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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator, Ch. 6: Neurology


Apr 22 2007, 4:08pm

Post #1 of 10 (2200 views)
J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator, Ch. 6: Neurology Can't Post

First I need to give a strong disclaimer here: I am not under any circumstance trying to diagnose Tolkien with some kind of disorder, nor attempting--in showing some neurological basis to art--to make a one-to-one correlation with Tolkien's art in his later years. That would be the height of irresponsibility.

I am attempting to talk about the wonderful way our individual brains work and the correlation between neurology and art.


Tolkien's art in his later years revolved around a certain set of patterned figures. Even when he drew non-symmetrical figures (such as the stylized trees on the postcard seen in this chapter), he put those figures into a pattern (like a "rug" or a "belt"). He did not finish his writing of the Silmarillion as he had intended; instead, he spent a lot of time on letters and on drawing Elvish heraldic devices. He lavished a lot of care on these devices, learning to "perfect" them, according to H&S, by using guidelines and compass, etc.

These intricate patterns for the Elvish devices:

"...are usually symmetrical on every axis, which often imparts a sense of perpetual rotation, perhaps intended to suggest the immortality of the Elves within the circles of the world. In contrast, the devices of Men tend to be symmetrical only on either side of the vertical axis, and often have a strong horizontal axis as well. In these the movement is not curcular, but extends from teh centre outward towards the frame with an impetus to thrust beyond it." H&S

The "neuropsychology" of art has been a topic of discussion for the last several years in a cross-categorical section of the scientific and medical profession. For instance, in his book The Mind Cave, David Lewis-Williams postulates that the emergence of art coincided exactly with the emergence of modern human consciousness:

"...Beginning with a critical overview of the way that Palaeolithic Art has been regarded since its 19th century discovery, the author shows that interpretations of the purpose of the paintings as being decorative "art for arts sake", hunting magic or simple totemism are no longer valid. He then looks in some detail at intelligence and consciousness in prehistory and maintains that as Palaeolithic people were thoroughly modern human beings, then their nervous system was identical to that of ourselves. He looks at how the human nervous system shapes visual hallucinations in altered states of consciousness and compares abstract patterns painted on walls with shapes seen by people under laboratory conditions of altered consciousness....his arguments are well presented and come together when he looks at the rock paintings of the San people of South Africa and early Native Americans. Their paintings have much in common with those of the Palaeolithic - not just the animals, but the abstract shapes of zigzags, tunnels and lattice squares. Such designs, he argues, are entoptic phenomena caused by the spatial relationship between the retina and the visual cortex...." (review here)

"...seeking to understand west European cave art in the context of (and as a marker of) the new intellectual capacities of anatomically modern humans. Radiocarbon dates for the earliest west European cave art now place it contemporary with the demise of the Neanderthals around 30,000 years ago, and cave art, along with carved or decorated portable items, appears to announce the arrival and denote the success of modern humans in this region. Lewis-Williams argues that such cave art would have been beyond the capabilities of Neanderthals, and that this kind of artistic ability is unique to anatomically modern humans...." (review here)

These are the "entopic forms" Lewis-Williams is talking about:

In another book called Neurology of the Arts: Painting, Music and Literature:

"This book is the first attempt to provide a basis for the interaction of the brain and nervous system with painting, music and literature. The introduction deals with the problems of creativity and which parts of the brain are involved. Then an overview of art presents the multiple facets, such as anatomy, and the myths appearing in ancient descriptions of conditions such as polio and migraine. The neurological basis of painters like Goya and van Gogh is analysed. Other chapters in the section on art cover da Vinci's mechanics and the portrayal of epilepsy. The section on music concerns the parts of the brain linked to perception and memory, as well as people who cannot appreciate music, and the effect of music on intelligence and learning (the Mozart effect). The section on literature relates to Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Conan Doyle, James Joyce and the poetry of one of England's most famous neurologists, Henry Head."

Similarly, in a review called The neuropsychology of visual artistic production (PubMed):.

"From this review it appears that artists are not spared visual-motor deficits despite their special graphic abilities. Rather their talents allow them to express visual deficits with particular eloquence. By contrast, the effects of aphasia on art are variable. In addition to deficits, neuropsychological syndromes may be associated with positive phenomena. Such phenomena induced by epilepsy or migraines can serve to inspire artists. This review also makes clear that artists with neuropsychological deficits do not necessarily produce art of lesser quality. Rather, their art may change in content or in style, sometimes in surprising and aesthetically pleasing ways."

In another study called Visual art, creativity, and dementia (PubMed), we find the authors concluding that there must be a specific "organization for art" in the brain, because even when part of the brain is being affected by a dementia, "artistic preservation" occurs:

"A 68 year-old right handed woman, diagnosis: Fronto-Temporal Dementia (FTD). Artistic description: Increased artistic activity, originality, freedom, utilization of intense colours with perseverative and repetitive copying of similar paintings of her own work. CONCLUSIONS:Visual art in Alzheimer's disease is a consequence of visuospatial and constructive disabilities. In contrast, the conservation of this cognitive functions and left asymmetrical involved...suggest artistic preservation, independently of the language injury. The disproportionate functional prevalence of the right over the left could lead to a release of novelty - seeking in art and can contribute to emergent creativity. These observations suggest an organization for art in the brain..."

And in an interview called "The Art of Dementia" on the BBC:

"Doctors in San Francisco recently reported on a number of people suffering from a kind of dementia called fronto-temporal dementia; even as parts of their brains were slowly dying and ceasing to function, they developed entirely new artistic abilities.... however there are two important findings in these patients. One is that the neuro-chemical, serotonin is profoundly depleted and I think that this leads some of them to crave chocolate, sweets and to overeat. In others I think that you develop a profound compulsion which is due to the lack of serotonin. This compulsion contributes to the art and music that they produce, because they become obsessed with their art and they do it over and over again and I think that this constant repetition really is at the core of their success.' 'What I discovered when I went through all of my patient population, which is now in the hundreds, was that only a small percentage of the patients showed this blossoming of visual or musical capability. It seemed to be a group who degenerated primarily on the left side of the brain and the left temporal lobe. This degeneration knocks out language in a profound way and these people loose the meaning of words.'

As the individual looses these abilities, what is happening elsewhere in the brain? Miller explains:

'We think that the abilities that remain and indeed flourish are probably in the back part of the brain in the posterior temporal and parietal lobe."

OBVIOUSLY this cannot explain Tolkien's abililities as he most definately did not "lose the meaning of words"!!! REMEMBER this isn't diagnosis, just thoughts about how nifty a thing is a human brain.

Artistic renderings of migraine auras have been studied for many years. For instance:


Contrast that picture of a migraine aura with this device of Tolkien's:

to see a similar effect of motion or movement in a circular field.

Here's another example of a circular aura:


1. Any thoughts on why Tolkien's art changed in his later years?
2. Is it related to his inability to finish (or possibly his disinterest in finishing) his Silmarillion?
3. Is the repetetive nature of his "patterns and devices" drawn in these years related to previous artistic output (visual and written)?


"an seileachan"

Some say they're going to a place called Glory, and I ain't saying it ain't a fact.
But I've heard that I'm on the road to Purgatory, and I don't like the sound of that!
I believe in love, and live my life accordingly,
And I choose: let the mystery be.
~~~~Iris DeMent

Registered User

Apr 23 2007, 10:08am

Post #2 of 10 (1816 views)
Chapter 6 [In reply to] Can't Post

Hi everyone,

I haven't really posted before although I have been watching this discussion on Artist and Illustrator, especially Chapter 6.

I was wondering if everyone could post their thoughts on each individual picture like in the other chapters previously discussed.

I would be particularly interested in thoughts on the heraldic devices.


One Ringer
Tol Eressea

Apr 24 2007, 10:17am

Post #3 of 10 (1793 views)
Masterpieces [In reply to] Can't Post

You know, all I can really say about this stuff is just how beautiful, and astonishing it really is! I never get enough of this stuff, or anything Tolkien-related.Smile

"Death is just another pathway. . .one which we all must take."

-Gandalf from "The Return of the King"

Daughter of Nienna
Grey Havens

Apr 24 2007, 6:00pm

Post #4 of 10 (1791 views)
Welcome Dior! [In reply to] Can't Post

I meant to welcome you yesterday, but had to rush off to appointments. Not sure where everyone is but usually more poeple welcome new posters.

The patterns don't provoke the same kind of examination that the more illustrative art does, from me at least. There is somewhat of a discussion in the thread below in which the heraldic devices are posted, and where this type of discussion would take place:


Thanks for coming out of lurking and I hope that you post more often.

Daughter of Nienna


Art Gallery Revised, Aloha & Mahalo, Websites Directory

Nienna: “ those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope . . . All those who wait in Mandos cry to her, for she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom." — Valaquenta

Daughter of Nienna
Grey Havens

Apr 24 2007, 8:56pm

Post #5 of 10 (1793 views)
vertical axis | right brain type stuff [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
"... In contrast, the devices of Men tend to be symmetrical only on either side of the vertical axis, and often have a strong horizontal axis as well. In these the movement is not circular, but extends from the centre outward towards the frame with an impetus to thrust beyond it." H&S

I noticed this about his other art as well. There tends to be a "line" in the form of an edge of some element, or a road/river etc. right in or near the center…sometimes blatant, sometimes more implied, sometimes curvilinear.

3 - Spring 1940
18 - The Cottage
32 - Wickedness
36 - End of the World
37 – Xanadu
41 – Land of Pohja
43 – Tanaqui
44 – Shores of Faery
45 - Man in the Moon
54 – Tar-na-Fiin
74 – Untitled (Rover arrives on the moon)
82 – Untitled (party at the Bear's house) [back of bear's chair>> head>> table items>> lamp chain & beam]
87 – Wilderland map
88 – Mirkwood
102 – The Trolls
105, 106, 108 – Rivendell images
109 – The Mountain Path
113 – Bilbo Woke up with the Early Sun in His Eyes
115 – Firelight in Beorn's Hall
121 – The Elvenking's Gate (implied)
129 – Gnarled Tree
134-6 – Lonely Mountain images (implied by river and rock edges & mountain)
145 – Barad-dûr
162 – forest of Lothlorien in Spring
169 – Minas Tirith
182 – Dust Jacket for RotK

SORT OF - #s:
17 - Foxglove Year
40 – Eeriness
51 – Glorund
55 – Vale of Sirion
62 – The Tree of Amalion
116 - Beorn's Hall
124 – Bilbo Comes to the Huts of the Raft Elves
130 – The Front Gate
131, 132 – Back Door images
139 – The Hall at Bag-End - implied
148 – Moria Gate
166 – Orthanc

I think that most of these are not necessarily conscious, but more of the "pattern" typical to him how his brain works…his graphic language. Everyone has this.

However, the designs are deliberate. I find it fascinating that The elves pattern is so uniquely different to the patterns of the designs of humans.

Besides humans gravitating to symmetry, we also see most images with a horizontal line every time we look at any scene in our lives…it is the actual horizon, whether seen or implied. So this image is deeply imprinted.

Thanks for posting all that neurological information…I find it interesting to me personally. I have an issue with focusing…especially for reading or writing…left brain type stuff. On the other hand…right brain type stuff (artwork) is something that I can really focus on…all my attention and energy becomes very focused.


Art Gallery Revised, Aloha & Mahalo, Websites Directory

Nienna: “ those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope . . . All those who wait in Mandos cry to her, for she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom." — Valaquenta

Daughter of Nienna
Grey Havens

Apr 26 2007, 9:33pm

Post #6 of 10 (1775 views)
Mahalo Nui Loa [In reply to] Can't Post

thanks A.S. for all you background work and putting this discussion together.

Smile Cool Heart Angelic Laugh Wink Heart


Art Gallery Revised, Aloha & Mahalo, Websites Directory

Nienna: “ those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope . . . All those who wait in Mandos cry to her, for she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom." — Valaquenta

Forum Admin / Moderator

Apr 27 2007, 1:04pm

Post #7 of 10 (1775 views)
Fascinating stuff! [In reply to] Can't Post

Not sure I can understand all of what's being said in those articles, but they're giving a new meaning to the term "what is art".

I have the feeling that Tolkien doodled a lot, it's just that more of what survived is from his later years. I also think he was still trying to get his head around the Sil, trying to mentally pull it all together, and his drawings and doodles were expressions of that. He had many health concerns, both for himself and his wife, in his later years, and those use up your energy as you get older and leave you less time for contemplation and writing. And he was getting tired - as tired as Bilbo in Rivendell - and so his mind turned more towards the more "fun" things.

I'm just glad he was a "pack rat" about keeping the things he did!

"And when Sam heard that he laughed aloud for sheer delight, and he stood up and cried: 'O great glory and splendour! And all my wishes have come true!'"

Forum Admin / Moderator

Apr 27 2007, 1:14pm

Post #8 of 10 (1790 views)
Hi there! [In reply to] Can't Post

Welcome to TORn, dior!

As DoN says above, most of the illustrations in this chapter are heraldic devices, and they're discussed in other threads (links to previous "pages" are at the bottom of this page).

There is a very odd illustration in there, though. What do you think of that "Mordor Special Mission Flying Corps Emblem"? I think it's a tongue-in-cheek homage to Christopher T's days in the RAF, this idea of having an evil-looking symbol for the Nazgûl. And notice how it's all variations on the theme of the Eye, with the middle looking like a huge squashed insect eye, and eyes on the "wings".

The Tengwar in this sketch is easy to make out: on the left it reads "msmfc", and under the eye is "sauron". But is that Greek above the eye?

"And when Sam heard that he laughed aloud for sheer delight, and he stood up and cried: 'O great glory and splendour! And all my wishes have come true!'"

Registered User

Apr 29 2007, 9:57am

Post #9 of 10 (1769 views)
Thanks [In reply to] Can't Post

Thanks for the welcome...hope to de-lurk more often.
Tolkien's heraldry is a subject very dear to me



May 1 2007, 2:42am

Post #10 of 10 (2064 views)
hard questions! [In reply to] Can't Post

...but really interesting ideas to think about in this post and in the earlier one on symmetry. Thanks, a.s., for putting all of this together.

I don't know how this might relate to Tolkien's art, but I think that you could say his written work is full of symmetries and patterns. I think that he had an idea of history as a recurring process of re-enactments -- Aragorn and Arwen re-enact Beren and Luthien, for example -- though each re-enactment is slightly different, it is still part of a pattern. So you have symmetries that occur in larger patterns. Maybe if that's the way you tend to see the course of history (true or feigned), then you also tend to draw symmetrical patterns? Anyways, just some late night thoughts.....


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