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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
**JRRT: Artist & Illustrator. The Hobbit, Part II – Cover Art**


Feb 26 2007, 1:09am

Post #1 of 3 (818 views)
**JRRT: Artist & Illustrator. The Hobbit, Part II – Cover Art** Can't Post

I think Tolkien was, in the end, a graphic designer, not an illustrator. This is consistent with his background (his ancestors were engravers and calligraphers), and with his temperament which took such delight in finding surface patterns in letterforms, in word-histories, and in the manuscripts he so obsessively studied.

One can see this in all the works we’ve looked at this week. Tolkien’s strongest art comes when he lets go of realism and makes his landscapes and architectures into regularized schemes of patterns within patterns, and fields contrasting with fields. I believe if someone with a slightly modern art outlook had taken him by the hand he could well have overcome his prejudices about the human figure and treated it as a problem in graphic patterning too, as he did so beautifully with the non-human Smaug.

In light of all this, I’ve always thought it a shame that Tolkien’s cover art for The Hobbit is not better recognized as a minor masterpiece in graphic design. Let’s meet J. R. R. Tolkien, book designer.

Hammond and Scull introduce this final look at his Hobbit artwork by noting that Allen and Unwin by then had recognized the worth of his artistic eye. They asked him for his advice on the typeface and binding art for the book's cover, which was properly under the charge of their art department. Their designers had prepared a simple graphic of “wavy lines” at the top and bottom of the binding (“perhaps to suggest mountains”) and the title The Hobbit in the center, in italics and underlined with another “wavy line”.

Tolkien nixed almost all of it, and sent in these sketches:

141. The Hobbit, Design for spine and lower binding 140. The Hobbit, Design for upper binding
Click here for a larger view.

The publisher’s designers translated these ideas into this remarkably handsome binding:

142. The Hobbit, original binding based on Tolkien's designs
Click here for a larger view.

Check out the sun and the moon in the sky at the same time over the Lonely Mountain -- in the border that the publishers’ designers would just have had as a “wavy line”. How sweet is that? Just how sweet is the whole darn thing?

Why do Tolkien’s dragons always look slightly comic or cute?

The runic pattern on the spine is ‘Th’ over a large ‘D’ over another ‘Th’. That’s supposed to stand for Thorin and Thror, grandson and grandfather, separated and joined by D-for-Door, since that is the rune that identifies the secret door to the mountain on Thror’s Map. Get it? Did any readers, ever?

One reason the dust-jacket is underappreciated is that it is no longer the only choice for editions of The Hobbit. A lot of bookstores just don’t stock the (inferior grade) reproduction editions that still use Tolkien’s art. Why is that? But I anticipate myself. Here’s Tolkien’s rough working out of his idea:

[size 1]143. The Hobbit, Dust-jacket design
Click here for a larger view.

And here is the final art work (not the cover as published, but Tolkien’s final comp):

144. The Hobbit, Dust-jacket final art
Click here for a larger view.

What changes did Tolkien make between his rough and his final? Why?

Tolkien has the sun and the dragon in pink here, but that extra color was cut for cost reasons. Do you think it was important or valuable?

What is going on in the picture? What does it tell a first time reader about the book?

Can you describe some of the formal qualities that make this such a good design?

Why don’t they make book covers like this anymore? What makes it seem so dated, so . . . 1930s?

squire online:
RR Discussions: The Valaquenta, A Shortcut to Mushrooms, and Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
Footeramas: The 3rd TORn Reading Room LotR Discussion; and "Tolkien would have LOVED it!"
squiretalk introduces the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: A Reader's Diary


Feb 27 2007, 1:17am

Post #2 of 3 (657 views)
I've rarely seen cover art with the central focus on the binding, and no room on the back [In reply to] Can't Post

for testimonials or reviews or excerpts or other blurbs meant to advertise what is inside. Although I buy and read many more paperbacks than hardbacks, as far as I know Tolkien's design for the dustjacket of The Hobbit is unique. It is quite clever and pretty, although as you note Tolkien has completely abandoned realism in this artwork. Indeed the picture is not even true to the book in a literal manner, although it is quite true to the book in a symbolic manner.

It appears to be a view of the land east of the Misty Mountains, starting with Mirkwood, then the Long Lake, then the Lonely Mountain. The Eagles, Laketown, and Smaug all make appearances. It is possible that the view is from much closer to the Lonely Mountain than the other side of Mirkwood, though, since the woods seems so small or foreshortened in this picture. The mountains on either side are not in the right position to be part of the Misty Mountains, and may just be there to convey the idea of mountains, rather than their literal location on the map. The focus is on the distant mountain and the mysterious dragon which appears on the back page, rather than the front. But viewed from the spine, the focus is also on the path through the woods and straight through or over the water to the mountain. Again, this is more symbolic than literal.

I do love this picture. I agree that Tolkien's total abandonment of realism makes it difficult for me to nitpick as I usually do about the unrealistic elements. Instead we get the idea of adventure through woods and mountains and water to the distant land where a dragon flies. I find it very effective and clever, and it also glosses over Tolkien's limitations as an artist.

I also love the simple design for the book binding earlier in your post, with the dragons below and the mountain range, including both sun and moon in the sky together, above. Tolkien did have some help bringing this to fruition, I guess, but the idea and much of the execution was his. And I love Tolkien's long, slinky dragons with bat-like wings.

As for the runes, one of the joys of Tolkien's work is the discovery that he usually has a purpose behind everything he does, even if it is extremely unlikely that anyone would guess at that purpose without some help from an annotator. Somehow his obsessive attention to detail enhances the experience even for the first-time reader who cannot possibly notice all the references. I never take anything Tolkien writes or draws for granted, or assume it is random, and when I look for a meaning I usually find one. That makes it all the more worthwhile to reread, discuss, and study what Tolkien has written and drawn.

Forum Admin / Moderator

Feb 27 2007, 2:47am

Post #3 of 3 (693 views)
Sweet? [In reply to] Can't Post

"We still call it Durin's Day when the last moon of Autumn and the sun are in the sky together." To have that detail illustrated on the original binding, along with Tolkien's concept of a dragon - that is amazingly cool!

Did any readers get the "Th"-s and the "D"? Probably only the ones who, like me, set about "translating" the map after coming across it!

In the final cover Tolkien wisely moved Smaug from day into night, since night is when Smaug attacked Laketown. It would have been amusing if, in each of the Eagles' talons, a miniature figure could have been seen! And the blanket of detail and those cryptic runes around the edges...this is no ordinary children's story.

I love it. And so did Tolkien's publishers.

Still 'round the corner there may wait
A new road, or a secret gate...


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