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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

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**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

Subject User Time
**JRRT: Artist & Illustrator. The Hobbit, Part II – Cover Art** squire Send a private message to squire Feb 26 2007, 1:09am
    I've rarely seen cover art with the central focus on the binding, and no room on the back Curious Send a private message to Curious Feb 27 2007, 1:17am
    Sweet? dernwyn Send a private message to dernwyn Feb 27 2007, 2:47am


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