Tolkien as Artist and Writer

Tolkien Toast 3 Jan 2018Family and friends joined me in the Tolkien Birthday Toast on January 3rd, a global event sponsored by the Tolkien Society. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that your own toast is part of a continuing wave of glasses raised around the world every hour at 9 p.m. local time. This year, I was fortunate to be sitting by a warm fire while the winds blew with hurricane force and the air dropped to bitterly cold temperatures outside. I had another reason to celebrate: close to the end of December, the latest volume of Tolkien Studies arrived in my mailbox, with an article that I co-authored with my colleague Jeff MacLeod: “Visualizing the Word: Tolkien as Artist and Writer.”

I have spoken on this topic at a few conferences over the last few years (for example, at the 2015 New York Tolkien conference). One especially pleasurable part of the research was the opportunity to look at some microfilm and digital images of Tolkien’s drawings in the Marquette University Archive. Archivists and the Tolkien Estate are quite rightly wary of allowing direct access to Tolkien’s original artwork even though every scholar and fan interested in Tolkien’s art would love to handle his pictures; however, I soon realized that when examining digital copies, I could expand the image and see it even more closely than I might have just by eyeing the original. That ability led to some interesting observations, as I hope you’d agree if you have a chance to read our essay.

That research trip contributed one part to the overall argument that Jeff and I are making in this article.  I’ll quote a section from the opening paragraph that summarizes our four main points:

[We begin by citing a number of critics who discuss Tolkien’s artwork, and then continue:]  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. 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 contend that Tolkien’s art and his visual imagination should be considered an essential part of his writing and thinking. (pp. 115-116)

I can’t copy the whole article here, but let me give you a taste of some of our ideas and show you a few of the images we discussed but couldn’t reproduce in our essay.

Tower of Kirith Ungol sketch
Tower of Kirith Ungol sketch, Sauron Defeated, p. 19.

If you flip through the pages of Christopher Tolkien’s volumes of The History of Middle-earth or examine the books on Tolkien’s artwork by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, you’ll see some of Tolkien’s sketches that appear as anything from a squiggle in the middle of a line, to diagrams and maps, to sometimes more developed pictures, such as his Tower of Kirith Ungol (still spelled with a “K” in the earlier manuscript). We discuss the interplay of text and image in the example shown here. (This isn’t the best version of the image that you can find; check out Hammond and Scull’s The Art of The Lord of the Rings for that).

A manuscript sketch like the Tower of Kirith Ungol poses intriguing questions: when did the drawing start taking over the page? Were the words written after the drawing? Did the sketch guide the wording of the passage? Was the sketch revised after the pencilled text was written over in ink?  We examined only this page in detail, but it would be interesting to expand this kind of study to other sketches in Tolkien’s manuscripts that bring us closer to an understanding of his process of composition.

From looking at Tolkien’s process of drafting in this part of The Lord of the Rings, we move on to consider his prose descriptions of landscapes to discuss what we call his “painterly” style. In this, we were influenced by Brian Rosebury’s analysis of Tolkien’s prose, in which he declares that Tolkien describes like a painter. Although Rosebury then qualifies his claim, we agree with the initial assessment. We also ground our analysis on insights from a 1981 article in Mythlore by Miriam Y. Miller on Tolkien’s use of colours. What we found typical of Tolkien’s landscape descriptions is the use of some basic colours modified by qualities of light, along with an artist’s attention to the composition of the image.

Here is an example of that painterly style: Tolkien’s description from the “Fog on the Barrow-downs” chapter, in which he describes the land “in flats and swellings of grey and green and pale earth-colors, until it faded into a featureless and shadowy distance.”  From here, our eye moves to the horizon, where there’s a “guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky”  (FR, I, viii, 147). This impressionistic prose style describes the land entirely in painterly colours, lights, and shapes. A visual analogue (though not meant to be an illustration of the Barrow-downs) can be found in one of Tolkien’s early watercolours, “King’s Norton from Bilberry Hill” (Artist 21, fig. 16).

Tolkien, King's Norton from Bilberry Hill
Tolkien, “King’s Norton from Bilberry Hill.” Artist & Illustrator, fig. 16

This is only one example of many that we could point to in Tolkien’s landscape descriptions that demonstrates the eye and imagination of a visual artist.

A couple of other main points in our essay extend our view of how the verbal and the visual intersect in Tolkien’s creative imagination. His monogram, his invented writing systems, his calligraphy all demonstrate ways in which the visual and verbal cohere to make meaning. And of course, some of his theoretical discussion of subcreation in “On Fairy-stories” is delivered in visual terms. For example, when talking about the recovery afforded by fantasy, Tolkien states, “We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red” (OFS p. 67).

Tolkien, King's Letter second version. Art of LotR 187
Tolkien, “The King’s Letter” second version, Art of Lord of the Rings fig. 187

Our concluding paragraph:

Tolkien’s special talent, in so many facets of his creative life, was the ability to combine the written word with the observational skills of a visual artist. Although he is renowned as a philologist and creative writer, his artistic practice and visual imagination, we contend, should be seen as more than just a life-long hobby or a secondary skill. While his artwork is beginning to gain some critical attention on its own, our study suggests that the literature-art connections made by earlier critics such as Brian Rosebury and Miriam Y. Miller can be significantly expanded. Our examination of Tolkien’s composition process, his descriptive prose style, his monogram and other forms of calligraphy, and his theories about fairy-stories and illustration demonstrate the interplay of the visual with the verbal throughout his work. We believe that Tolkien’s artistic vision and skill should be acknowledged as an integral and crucial part of understanding his imagination, writing, and ideas. (pp. 127-28)

Selected references

Full details for our article:

Jeffrey J. MacLeod and Anna Smol. “Visualizing the Word: Tolkien as Artist and Writer.” Tolkien Studies, vol. 14, 2017, pp. 115-131. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/tks.2017.0009.

Tolkien Studies is an annual publication that can be purchased from West Virginia University Press. If your library has a subscription to Project Muse, you can get a copy that way. If you don’t have the means to get a copy of the article, please let me know.

Our bibliography contains a number of resources on Tolkien’s art and prose style. The ones that I’ve mentioned in this post are:

Hammond, Wayne G. and Christina Scull. The Art of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2015.

_________.  J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator. London: HarperCollins; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

Miller, Miriam Y. “The Green Sun: A Study of Color in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.” Mythlore 7.4 (Winter 1981): 3 – 11.

Organ, Michael. “Tolkien’s Japonisme: Prints, Dragons, and a Great Wave.” Tolkien Studies 10 (2013): 105-22.

Rosebury, Brian. Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon. 2nd ed. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien On Fairy-stories. Extended edition, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson. London: HarperCollins, 2008.

_______________. Sauron Defeated. The History of Middle-earth, vol. 9. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 1992.


It’s hard to trace the development of this article. Some of it was inspired by a discussion in The Reading Room discussion boards on many years ago. Many discussions with Jeff over the years, himself an accomplished artist, took us in this direction. We are both grateful to our university for providing us with research grants and sabbatical leaves and to the Tolkien Estate for allowing us access to some of Tolkien’s papers. I am especially indebted to archivist William Fliss at Marquette University for listening to my theories and allowing me a glimpse of the real thing!

I’ll post more on other resources for studying Tolkien’s art later this week.


6 responses to “Tolkien as Artist and Writer”

  1. […] That’s a question posed by Catherine McIlwaine, the Bodleian’s Tolkien Archivist, as she reviews some of Tolkien’s artwork with illustrator Alan Lee. And that’s exactly the question that my co-author Jeff MacLeod and I asked in our recent article published in Tolkien Studies (“Visualizing the Word: Tolkien as Artist and Writer“), which I’ve written about here. […]


  2. […] I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence, but Professor Flieger’s example of the sketch of Cirith Ungol drawn in the margins of a manuscript draft is exactly the image that my co-author Jeff MacLeod and I discussed in our Tolkien Studies article, “Visualizing the Word: Tolkien as Artist and Writer” (vol. 14, 2017, pp. 115-31). As Professor Flieger is one of the editors who oversaw the publication of our article, I’m hoping she was channelling our argument!  You can read more about our essay here.  […]


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