- Tolkien’s Japonisme: Prints, Dragons, and a Great Wave
The original September 1937 George Allen & Unwin edition of The Hobbit features artwork by J.R.R. Tolkien along with an accompanying dust jacket. This latter work is a modern, stylized graphic design composed of a not entirely symmetrical view of a Middle-earth landscape (night to the left, day to the right), with the Lonely Mountain rising in the distant center, flanked by steeply sloped, snow-covered Misty Mountains and in the foreground Mirkwood’s dense, impenetrable forests. Additional features include a crescent moon, the sun, a dragon, eagles, a lake village, and a rapier-like path—a straight road—heading toward a darkened, megalithic trapezoidal door at the base of the mountain.1 The runes which form the border read: “The Hobbit or There and Back Again, being the record of a year’s journey made by Bilbo Baggins; compiled from his memoirs by J.R.R. Tolkien and published by George Allen & Unwin.”
The dust jacket is considered a classic of modern graphic design, notable for its layout, harmonious balance of color, and symbolic richness. It remains in print with both hard- and soft-cover editions of The Hobbit published by HarperCollins, successors to George Allen & Unwin (Collier). Such is the status of this artwork, Tolkien’s final draft, part of the Tolkien Collection at Oxford’s Bodleian Library (MS. Tolkien drawings 32), was featured in the Treasures of the World’s Great Libraries exhibition mounted in 2002 by the National Library of Australia. While an intimate study of the dust jacket reveals the process of creation—an early draft survives—we need to look beyond traditional biographical and literary studies to artistic influences. For example, the flat perspective, simple design and blocks of color used by Tolkien (blue, green and black) are suggestive of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the Utagawa period, as best seen in the work of Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858). Was Tolkien aware of such prints and Japanese arts, crafts, and mythology? Did he, like many turn of the century artists, exhibit his own form of Japonisme as a manifestation, knowing or unknowing, of such influences?2
Tolkien is not usually considered a Japanophile, with only a single reference to that country amongst his voluminous published correspondence. In a letter written during the last months of World War Two he comments briefly on Japan’s imminent surrender following [End Page 105] the dropping of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Letters 116). Indirectly there is another connection to Japan in Tolkien’s life, for as early as 1914, while an undergraduate at Oxford University, he purchased Japanese woodblock prints for his rooms at Exeter College (Carpenter 69). The paucity of first-hand accounts and direct mention of Japan by Tolkien may imply a lack of knowledge or interest. Yet elements of his art suggest otherwise, with The Hobbit dust jacket a case in point.
Middle-earth and Mount Fuji
Between 1641 and 1854, during its period of isolation from the outside world, Japan developed a distinct art form based around the wood-block print. These small, fragile images on rice paper displayed vibrancy in color, design and subject matter, while their production involved expert craftsmanship in both the cutting of blocks and laying of paint. Woodblock prints typically portrayed landscapes of picturesque localities throughout Japan, aspects of life in population centers such as Edo (Tokyo) and around the Yoshiwara pleasure precinct, portraits of famous kabuki actors, botanical and scientific studies, and mythological subjects such as ghosts, demons, and dragons, with the latter group reflecting the richness of Japanese folklore and story-telling (Hunter, Piggott). Tolkien’s interest in dragons from earliest childhood would have attracted him to such works (Evans 22; Hargrove). The ukiyo-e print flourished through the years of isolation as artists, engravers, and publishers combined to produce an ever changing array of prints and hangings to grace the walls of residences, public buildings and entertainment venues. Woodblock prints were also used in books (“manga”) to illustrate text and as a precursor to the modern comic and graphic novel (Harris 10–51...