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  • Visualizing the Word:Tolkien as Artist and Writer
  • Jeffrey J. MacLeod (bio) and Anna Smol (bio)

J.R.R. Tolkien was not only a writer but also a visual artist. Early assessments by Priscilla Tolkien and John Ellison outlined some of the distinctive features of Tolkien's artwork,1 which has now been made more widely available to readers and viewers in three collections by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull: J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator provides an overview of his lifelong activities in drawing, painting, calligraphy, and design, and The Art of The Hobbit and The Art of The Lord of the Rings allow a glimpse into the drafting of both of those manuscripts. These volumes, largely descriptive and biographical, provide the groundwork for further studies of Tolkien's art and his influences. Michael Organ, for example, discusses Japonisme as a source for Tolkien's Hobbit dust jacket design and for the imagery of mountains, dragons, and waves in his writing. Mary Podles turns to fairy-tale illustrators and Art Nouveau style as sources of ideas for Tolkien's art and writing; and Jonathan Jones comments on the influence of Viking design, shared by modern artist Nicholas Roerich, Tolkien's "artistic cousin." Nancy-Lou Patterson is an early commentator who suggests, like many others after her, that William Morris was influential in Tolkien's artwork; in fact, we now have evidence that Tolkien owned Morris's Some Hints on Pattern Designing ("Book"). All of these critics make a strong case for the importance of Tolkien's "encounters with art and imagery" (Organ 117), but their focus is on the influence of other artists and artistic movements on Tolkien's art and writing. We propose to turn our attention to Tolkien's own practice and knowledge of visual art in order to examine how it is an integral part of his writing craft, his creativity, and his ideas. We look at four main ways in which the visual image and the written word merge in Tolkien's creative work. First, we examine how his visual practice aids in the drafting of his stories. Second, we look at how it influences him on a stylistic level in his descriptive prose choices—our focus is on landscapes in The Lord of the Rings for an analysis of these first two elements.2 Third, and more generally, we find that Tolkien's visual imagination and skill combine with writing in inventive ways, as in his alphabets, his calligraphy, and his monogram. Fourth, we explore how Tolkien's artistic practice influences his theories about fantasy and illustration. We [End Page 115] contend that Tolkien's art and his visual imagination should be considered an essential part of his writing and thinking.

The first place to look for the importance of Tolkien's visual practice in his writing is in his composition process, as illustrated in drawings and texts in the Hammond and Scull books and in The History of Middle-earth. Here, we can see a recursive interplay between visual and verbal drafting, frequently used as a means of imagining the fictional territory into which Tolkien is moving his characters. In their chapter on The Lord of the Rings in Artist & Illustrator, Hammond and Scull discuss how drawings, diagrams, and maps play an important role in the conception and revision of numerous places in Middle-earth, such as the gate to Moria, Helm's Deep, Orthanc, Minas Tirith, and Cirith Ungol (Artist 153–85). For example, the approach to Shelob's Lair and then the way over the pass to the Tower of Cirith Ungol required several diagrams and sketches before Tolkien could clearly see his way to writing the final version of the story. Although Christopher Tolkien published various sketches and diagrams of the geography and architecture of this area (WR 108, 114, 201, 204, 225; Sauron 19), these and other drawings are much more clearly reproduced in Hammond and Scull (Artist figs. 171–74; The Art of The Lord of the Rings [henceforth ALR] figs. 92–101; figs. 139–40). Drawings such as "Shelob's Lair" (Artist fig. 171; ALR fig. 93) or "Untitled (Tower of Kirith Ungol)" (Artist fig. 174; ALR...