Tolkien’s Secret Talent

If you have a copy of the book “The Hobbit” at hand–pick it up! Look at the cover: chances are it was designed by no other but the author himself. Parallel to writing, John R. R. Tolkien possessed a less known semi-secret talent: drawing. Being a skilled, though not professional artist, he illustrated his own works of literature with great care.
Разгърната корица на книгата Хобит, илюстрация на Толкин
The cover of the book about the art of the Hobbit


Of course, Tolkien drew the same way as he wrote: with con­sist­ency. There is nothing that is there by chance, nor it is ambigu­ous. Tolkien drew defined shapes with closed con­tours. As well as every detail in the story has been thought over, every line in the illus­tra­tions has been made with a purpose.

It is clear that his favor­ite subject of drawing were land­scapes. All natural forms appealed to him. Whether it was a tree, a flower, a stony path, a spring, or a moun­tain, he depic­ted it with equal care. 

Tolkien’s artistic skills were cer­tainly limited (for example, he cannot draw people, so they are almost absent from his illus­tra­tions), but he employed a handful of smart ticks to achieve impress­ive effects. He used sym­metry (that is drawing the same thing from the left to the right) and a lot of repe­ti­tion (that is drawing the same object many times). He over­lapped several back­grounds to create depth. He drew the nearest objects with many details and vivid colors and the fur­thest objects with just out­lines and faded colors in order to achieve the illu­sion of aerial per­spect­ive.  

The final result is a mys­ter­i­ous vista, prom­ising a rich adven­ture, some­times it is a bit eerie, but always breath­tak­ing from the first glance. 

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is a British writer, poet, philo­lo­gist, and uni­ver­sity pro­fessor who is best known as the author of the classic high fantasy works “The Hobbit”, “The Lord of the Rings”, and “The Sil­maril­lion.” 

Word vs Illustration

His son Chris­topher Tolkien had fam­ously said that no study of his father’s written works can be com­plete without also looking at his art. Let’s do exactly this—to compare the descrip­tions of some of the most iconic places from the adven­ture of Bilbo Begins from the book “The Hobbit” with the Tolkien’s own illus­tra­tions of the same places:


...The house of Elrond was perfect, whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just sitting and think­ing best, or a pleas­ant mixture of them all. Evil things did not come into that valley...”

(The Hobbit, Chapter 3 ‘A Short Rest’)

The Mountain Path

...There were many paths that led up into those moun­tains, and many passes over them. But most of the paths were cheats and decep­tions and led nowhere or to bad ends; and most of the passes were infes­ted by evil things and dread­ful dangers....” 

(The Hobbit, Chapter 4 ‘Over Hill and Under Hill’)

The Thror’s Map

...There is a dragon marked in red on the Moun­tain,’ said Balin, ‘but it will be easy enough to find him without that, if ever we arrive there.’ ‘There is one point that you haven’t noticed,’ said the wizard, ‘and that is the secret entrance...” 

(The Hobbit, Chapter 1 ‘An Unex­pec­ted Party’)


...Occa­sion­ally a slender beam of sun that had the luck to slip in through some opening in the leaves far above, and still more luck in not being caught in the tangled boughs and matted twigs beneath, stabbed down thin and bright before them. But this was seldom, and it soon ceased alto­gether...” 

(The Hobbit, Chapter 8 ‘Flies and Spiders’)

The ElvenKing’s Gate

...The pris­on­ers were brought before him; and though he looked grimly at them, he told his men to unbind them, for they were ragged and weary.‘Besides they need no ropes in here,’ said he. ‘There is no escape from my magic doors for those who are once brought inside...”

(The Hobbit, Chapter 9 ‘Barrels out of Bond’)

The Huts of the Raftelves

...The lands opened wide about Bilbo, filled with the waters of the river which broke up and wandered in a hundred winding courses, or halted in marshes and pools dotted with isles on every side; but still a strong water flowed on stead­ily through the midst. And far away, its dark head in a torn cloud, there loomed the Moun­tain!...”

(The Hobbit, Chapter 10 ‘A Warm Welcome’)

The Front Gate

...They did not dare to follow the river much further towards the Gate; but they went on beyond the end of the south­ern spur, until lying hidden behind a rock they could look out and see the dark cav­ernous opening in a great cliff-wall between the arms of the Moun­tain. Out of it the waters of the Running River sprang; and out of it too there came a steam and a dark smoke. 

Nothing moved in the waste, save the vapour and the water, and every now and again a black and ominous crow. The only sound was the sound of the stony water, and every now and again the harsh croak of a bird. 
Balin shuddered...”

(The Hobbit, Chapter 11 ‘On the Door­step’)

I recom­mend this book to anyone who wants to explore further the art of Tolkien in his most famous work of lit­er­at­ure “The Hobbit”. 

There you will find: ► All illus­tra­tions, includ­ing unpub­lished drafts. ► Because all graphic mater­i­als have been scanned from the ori­gin­als, you can see the pencil sketch under the ink and water­col­ors. ► How Tolkien managed to per­suad­ing his pub­lisher (George Allen & Unwin) to print his illus­tra­tions, despite rising the costs.

It is not necessary for a site to be real in order to be considered heritage. For generations of readers the places from “The Hobbit” (and even more so from “The Lord of the Rings,” which is beyond the scope of this article) are as popular and cherished as any world heritage site. They are charged with the same spirit of adventure and mystery as the pyramids of Giza, the acropolis in Athens, or the Coliseum in Rome. The world of fiction created by John R. R. Tolkien covers all characteristics of cultural heritage except one–it doesn’t exist.

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Tolkien’s Secret Talent


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