Friday 23 March 2012

The Artist Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks

This post contains some minor elaborations on my views as they are expressed in an letter published in Mythprint [1], but in the main part it is a copy of that letter (here, however, I have the full references, which for some odd reason appears to have been lost in the file that I sent to Jason Fisher – doubtlessly I forgot to save ...).
A Tolkien Tapestry: Pictures to
The Lord of the Rings
by Cor Blok.
Image from the

It was with great interest that I read Ruth Lacon’s reviews of Cor Blok’s artwork in the 2011 Tolkien Calendar both in Amon Hen[2] and on the Tolkien Library[3] website. Her insightful comments allowed me to connect with the artwork in a way that I had not previously been able to, and to appreciate what Blok was trying to achieve. Blok’s illustrations will probably never be my favourite Tolkien illustrations, but I am now capable of enjoying them, for which I am immensely grateful to Ms. Lacon, and I have even gone so far as to purchase my own copy of A Tolkien Tapestry: Pictures to accompany The Lord of the Rings by Cor Blok, edited by Pieter Collier, and I have found many enjoyable pieces there.

It was thus with a great deal of interest that I jumped at the opportunity to read the essay from her hand on illustrating Tolkien, ‘To Illustrate or Not to Illustrate? That is the Question…’[4] published on the Tolkien Library website.

The experience of reading obviously varies from reader to reader – for me one of the most profound moments of reading Tolkien came when I read his description of Secondary Belief in ‘On Fairy-Stories’: this is exactly how I feel when I read a book, and here I finally encountered a text that put this experience into words. Many readers, including, I believe, Tolkien himself, get vivid mental images when reading, but I don’t – the occasional flash, perhaps, of something impressionist, but no more, unless I take my eyes away from the page and through careful and painstaking construction build a scene before my mind’s eye – but that scene would then be bereft of the enchantment: for me the enchantment lies directly in the words themselves, and not in any false sensory impressions they might create. Tolkien was, therefore, absolutely right, for me, when he, later in the essay, said that ‘However good in themselves, illustrations do little good to fairy-stories.’ For me a word more often says more than a thousand pictures than is the case the other way around.

Realizing that my experience of reading is not universal I have no problem accepting that for many readers illustrations may indeed do something good even for a fairy-story, and I certainly agree with Ruth Lacon that the idiosyncrasies of the author need not restrict us today; with illustrations as well as with e.g. source criticism, we should not concern ourselves over-much with what the author might think – what should matter to us is how it actually affects the reader's perception of the work today; whether it helps the reader to appreciate the work better (or, for that matter, worse, by making the reader see certain faults in the work).

I was particularly struck by Ms Lacon’s excellent argument that in the current situation, the imagery of the ten years old New Line Cinema films has created precisely the kind of single defining imagery that Tolkien wanted to avoid (and I think that Ruth Lacon's identification of Tolkien's concerns in this regard is spot-on) – a short time spent on the internet browsing some of the many sites for fan-art will show just how pervasive the most recent films’ imagery has been (though such an exploration may also bring some small hope: it is not all the fan-art that is relying on the imagery of the Peter Jackson films, even though a vast majority is) – and while I suppose that one might choose to merely sit quiet until it goes away (deploring the generation of readers who will be lost), I don’t think that strategy will work in the long run: new films will be made, and new generations will then be influenced as the current one is. For that reason I find myself agreeing with Lacon’s call for a great variation of visions in a hope to free the imagination of the viewers from one single visualisation.

Another line of argument that sits very well with me is to look not just at what Tolkien said about illustrations of his work, but to look also at what he actually did. Ruth Lacon argues that Tolkien did allow illustrations of his work — he even made some of them himself, notably the illustrations for The Hobbit and the only illustrations for The Lord of the Rings which include e.g. the facsimiles of pages from The Book of Mazarbul, dust-jacket designs and several other sketches and illustrations [5]. Even though many of these illustrations were not intended for publication (despite some of them having a quite finished look), and though we may argue that Tolkien needed to do this to retain his own mental image of the scenes, I still think that it shows that illustrations may help a reader — even if that reader is the author — to keep their mental images in focus.

Agreeing so strongly with the general views that Ruth Lacon expound in the essay, I find it a pity that she weakens her own arguments in several places with what appears to be attempts to not merely disagree with Tolkien’s views, but to discredit his views on illustrations.
The Passage of the Argonath
by Ruth Lacon
Image from Facebook Page,
The Tolkien Art of Ruth Lacon

Noting Tolkien’s comments to Cor Blok about not wishing a single defining vision of his work in the way that John Tenniel’s vision has defined Lewis Carrol’s Alice, Lacon carefully explains exactly how the situation came about with respect to Alice. Having explained this, however, she fails to recognize that rather than proving Tolkien wrong, she has proven that he was right in saying that it could happen, and that the key appears to have been precisely the author’s wishes — something that she evidently is trying to convince us not to listen too much to with respect to Tolkien. If it is right that Tenniel's illustrations of the Alice books have defined the imagery for later illustrators and readers precisely because Carrol himself approved of them, then what should we do when there is obviously no similar authorial approval in the case of Tolkien?

Later in the essay, Ruth Lacon comes close to accusing Tolkien of iconoclasm, attempting an appeal to authority by citing an unnamed ‘respected Catholic theologian’ known to take Tolkien’s work seriously. The argument, however, seems to me to rely on a failure to recognize the gulf that Tolkien saw between sub-creation and Creation: a gulf as wide as that which he saw between God and Man. I will not say that the argument Ms Lacon attempts cannot be made, for Tolkien is not always explicitly making the distinction, but I think the argument is nonetheless specious for ignoring this distinction. In every situation where Tolkien speaks of illustration, he is speaking of illustration of fantasy, fairy-story and sub-creative literature, and while he also calls the Gospel a fairy-story, this is, to Tolkien, clearly not sub-creative, and is thus not encompassed by his comments on illustrations.

Though I cannot know the underlying motivations, this failure to acknowledge the important distinction between the refracted light and the single white appears, to me, in context to be part of an unnecessary attempt to discredit Tolkien’s views on illustrations as stated in ‘On Fairy-Stories’ and to Cor Blok. Ultimately I believe it is mostly a question of Tolkien describing and basing his arguments on his personal reading experience – for me it works, but his experiences clearly cannot be generalised to also encompass Ruth Lacon’s – at least not in this respect, and I think it would have been a far more valid approach to criticize Tolkien's arguments for being based on his own experience of reading rather than allowing for the vast differences between how people experience reading.

The suggestion in the final part of the essay of an open-competition calendar with Tolkien-inspired art to complement the well-known single-artist official calendar is one that I would dearly like to see put in place. Other calendars do exist, but few of them are by multiple artists (there is the Beyond Bree calendar, but any others?) and none of them are anywhere near as well-known as the official calendar.

I also fully support Lacon's suggestion to supplement the standard (unillustrated) editions of Tolkien's work with editions that contain illustrations — preferably, in my opinion, illustrations of the kind that do not, as Lacon aptly puts it, ‘over-define’ characters and scenes, but which serves as decorations, a way to honour the book, more than a means of defining the scenes and the characters.

Lacon ends her essay by quoting Tolkien's famous remark to Milton Waldman in the long letter from (probably) late 1951 that
I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.
I would certainly agree that this remark sanctions illustrations (which I think is also Ruth Lacon's implied opinion here), but I would also take this opportunity to point out that the pen is conspiciously absent from the list of tools for “other hands and minds” to wield — there is no sanction here for filling the gaps with narrative (though I stand by what I say above about the important concern not being the opinions of the author, but rather how it affects the reader today).

[1] Forchhammer, Troels, ‘The artist doth protest too much, methinks’, in Mythprint Vol.49 no. 2, whole no. 355, p.3—4, February 2012. Back

[2] Lacon, Ruth, ‘The 2011 Tolkien Calendar: a review by Ruth Lacon’ in Amon Hen no. 228, p.20—22, March 2011 Back

[3] Lacon, Ruth, ‘Image and Glance - Some Thoughts on Tolkien-inspired Art and Illustration’ at Back

[4] Lacon, Ruth, ‘To Illustrate or Not to Illustrate? That is the Question...’ at Back

[5] See e.g. Hammond, Wayne G., and Scull, Christina, J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, pictures no. 145 through 182. Back

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