien had taken his manuscripts down to Catte Street and set the medieval Oxford School of illuminators to work on them.
To my eyes there's a definite if distant resemblance between William De Brailes' work and that of Pauline Baynes, especially in its original two-colour black-and-red in-text format. There may well also be a link to the sort of thing J. R. R. Tolkien himself did as a calligrapher, based on manuals which in turn drew on from medieval work of the same era.
To my mind, that says that Tolkien was happy to have these works made into precious artefacts attractive to a reader, gift books at once of the medieval and the fin-de siecle sort, by the work of an artist who eschewed photographic realism in favour of the older virtues of content, composition and grace of form.
Given what we know about tolkien's choice of Pauline Baynes for most of these projects, I think we can say that one major reason why J.R.R. Tolkien disapproved of illustration was the great trouble which he and his publishers had in finding illustrators of whose work he approved. It surely did not help that J.R.R. Tolkien grew up in a veritable 'Golden Age' for book design and illustration (the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries up until the end of the First World War), but published his own writings in an era not just of tight budgets but also of vastly reduced expectations.
Experiences such as the infamous 'christmas tree and emus' cover of the first American Hobbit cannot have made J.R.R. Tolkien feel kindly about modern standards of artwork in books, and to a large extent, things only got worse as the 1950's gave way to the 1960's. We know that he once said with regard to artwork that, if caught between the Scylla of Disney and the Charybdis of Arthur Rackham, it was better to go to wreck on the Rackham side.
It's hard not to think that if an artist of the calibre of Arthur Rackham himself – or Edmund Dulac, or some of the other fin-de-sieclé 'greats' – had been available, J.R.R. Tolkien might have been less worried about having pictures in his books.
Let me turn back for a moment to the idea that J.R.R. Tolkien was happy to have books such as The Adventures of Tom Bombadil produced as visually pleasing artefacts. Speaking as a book-painter by trade, with a specialist degree to prove it, giving pleasure to the reader is a very old though at times controversial function for added visual imagery in books.
The vast majority of works of fiction in particular which contain illumination and illustration do so in order to add to the pleasure of the experience. This is as much the case whether one looks at a volume of romances from the French medieval court, or a book of poetry from Safavid Persia, or a turn-of-the-century edition of a play or novel. The problem has been that 'mere' pleasure is often seen as a frivolous, even sinful, waste of time. If the only forms of 'proper reading' are supposed to be serious and pictures are 'unserious' (an idea which appeared in Europe in iconoclast Protestant thinking at the Reformation, and then in a modified version crept into Counter-Reformation Catholic thinking), then all books come under strong pressure to look as plain as possible.
There is an important positive side to the function of pleasing the eye, however. It can encourage people to engage with a verbal text which they might never otherwise have read. Fine presentation will not hold a reader to a bad book, nor will it overcome the “Dust and ashes, we don't eat that!” reaction to a book which is 'bad to think' for a particular person.
Potential readers who are 'floating voters', however, may well be encouraged to try a book if it is visually attractive. Smith of Wootton Major, with its massive philosophical and even theological subtext, is actually a very good example of a seemingly 'pretty little thing' which is actually nothing of the sort.
But the pictures draw us in and keep us company along the way, reassuring us that this isn't a hard book, we can enjoy it and understand it. And if we re-read, and learn a little more than just the story, the parable? Well, that's our choice – but it is made very easy for us. The function of pleasing the eye, then, is one which is obvious and easy to understand, which has important positive aspects in attracting potential readers to a text, yet has a long history of causing trouble for visual imagery in books.
It's one which, on the evidence of his so-called 'minor' works, we can say J. R. R. Tolkien understood well.
Given all that, why would J. R. R. Tolkien turn round and say that 'he did not want his books illustrated'? Well, this is where our other source of evidence comes in, what Tolkien said rather than what he did.
First, I'd like to quote and examine Cor Blok's valuable recollection, printed in his introduction to the 2011 calendar:
'J. R. R. Tolkien objected to illustrated editions of his books. He wanted readers to be at liberty to form their own mental pictures while reading. We are still seeing Alice through the eyes of John Tenniel and Don Quixote through those of Gustave Doré, and J. R. R. Tolkien did not wish something similar to happen to his Frodo or Gandalf – let alone Sauron.'
The first point to note here is that J. R. R. Tolkien referred only to characters from The Lord of The Rings. If we add in his remark that he did not want even his own artwork used, we can add The Hobbit to that list. Unlike the 'minor works', these are core parts of the 'Matter of Middle-earth' – all, indeed, that would be published in J. R. R. tolkien's lifetime.
So we can say that there is one division, which we can note and perhaps use; that books which J. R. R. Tolkien was happy to see illustrated should continue to be illustrated, while those he did not want illustrated should not be.
The second point enables us to add to and extend that.
Very clearly, J. R. R. tolkien's worry was about overdefinition of his characters by someone else's artwork, constraining the imagination of the reader. Yet if he did not want Frodo of Gandalf 'overdefined' visually, why was he happy to see Smith depicted? Straightforwardly, as I noted above, Pauline Baynes' art is not realistic in a way that can 'overdefine' any character.
No-one looking at her work could say that they could recognise Smith or Farmer Giles in a police lineup, to a standard that would secure a conviction. We are given a lot of information, true, but it is information approved by the author which could as well be in a verbal, written description in the text. And there is another piece of important information which we can add.
J. R. R. Tolkien approved Pauline Baynes' artwork for the cover and dustjacket of the one-volume 'Yellowspine' edition of The Lord of The Rings, in which all of the Fellowship of the Ring appear, small and indistinct but remarkably recognizable.
He also approved of Cor Blok's work inspired by the same book. So now we can say we have a new proposition: books which J. R. R. Tolkien did not see illustrated in his lifetime might be illustrated, keeping our respect for the author, if we use artists of whose style J. R. R. Tolkien could be expected to approve.
At this stage in our discussion, I think it's worth bringing in a couple of other ideas.
One is a consideration of some of the problems involved in the 'definition of characters by single image' which J. R. R. Tolkien was worried about. The other is the wider state of our visual appreciation of J. R. R. tolkien's works.
Definition of fictional characters by particular artists is actually a highly complex problem. Lewis Carrol's Alice, one of the examples Cor Blok quotes J. R. R. Tolkien as using, is in fact one of the most difficult cases of all.
The image produced for the first edition by the respected artist, political cartoonist and illustrator John Tenniel, was shaped by Lewis Carrol's own image in the underlying manuscript, and that in turn was based on the real girl behind the stories, Alice Liddell. So who is defining what here, to what constraint of viewers' imagination? Do we blame God or DNA for creating a unique and singular individual, reducing all possible Alice Liddells to one? Surely not! In point of actual fact, there have been over three hundred illustrated editions of the Alice books, with versions of the main character from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Tenniel's artwork may be the best known and it may have had wide impact, but that is due largely to the fact that his Alice was the one Lewis Carroll approved. When the book came out of copyright and editions with other artists were proposed, there was a considerable furore. Why, critics at the time complained, would anyone want to change the images which Carroll had decided were so good that he was not going to allow any others? It was respect for the author's wishes that fostered Tenniel's imagery as the 'standard', which throws a rather different light on the dominance of his ideas.
Other versions have as I said existed in large numbers, and at any one time book-buyers have free choice in which to pick.
The general public does seem to hold an inchoate and usually very uninformed opinion, but one which is ultimately based on lingering support for Carroll as well as modern understandings of who Alice was, that Tenniel's images were 'right'.
That feeling tends to lead book-buyers to prefer, if not Tenniel's originals, then Tenniel-style illustrations to Lewis Carroll.
I would find it hard to argue, in this case, that J. R. R. Tolkien was right and John Tenniel's supporters were wrong.
So what looks like a totally clear-cut case for 'overdetermination' of our ideas of a fictional character by a single artist, dissolves on closer examination into a set of good reasons why that artist's ideas have been supported by both the book-buying public and by other artists.
Overdetermination in the bad sense which J. R. R. Tolkien implied certainly can exist, however. The tragedy of his resistance to illustration and the respect for that feeling shown by his Estate, has been that it has led, not to freedom of imagination for the readers of his work, but to exactly the situation of visual tyranny which J. R. R. Tolkien feared.
The problem for us here and now in 2011 is that it is too late by far to try to keep J. R. R. tolkien's readers visually innocent, reliant only on their own mental resources in imaging as they read; it was already far too late when J. R. R. Tolkien spoke to Cor Blok in 1961. From the very beginning, J. R. R. tolkien's published writings were illustrated, in ways that exercise more or less constraint on readers' imagination depending on the style and scale of illustration.
The impact that this has had can be seen in the number of later artists' versions that adhere to the basic structure of J. R. R. tolkien's own image of Rivendell, despite the fact that it actually doesn't correspond at all with the verbal description in The Hobbit.
At the present moment, until the publication of the Cor Blok calendar, we have been in what I would call the worst of all possible worlds. A single visual version of The Lord of The Rings has become massively dominant, with no real challenge standing against it. I refer, of course, to the motion-picture version of The Lord of The Rings. The 'single visual image' of the films creates what I would call visual allegory, a one-to-one correspondence, matching J. R. R. tolkien's description of verbal allegory in the Foreword to the second edition of The Lord of The Rings.
Once such an image-set exists there is no way to pretend it does not. The genie is out of the bottle; with satellite broadcast, even an alien from outer space is now likely to have seen The Lord of The Rings before they read it.
Our only way to undo that 'single image' constraint now, I would submit, is not to refuse depiction but to unleash it.
In my view the answer to this situation has to be to pick up on J. R. R. tolkien's own concept of verbal applicability, the importance of the availability of choice for the reader in how to interpret a multivalent text.
There really ought to be an equivalent visual applicability, viewer choice among images, preferably as many, as various and as widely available as possible. We cannot get back the visually innocent reader/viewer of J. R. R. tolkien's works; we can realistically hope to encourage reader/viewers to exercise choice among visual images. If that does nothing else, it gets people to think about what they see. In so doing, we might even be able to push the reader-viewer to take the verbal descriptions seriously again, and enlarge the received imagery with their own ideas.
Just saying 'I don't think so-and-so looks like that' actually demonstrates real thought and engagement with the written words of a good and praiseworthy sort.
For me, looked at in this light, Cor Blok's calendars are a huge step in the right direction. We desperately needed something like this – better still, an actual illustrated The Lord of The Rings at radical variance with photographic imagery and the interpretation the film-makers created (would a Pauline Baynes-style in-text approach really have cost that much?) – when the films came out. If something like that had been available, a full-scale, open and formal challenge to how the films visualised J. R. R. tolkien's writings, I really do think that we would have had far, far less of the single-image dominance we've gotten inadvertantly stuck with.
If there had been continual and ongoing production of imagery showcasing different ways to visualise J. R. R. tolkien's writings, that would have reinforced the point massively, and greatly encouraged visual applicability rather than visual allegory.
Given the timescales common to illustration, it is I think too late to hope for something similar to happen to The Hobbit before its movie version appears, unless of course something is already in the pipeline. But I would positively plead for as much direct challenge as possible, as soon as possible. Let us have the film and its memorabilia by all means; but let us have alternatives too – the more the better! We seriously need to not end up in the sort of static, entrenched positions with which J. R. R. Tolkien himself was too familiar, in both the practical and the philosopical sense.
Instead we need to open up the visual debate, keep it fluid and fast-moving, in a way that allows J. R. R. tolkien's words and their readers to be the real winners.
So far I've been looking at what J. R. R. Tolkien said. It's time now I think to turn round and ask another question: why? 'He just felt like that' isn't a valid answer here. J. R. R. Tolkien himself wrote, in print in an essay which he himself thought was important, the now-famous On Fairy-Stories, on the subject of his opinions about visual art and illustration.
If we're serious about trying to understand our author's opinions, and deciding for ourselves how much weight we can set on them, we need to look at this material in depth. Doing so takes us into the 'lost world' of J. R. R. tolkien's own lifetime (remember that he died in 1973, and then ask yourself how much of your lifespan the time since then takes up, as well as how much has changed in those years), with its very different politics, technologies and ideologies.
It also lets us do something very unusual indeed – through this material, we come as close as I think we ever can to being eavesdroppers to those famous and so sadly ill-recorded Inklings meetings.
I think it's worth quoting this material, as many people may not have read it or have easy access to it. In the main text of On Fairy-Stories there are a bare three sentences on the subject of visual art:
'In human art Fantasy is a thing best left to words, to true literature. In painting, for instance, the visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy; the hand tends to outrun the mind, even to overthrow it. Silliness or morbidity are frequent results.'
This passage carries an original footnote referring to Note E at the end of the essay, which runs as follows:
'There is, for example, in surrealism commonly present a morbidity or unease very rarely found in literary fantasy. The mind that produced the depicted images may often be suspected to have been in fact already morbid; yet this is not a necessary explanation in all cases. A curious disturbance is often set up by the very act of drawing things of this kind, a state similar in quality and consciousness of morbidity to the sensations in a high fever, when the mind develops a distressing fecundity and facility in figure-making, seeing forms sinister or grotesque in all visible objects about it.
I am speaking here, of course, of the primary expressions of Fantasy in 'pictorial' arts, not of 'illustrations'; nor of the cinematograph. However good in themselves, illustrations do little good to fairy-stories. The radical distinction between all art (including drama) that offers a visible presentation and true literature is that it imposes one visible form. Literature works from mind to mind and is more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular.
If it speaks of bread or wine or stone or tree, it appeals to the whole of these things, to their ideas; yet each hearer will give to them a peculiar personal embodiment in his imagination.
Should the story say 'he ate bread', the dramatic producer or painter can only show 'a piece of bread' according to his taste or fancy, but the hearer of the story will think of bread in general and picture it in some form of his own.
If a story says 'he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below', the illustrator may catch, or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene; but every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word.'
'Endings of this sort suit fairy-stories, because such tales have a greater sense and grasp of the endlessness of the World of Story than most modern 'realistic' stories, already hemmed within the narrow confines of their own small time. A sharp cut in the endless tapestry is not unfittingly marked by a formula, even a grotesque or comic one. It was an irresistible development of modern illustration (so largely photographic) that borders should be abandoned and the 'picture' end only with the paper.
This method may be suitable for photographs; but it is altogether inappropriate for the pictures that illustrate or are inspired by fairy-stories. An enchanted forest requires a margin, even an elaborate border.
To print it coterminous with the page, like a 'shot' of the Rockies in Picture Post, as if it were indeed a 'snap' of fairyland or a 'sketch by our artist on the spot', is a folly and an abuse.'
I've taken all three citations from the text as printed in the 2008 HarperCollins edition, edited by Douglas A. Anderson and Verlyn Flieger. The first is on p.61, beginning of numbered paragraph 70; the second at pp.81-2, Note E, emphases original; the third at pp.83-4, middle para. of Note H.
Now, let's turn back the clock to Oxford in the early 1940's...
Remarkably, illustration and art is one of the very, very few subjects we can say the Inklings really did debate. For all their legendary status, our knowledge of the group is actually very poor. Interest has focussed on the major writers among them, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, while the important point that these three were part of a much larger group, whose wider meetings and discussions must have had an effect on their ideas, has been effectively lost sight of.
There is one tiny, precious example that shows the visual arts were in fact being considered among the Inklings during the years of the Second World War. The art movement Surrealism crops up in three of their works, treated in the same way and in close proximity of time.
In his major essay On Fairy-Stories, published in 1947 (as part of a collection of literary-critical papers by the Inklings in memory of Charles Williams), J. R. R. Tolkien makes decidedly weird use of Surrealism as the exemplar of fantastic art when he of all people should have been aware of the great Victorian tradition.
Two years earlier in 1945, CS Lewis published That Hideous Strength, in which Surrealism (unnamed but very clearly described – some of the works can even be identified) appears as the ultimate in nightmare, nonsense art. Again, there are references to the movement in Charles Williams' last novel, All Hallows' Eve, published just before his death in 1945.
This has as one of its main characters a painter, Jonathon Drayton, whose often surreal works not only reveal the truth behind appearances (itself a major philosophical theme of the Surrealists), but seem to be capable of causing real change not only in the spiritual but also in the material world.
The book was read to the Inklings during its writing, and they were in large part responsible for pushing Williams to convert the failed draft, The Noises that Weren't There, into a readable and publishable novel. Given the importance of the painter and his work in the book, a character which we know thanks to A. M. Hadfield's book on Williams was a major carry-over between the two versions, we have a clear reason why the Inklings might have been discussing the visual arts in the early Forties.
There is a minor mystery about J. R. R. tolkien's addition of statements about art and illustration to the essay On Fairy-Stories.
The fine 2008 edition of OFS and its manuscripts by Douglas A. Anderson and Verlyn Flieger shows us that the statements about art and illustration were added to the essay when it was published in 1947. No drafts or earlier versions of those statements appear in the Anderson and Flieger edition, though given J. R. R. tolkien's known writing habits, it would be quite extraordinary if there were none. Perhaps they've simply gotten lost in the formidable mass of papers he left.
Whatever the case, it seems clear to me that the statements about art and illustration, like much else in the expanded OFS that was printed, must have arisen from the otherwise unrecorded discussions among the Inklings, which I believe are attested to by their common musing on Surrealism.
Not only was Charles Williams writing a novel in which a painter and his work play an important part during the early 1940's, but he can be expected to have had strong and informed opinions on the matter of visual art.
As well as a writer of both fiction and factual books, he was a playwright for whom the visual aspect of drama was a vital part of the total presentation – remember the importance of drama in J. R. R. tolkien's remarks anent the visual arts in the quotes from OFS which I gave above.
Williams had also, for an uncertain number of years (we really do need a better biography of him!) been part of an esoteric group headed by A. E. Waite. Best known nowadays for the 'Waite' Tarot pack, A. E. Waite saw 'art' in its widest sense – literature, drama, visual images – as a vital part of his occult practice. Williams was remembered as a 'good ritualist' by another member of the group. In context, that indicates that Williams shared that sensitivity to the importance of 'the arts' in action.
The early forties also saw two events which would certainly have been important to J. R. R. Tolkien and very likely C. S. Lewis too.
In 1941 R. G. Collingwood, a man who may well have been on the edges of the Inklings' circle, retired prematurely from a senior post at Oxford University. His ill-health worsened and finally led to his death in 1943.
A philosopher and an archaeologist, Collingwood held positions first at Pembroke College when J. R. R. Tolkien was also there, and then at Magdalen, C. S. Lewis's college. Collingwood certainly knew J. R. R. Tolkien; he is one of only four people thanked by name in Collingwood's introduction to his half of the magisterially disconnected Roman Britain and the English Settlements of 1936. There are other known contacts between J. R. R. Tolkien and Collingwood's circle, too.
Contact between C. S. Lewis and Collingwood is harder to demonstrate, but it seems to me extremely improbable that Lewis – who had after all initially wanted to be a philosopher – took no interest in the work of one of the most controversial figures at Oxford, who moreover held one of the most senior chairs at his own college.
Back in 1938 Collingwood had published a book entitled The Principles of Art – a rather misleading title as it covers all 'the arts', both literary and visual. As such, The Principles of Art would have been of considerable interest to the Inklings from the start, and of renewed usefulness in any debate with Williams as well.
To follow through my earlier example, the debate over Surrealism which I discussed above is to my mind one of several clear signs that The Principles of Art had an impact on the Inklings' thinking about the visual arts in general, and on J. R. R. tolkien's ideas in particular. The only mention of what most people would call 'fantasy in art' in The Principles of Art includes Súrrealism as one of a number of examples of what Collingwood regards as unnatural and unhealthy representational forms.
The trouble with using The Principles of Art as a major text in any debate is that it is without a shadow of a doubt one of the worst books on aesthetics ever written.
I have read it, cover to cover, and I'll cheerfully admit that not only were my teeth were frequently gritted, I had trouble at some points in stopping myself from throwing the book across the room. Taking a deep breath and being reasonable about it, in The Principles of Art Collingwood is simply writing from the perspective of and in a manner common in the 1930's.
He sets his propositions up in such a fashion that it is simply impossible to argue with him. His terminology is redefined in a manner which, if it didn't inspire George Orwell's Newspeak in 1984, certainly conforms to all of Orwell's worst fears about the possible fate of language. Using Collingwood's terms means either agreeing with his ideas, or talking plain nonsense which cannot be discussed in a sensible manner.
So all real debate about the ideas concerned is blocked in a way which is, frankly, totalitarian. At the heart of Collingwood's argument is a belief that art, 'the arts', matter immensely. Good Art is part of the package of Western Civilisation which we should be doing everything to save. Bad Art is contributing to the destruction of that same civilisation. It's an unsettling realisation that this is one proposition on which, had it been put to them, Churchill, Hitler, Roosevelt and Stalin would all have agreed with Collingwood.
In looking at the possible effect Collingwood's thinking might have had on the Inklings, it is most important to understand that R. G. Collingwood was virulently against fantasy. For Collingwood, the only sane, healthy, right and proper universe was the one which could be known through scientific measurement.
In itself, this was a wilful and unsustainable position – Collingwood certainly knew enough history to know that the measurable universe itself changes with every change in the technology of measurement – but it was one which, bluntly, he appears to have found comforting. Everything else other than that sane and natural universe was in Collingwood's view either simply mad, or a deliberate falsehood on the part of people trying to produce improper mental and social effects on others.
His comments on religion and magic in both The Principles of Art and the recently published The Philosophy of Enchantment have to be read – and then re-read several times – to be understood much less believed. It has to be said that in some ways Collingwood strikes me as a man badly frightened by what most of us would call magic, the spiritual and the fantastic, who has to redefine them out of existence in order to keep his balance in a dangerously unstable world.
On a charitable view, by the later Thirties the problems already affecting his health may have led Collingwood into false positions which he would never have entertained for a moment in better days.
We also have to take into account what was happening in the wider world as Collingwood wrote. Such was the strength of Collingwood's belief that Western Civilisation was at a moment of utter crisis as he wrote The Principles of Art, that Collingwood did not believe any sort of speculation, fantastic or otherwise, was worthwhile. The job of saving what we had was too urgent to allow any diversion into how it might be improved.
It has long been noticed – for example by Tom Shippey – that if On Fairy-Stories contains a defence of fantasy, it also contains a latent argument against it. I think that this is most easily accounted for if its published form arose out of discussions in which R. G. Collingwood's ideas on 'the arts' played a large part, discussions in which the peculiar nature of Collingwood's language and ideas made a defence of fantasy a singularly difficult thing to achieve.
Furthermore, in The Principles of Art the visual arts have a particularly difficult time in gaining Collingwood's approval. If Collingwood is hostile to fantasy in general, he is especially hostile to visual fantasy.
As a rule, J. R. R. Tolkien was no binary thinker; his refusal to subscribe to either side of the 'tween-wars political divide is shown by the way in which both Right and Left have subsequently misused his writings with equal inattention to their real messages. In the case of visual art, however, J. R. R. Tolkien clearly failed to find a 'third way' between the likewise opposedly similar views of Williams and Collingwood. If anything, he appears to have been forced to write visual art off as a reluctantly accepted casualty in the greater battle to save Fantasy itself.
In particular, J. R. R. tolkien's hostility to the idea of illustration of fantastic literature seems to me to be influenced by Collingwood's ideas. For Collingwood, any merely commercial visual art, and in his terms illustration could be nothing else, was inevitably Bad Art. Add in the idea of representing that which does not exist, and Collingwood would nearly have apoplexy on the spot. Williams' ideas may be much less clear, but they seem unlikely to have been much more helpful – prone perhaps to go to the other extreme, if there was any carry-over from A.E. Waite.
We might not be far wrong in supposing that Williams may have thought that art was too important to be left to commercial hacks, and that casual, un-thought-through use of imagery might be positively dangerous.
So far so awkward for J. R. R. Tolkien, trying to salvage his beloved Fantasy and his belief that 'we make still as we're made' in the face of Collingwood's ideas and, very likely Williams' too. However, it is in the very core of his argument against visual fantasy and in favour of literary fantasy that, I believe, J. R. R. Tolkien made an exceedingly serious mistake.
To save scrolling back, I'll quote again his own words from Note E of On Fairy-stories.
'However good in themselves, illustrations do little good to fairy-stories. The radical distinction between all art (including drama) that offers a visible presentation and true literature is that it imposes one visible form. Literature works from mind to mind and is more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular. If it speaks of bread or wine or stone or tree, it appeals to the whole of these things, to their ideas; yet each hearer will give to them a peculiar personal embodiment in his imagination. Should the story say 'he ate bread', the dramatic producer or painter can only show 'a piece of bread' according to his taste or fancy, but the hearer of the story will think of bread in general and picture it in some form of his own.
If a story says 'he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below', the illustrator may catch, or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene; but every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word.'
So here, at length and far more clearly as well as complexly stated, is the idea we've already encountered: J. R. R. tolkien's belief that illustration causes overdefinition of the 'free' verbal idea by the single visual image, thus constraining the imagination of the person receiving Story to follow someone else's ideas.
I have to use that clumsy format, as OFS talks consistently about 'hearers' not 'readers' (check that quote for yourself) – an extraordinary slip and to my mind, also a strong pointer to the origins of this material in live debate among the Inklings.
I've already covered some of the practical problems with this idea, and the difficulties in accepting it which spring not from what J. R. R. Tolkien said, but from what he did. There are several more practical problems with it, however, and one massive philosophical one.
The first new practical problem is that most people, most of the time, simply don't have the visual imagination to create a clear and consistent image in their minds of what a person or place looks like. We only have to look at the woeful results of police artists making sketches from witness descriptions to understand that. Since that is the case, most authors use far fancier prose in describing things to help their readers than the bare little sentences which J. R. R. Tolkien used as examples.
J. R. R. Tolkien had to resort to desperate special pleading in this part of On Fairy-Stories, denying the role of the very adjectives he had earlier been waxing lyrical about, in order to get around the idea that both verbal and visual imagery define as much or as little as the author/artist wishes, depending on their intentions and actions.
You can have as few adjectives or as many as you like: you can have near-photographic or nearly-ideographic representation. This idea is far from new; it has been raised as far back as the 19-teens, when the important illustrator Edmund Dulac wrote critical essays pointing out that the end of objective imitation in art could only be 'coloured photography', whereas representational but non-imitative styles freed both artist and viewer.
Again, this is the visual applicability which I introduced earlier, as a parallel to the verbal applicability which J. R. R. Tolkien makes so much of in the Preface to The Lord of The Rings.
As the awkward example of Lewis Carroll's Alice began to suggest, close visual definition of ideas put forward in a story is not the unmitigated evil that J. R. R. Tolkien is trying to make it out to be in OFS. To use his example and extend it,, the bare word 'bread' tells us very little. Tolkien has to resort to a near-Platonic Idea of bread which will always allow the 'hearer' to understand events correctly. Setting aside postmodernist notions of the death of the author and the inevitable recreation of narrative by its receiver, this self-evidently is often not the case.
We may need a lot more information than 'bread' to understand what is going on in our Story. A similarly bare description, 'And he took bread, and broke it' was a massive puzzle in my own youth. Since at that time I had never encountered breakable bread, in either its crustily leavened or crispily flat varieties, I could only distrust my understanding or my text – or both.
A little bit of visual imagery, accurate enough to make it clear that this bread was nothing like the sliced soft loaves my Mum bought from the Co-operative bakery, would really have helped.It's surprising in fact how often additional information conveyed visually is vitally necessary if we are to follow a verbal text correctly.
We all know the sorts of book which positively demand visual matter if they are to work at all. Any subject requiring visual identification of the thing under discussion will have illustration as a simple necessity. Field guides to animals and plants, books on arts and crafts, engineering texts – all manner of books need illustration to convey information which either cannot be conveyed accurately by words, or is extremely difficult to put across in writing. In such books neither verbal text nor visual images can be understood alone; they work together to convey all the information which the reader needs about the material in hand.
Beyond this, there is a much wider range of books where visual material can carry what we may call complementary information – it is not absolutely necessary to the use of the book, but it certainly makes life a whole lot easier for the reader. In a history-book or a fictional work, for example, illustration can remind us of which characters or settings are concerned in a particular episode if they are depicted consistently at each occurrence. This doesn't have to be photorealistic portraiture; it just has to be recognisable, a rather different matter. Nobody would call the Hungry Caterpillar photorealistic, but the book's never been out of print since it first appeared, clear testimony to its quality and usefulness.
Where a book is to be used by people who are not fluent readers, or where it is perceived as 'difficult' even for the skilled reader, illustration carrrying this sort of complementary information can be of great help by enabling readers to follow that awkward verbal text. This is one reason why illustration persists in childrens' books much more so than in those for adults, who are assumed, rightly or wrongly, to be beyond the stage of needing such aids.
We probably all have some concept of these ideas, but few people understand just how far illustration and illumination can go in providing information. Some medieval books use such lavish systems of visual cross-reference (pointing out connections between episodes, identifying authors, drawing parallels and much more) that they are almost hypertexts in manuscript form.
Today, only a few childrens' factual books sometimes hint at this sort of depth of information provision.
An important part of the provision of information is something which J. R. R. Tolkien slides right past in On Fairy-Stories. This is the ability of visual material to expand our imagination by showing us things we neither have personal experience of, nor reasonably can do so.
Suppose that J. R. R. tolkien's second example against the use of illustration, 'he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below' is actually from a story set in the American Southwest and refers to someone's first sight of the Grand Canyon. If you, the reader, have never been outside England, old or New, how can you possibly construct from your own experience any mental image remotely appropriate to the story? Add an illustration and the problem is solved - and your ideas of Hill, Valley and River, far from being constrained, are permanently enlarged. The old saying that 'a picture is worth a thousand words' really is true.
Visual images can show us the unknown in ways that words never quite can.
That's the last of our practical problems with J. R. R. tolkien's objections to overdefinition by single images which contrain the imagination. I did mention earlier that there was a massive philosophical problem with them as well, and now is the time to turn to that. My occasional co-writer Alex Lewis and I suspected that there was such a problem because it looked to both of us as if the second paragraph of Note E was not just an argument against the illustration of 'fairy-stories' or fantasy, but rather an argument against the use of visual imagery at all. To clarify the matter, we consulted a respected Catholic theologian whom we knew had read J. R. R. tolkien's work and took it seriously. His response was clear and carefully thought through. Taken as part of the whole argument of On Fairy-Stories, including the discussion of the gospels as the soletrue 'fairy-story', J. R. R. tolkien's stance against art and illustration in Note E constitutes Iconoclasm. That is heresy in the view of the Roman Catholic Church (and a majority of other Christians too).
Only if you divorce the note from the main argument of the essay can you save J. R. R. tolkien's theological bacon. A particular problem arises because tolkien's main ground of accusation against the visual arts, that of imposing a single visible form, was possibly the worst one he could have chosen: it is actually one of the central issues in the theological debate.
In the definition of the eighth-century church council (Seventh Nicaea) which ruled Iconoclasm to be heresy, to deny that Christ had a single and depictable physical form whilst He lived on this earth is to deny the Incarnation - to deny that Christ was both fully human and fully divine. Whether we know what Christ looked like or not is immaterial; it is the principle that matters.
So to object to art or illustration because they impose a single visible form on the viewer's understanding of something, as J. R. R. Tolkien does, is to tread on seriously shaky philosophical ground. Now, maybe J. R. R. Tolkien never thought it through that far; we can't point a finger and ask if he really meant what he seems to.
But there is no doubt that J. R. R. tolkien's attitude to visual art in general and illustration in particular flirted dangerously close to theological disaster. And that therefore, so may we, if we're not careful. I would suggest that there is a case for coming out in a cold sweat and asking ourselves if we really want to go that far. We stand between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea.
On the one hand, denying depictability of the characters in that only true fairy-story the Gospels tips us straight into the heresy of Iconoclasm.
If depiction is not just allowable but necessary at that level, how can it not be allowable elsewhere? Unfortunately for him, in objecting to the uses of the visual arts in general, including drama and with illustration as a special subset, J. R. R. Tolkien picked a set of grounds on which we might well have to turn round and say, With all due respect, sir, we cannot uphold your wishes, because their basis is dangerously wrong.
On the other hand, for us coming later to deny the depictability of mere fictional characters on grounds which are certainly philosophical and can be taken as theological, verges to my mind perilously close to blasphemy.
Are we making this fiction out to be Holy Writ on a par, not even with the Bible, but the Koran? Anyone who does is in my view, pardon my vernacular, in serious need of having their head examined. More, the restrictions on illustration and art-inspired-by which some people are now trying to impose appear to me to go beyond J. R. R. tolkien's own will.
If the deeply philosophical, very probably disguisedly theological Smith of Wootton Major could appear in not one but two illustrated versions – its magazine publication in Redbird and the following Allen and Unwin book – then we have no grounds whatsoever to say Thou Shalt Not Illustrate.
And as I've suggested above – in the face of the film versions of tolkien's books, maybe we actually need illustration. I do not think that it is wrong to support one of J. R. R. tolkien's central tenets, the importance of choice of interpretations for the reader, at the cost of discarding a position which he appears not to have chosen so much as to have been driven into, by arguments which specific not just to their time but to a small group of people, and which are at radical variance with the Faith that Tolkien held so dear.
If we may judge by what he did rather than what he said, then I think I can say that J. R. R. Tolkien would have at least understood my argument.
There is a story I'd like to tell here, about how sometimes the maker of creative works is not the best person to judge their destiny. On his deathbed in 1934, the composer Edward Elgar begged his friends to destroy the sketches for his unfinished Third Symphony. No-one would ever understand, he said; no one must be allowed to tinker with it – they must burn the papers. Better that the work vanish, than that it be at risk of being turned into a travesty of everything he'd ever believed in and worked for.
At that time, for a man born in 1857, the world of classical music was becoming an alien place indeed; he was not wrong to fear what could happen, to think 'no one could understand'. To burn the sketches was beyond Elgar's friends and family, but they promised never to allow anyone else to work on them. But one of Elgar's closest friends did publish a considerable part of those sketches to show the world what it had lost, first in a periodical and then in his memoir of the composer.
As late as 1994, asked to allow 'workshop performance' of the sketches, the Elgar family had decided that in all honesty they could not override the composer's deathbed wish; performance of what had been written was allowable, tinkering to show the possibilities was not. However, just a year later in 1995, they realised that the publication of the sketches had set up a potential disaster. The book and the sketches it contained would come out of copyright in 2005, at which point anybody could do what they liked with the music. So they turned to a composer whom they knew was already working on the material, privately and in the knowledge they would never allow publication or performance, and commissioned a full version from him. In 1998 Edward Elgar's Symphony No. 3, elaborated by Anthony Payne, was given its premiere and met with triumph.
Respect for creators is a good thing, but rigid obedience without consideration of circumstance is a dangerous one. 'I was only following orders' has been proved to be no defence in international law, let alone private morals. Going beyond an original creator's wishes is even more problematic.
Sometimes, indeed, we need to back off and allow creative works to lose their personal meaning to the author, if they are to survive and become a 'possession for the ages'.
When we curl up cosily to watch the latest adaptation of Dickens, does it matter any more that his own childhood experiences shaped his attitude to the labouring poor? When we admire Dickens' heroines, do we remember that he sent a letter to the newspapers calling his own wife mad, in justification for seeking a divorce? Even bestsellers can vanish with frightening speed – has anybody else here heard of William Le Queux, or seen Dennis Wheatley on the bookshop shelves recently?
If we really believe what we say about J. R. R. tolkien's writings when we call them brilliant and important, if we want them to survive and thrive far into this millennium, then sooner or later we are going to have to let go of what of Tolkien the man lay behind them. Lay it aside folded in silk, yes, a precious thing once carried close to the heart – but lay it aside with joy as well as pain, to set free Story from the chrysalis of history. After all, Tolkien himself had no time for biographical criticism. He wanted his books to be appreciated for themselves, not for what of him was in them.
In conclusion, where does all this bring us to? Should we present J. R. R. tolkien's works in plain format only, or as illustrated books – can we produce artwork inspired by them, and should there be an outlet for that? The answer, I think, is 'all of the above'. Most people, most of the time, won't want anything other than a text-only reading edition – though there has to be an argument for better presentation.
In the age of the Internet, the physical book needs a USP to keep it alive, and if sheer durability is one answer (there isn't an e-book reader yet that can survive being dropped in the bath...), another really should be quality – good presentation that escapes the 'CD trap' and makes actual books into something people want to own.
Come to that, why do e-books have to be dull as ditchwater? If you want to see what good books can look like in e-readable form, try the British Library's website. Even just on the level of layout, font choice and such onetime 'printers' business', there's a lot that could be done. These are, however little we remember it, visual aids to appreciating and using texts.
A little bit of thought there and some well-aimed advertising would surely give the result an interesting marketing edge.
Alongside such plain-text editions, in my view there should also be illustrated ones available.
Back at the start of all this, I suggested that, based on the evidence of what J. R. R. Tolkien did rather than what he said, 'books which Tolkien was happy to see illustrated should continue to be illustrated', and also that 'books which Tolkien did not see illustrated in his lifetime could be illustrated, keeping our respect for the author, if we use artists of whose style Tolkien could be expected to approve.'
I have also stated, and I do strongly believe it, that we are now in a position where too-great respect for one of J. R. R. tolkien's ideas – not illustrating his books – has endangered other and far more important ones – readers' freedom of choice and their chance to appreciate his works in their original form. To find these sorts of artists working in non-photorealistic styles, I submit, we need to create circumstances which offer people encouragement to engage with these unfashionable styles and ideas.
Doing this sort of thing is, as Cor Blok has made very clear, work : and I agree totally. You do not develop an artistic style and learn how to apply it to complex texts overnight. You have to have a reason to put the work in, a hope of getting reward or at least recognition. If as the Tolkien Estate has often said, they want artists who are not working in the 'standard fantasy art' realistic styles, then the means to rouse interest and promote excellence are in their hands.
One very obvious possibility would be to have an open-competition calendar – I'd say alongside a single-artist one, there is plenty of interest out there to support both if it can only be tapped. Submissions to the 'open' calendar could be judged by representatives of the Tolkien family, the Estate and the publishers, preferably with someone suitable from the worlds of art and illustration, with a prize awarded for the piece they considered best, and perhaps another awarded by public vote (following the model of a successful and well-regarded 'open competion' photographic calendar here in Britain).
If prizes were being given for good, innovative non-'high-realist' work, and especially if those prizes led to commissions, we'd soon see more of it. Then the vexed question of illustrating J. R. R. tolkien's books could be reconsidered from a far stronger position, of having artists available who can do imaginative and interesting things of a sort that both fits the author's own known preferences, and appeals to a modern, global public.
In some cases, illustrated editions may not be so much an extra option as a necessity. I am not just speaking of the 'childrens' book' end of the market; adults too sometimes need help, and we have in tolkien's works one book in particular that to my mind falls into this category. We are told by all the critical writers on J. R. R. Tolkien that The Silmarillion was the creative crown of his achievements. The trouble is, hardly anybody reads this so-named 'difficult book'.
I have already spoken of the way in which illustration carrying complementary information can be a real help to readers faced with a 'difficult' text. If there was ever a case for just that, The Silmarillion has to be it. It's incredibly dense, and vital information given just once is too easily missed or forgotten.
To my mind, there's a clear case there for a serious programme of illustration and illumination, using every trick in the trade to help readers. Reminders of information, recurring figures to unravel complex stories, images linking related works (a lot of people would read on with more enthusiasm if they knew the story of Beren and Lúthien was related to that of Aragorn and Arwen, for instance) – could all go in.
There's something else as well. The idea of doing honour to a text by decorating the book in which it appears may not be a familiar one nowadays, but it's been much used down the years. As a rule this principle is clearest in the treatment of books whose texts are of religious importance. Islam's Holy Qu'ran, surely the most unillustratable of all books, has nonetheless been adorned, positively garlanded, with some of the most artistically brilliant progammes of illumination ever created, as well as being copied out in the finest calligraphy. There are also however many secular books which draw on the idea of honouring the text.
This idea surely lies behind the magnificent late-19th and early-20th century editions of the 'classics' with artwork by the finest illustrators of the day, such as that of Dante's Divine Comedy with illustrations by Gustave Doré, or William Morris's edition of Malory's Morte Darthur, with artwork by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
So why not a Silmarillion produced to a standard which honours this great creative achievement? It ain't rocket science, it just needs a little imagination.
Lastly, the calendars provide a possible outlet for 'art inspired by' J. R. R. tolkien's work, just as we are seeing in 2011 and 2012 with Cor Blok's work. This is why I said there should continue to be single-artist calendars as well as an open-competition one. For some artists, some of the time, the page will be far too small a canvas for their imaginative response to tolkien's words. Given the long and noble history of illustrative art, to my mind the form deserves a chance to live on, and J. R. R. tolkien's words deserve a chance to inspire work on the grand scale. Handled properly, calendars can provide the outlet and recognition which is necessary here too. If we have both the illustrated and the unillustrated versions available, if we have calendars which may catch the eye and kindle an interest, then we encourage more people to read the wonderful works of J. R. R. Tolkien, and to keep reading them. And that, surely, is what it's all about.
Let me close with one last quote, from J. R. R. tolkien's Letters, no. 131, probaly of late 1951, to Milton Waldman:
'Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story – the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast back-cloths . . . I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.'
As previously, I have not footnoted this essay, preferring readability to academic minuteness of reference.
The following list gives a a starting point for further exploration.
Collingwood, R. G., 1938, 'The Principles of Art' Clarendon Press (later reprints Oxford University Press).
Collingwood, R.G., 1939; 'An Autobiography', Penguin.
Collingwood, R.G. and Myres, J.N.L., 1937 (2nd Edn); 'Roman Britain and the English Settlements', Clarendon Press.
Collingwood, R.G., (eds D. Boucher, W. James, and P. Smallwood), 2005, 'The Philosophy of Enchantment', Oxford University Press.
Cormack, Robin, 2000, 'Byzantine Art', Oxford University Press.
Engen, Rodney, 2007, 'The Age of Enchantment; Beardsley, Dulac and their Contemporaries, 1890 – 1930', Scala Publishers Ltd.
Freedberg, David, 1989, 'The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response', University of Chicago Press.
Hamilton, James, 1990 (1995), 'Arthur Rackham: A Life with Illustration', Pavilion Books Ltd.
Koerner, Joseph Leo, 2004, 'The Reformation of the Image', Reaktion Books.
Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen, 1995, 'The Artist as Critic; Bitextuality in Fin de Sieclé Illustrated Books', Scolar Press.
Lowden, John, '1997, 'Early Christian and Byzantine Art', Phaidon Press.
Lupack, Barbara Tepa, and Lupack, Alan, 2008, 'Illustrating Camelot', D. S. Brewer.
Nelson, Robert S., and Collins, Kristen M., (eds), 2006, 'Holy Image + Hallowed Ground: Icons From Sinai', Getty Publications.
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