From the January/February, 2002 issue of Touchstone
J. R. R. Tolkien Tolkien & the New Art by Mary Podles

Tolkien & the New Art

Visual Sources for The Lord of the Rings

by Mary Podles

In a letter drafted in 1971, J. R. R. Tolkien recounts this incident:

A few years ago I was visited in Oxford by a man whose name I have forgotten (though I believe he was well-known). He had been much struck by the curious way in which many old pictures seemed to him to have been designed to illustrate The Lord of the Rings long before its time. He brought one or two reproductions. I think he wanted at first simply to discover whether my imagination had fed on pictures, as it clearly had been by certain kinds of literature and languages. When it became obvious that, unless I was a liar, I had never seen the pictures before and was not well acquainted with pictorial Art, he fell silent.

Clearly, it was an awkward moment. The man had seemed so sure he had found the sources of Tolkien’s inspiration. He continued,

I became aware that he was looking fixedly at me. Suddenly he said: “Of course you don’t suppose, do you, that you wrote all that book yourself?”

Pure Gandalf! I was too well acquainted with G. to expose myself rashly, or to ask what he meant. I think I said: “No, I don’t suppose so any longer.” I have never since been able to suppose so.

The point he wanted to make, of course, concerns the mysterious nature of inspiration and the imagination: He realized that he was in fact an instrument to which his story had been in some way vouchsafed, and that the ultimate source of inspiration lies outside the self.

Still, I think that Tolkien sells his visual memory short. Upon examination, it seems clear that there were pictures lodged in Tolkien’s memory, often specifically identifiable ones, that his imaginative alchemy reworked into quite a new sort of gold. In this article I propose to look at a few of these, which were commonplace in the culture in which Tolkien was raised and which nurtured his creative imagination, always bearing in mind that stern caveat of Gandalf: “He that breaks a thing apart to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

Art for Ordinary Life

Taking things apart, however, is the favorite indoor sport of art historians. No artist works in a vacuum, and to recognize an artist’s sources, the imagery that appeals to him and works upon his mind, often sheds a certain light on his own originality and artistic purposes. We know from his letters that certain incidents in Tolkien’s life inspired episodes in The Lord of the Rings: a mountain hike in his youth that turned suddenly into a perilous descent becomes the failed assault upon Caradhras; his experiences at the Somme at least underlie his description of the Dead Marshes; and the whole of the trilogy can be read as his response to the Great War.

His experience of art, too, runs as an undercurrent or theme throughout the trilogy. For instance, the very notion of the Ring itself shows us Tolkien’s deep and abiding interest in craftsmanship, particularly of metalwork. The entire race of Dwarves devotes its collective life to the craftsman’s art, and the Elves, who represent the creative angelic powers in Tolkien’s subcreation, manifest their creative powers in their working of gems and metals.

No woman escapes Tolkien with her jewelry undescribed: Goldberry wears a belt of golden flag-lilies; Tom Bombadil takes from the barrow “a brooch set with blue stones, many-shaded like flax-flowers or the wings of blue butterflies” and remembers with a sigh the lady who wore it. Éowyn wears “a great blue mantle of the color of deep summer-night, and it was set with silver stars about hem and throat.”

Men wear jewelry too: Boromir has a collar of silver, and Aragorn is given an eagle brooch set with a single green stone and a sheath for Anduril “overlaid with a tracery of flowers and leaves wrought of silver and gold.” Galadriel gives the Hobbits silver belts, “each with a clasp wrought like a golden flower, “ and enameled leaf-brooches with veins of silver.

Fig. 1. Rene Lalique, Pansy Brooch, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

If this were a collection of real jewelry, an art historian could immediately catalogue and date it as Art Nouveau metalwork from the turn of the twentieth century, that is, from the formative years of Tolkien’s youth. The example shown here, Rene Lalique’s Pansy Brooch of 1904 (Figure 1) could be an elvish work or something taken from the Barrow-wight’s treasury. Like Tolkien’s imaginary jewels, Lalique’s designs from this period are all forms drawn from nature: flowers, vines and tendrils, beautiful young faces with long flowing hair, stars, trees and leaves. In Germany, Art Nouveau (literally, the new art) was known as Jugendstil, the style of youth, and its motifs, proper to a youthful style, were images of growth, of beauty unfolding, of organic life.

Lalique’s brooch, although an expensive exhibition piece, is made of semiprecious materials. The veined leaves are translucent enamel, the flowers are layers of glass superimposed to create subtle shadings of color, and even the stone is a relatively inexpensive simulated sapphire. Art Nouveau jewelry was made to be affordable: The quality of the handicraft mattered more than the costliness of the materials. Besides, this was jewelry meant to be worn, and often worn by the newly prosperous young of the modern world. Art Nouveau was primarily a design movement, a blurring of the traditional division between the fine and the applied arts. In revolt against the ugliness of the industrialized world, Art Nouveau sought to reintroduce beauty and design into the fabric of ordinary life.

In this, Art Nouveau was directly descended from the Arts and Crafts movement, which finds its ultimate source in the ideas and practices of William Morris. Morris, who lived from 1834 to 1896, sounded a call to revolt against both the hidebound and academic in art and the mediocre and mass-produced in design. He urged a return to the inspiration of nature and to skilled craftsmanship, and to an ideal of beauty that was to permeate every aspect of domestic life. To that end, he designed architecture, textiles, rugs, wallpaper, pottery, glass, and all the appointments of daily life, while expounding upon his ideas in theoretical writings, prose, and assorted poetry. Late in life he turned to book design, which was ultimately perhaps his most influential enthusiasm.

We know from Tolkien’s letters and various commentaries that Morris’s literary works had a profound influence on Tolkien, but a search through the illustrations to Morris’s books by his collaborator Edward Burne-Jones and others (alas, Morris was not much of a figural artist himself ) yields disappointingly little that might be seen as a direct source for Tolkien’s own imagery.

Fairy Stories

Perhaps Morris’s deliberate historicizing and medievalizing were too specific for Tolkien’s tastes. In a note appended to his essay “On Fairy-stories,” he explains his wish that fantasy be left ultimately in the realm of the imagination.

However good in themselves, illustrations do little good to fairy-stories. The radical distinction between all art (including drama) that offers a visible presentation and true literature is that it imposes one visible form. Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular. If it speaks of bread or wine or stone or tree, it appeals to the whole of these things, to their ideas, yet each hearer will give to them a peculiar personal embodiment in his imagination.

Still, this didn’t prevent Tolkien himself from illustrating several scenes in his own work. But more on that later.

Fig. 2. Walter Crane, illustration for “Mother Hulda”

I hope to demonstrate that certain associates and artistic heirs to Morris did provide visual sources for Tolkien’s writing, particularly in their illustrations for the fairy tales that so appealed to him. Walter Crane, a contemporary of Morris and an influential member of the Arts and Crafts movement, illustrated a version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that may in several instances have inspired specific scenes and incidents in The Lord of the Rings. Often Crane added details to his black-and-white illustrations that were not in Grimm, but proved to be the very ones that stuck in Tolkien’s memory and resurfaced in his novel. For example, Crane’s illustration for Mother Hulda (Figure 2) shows a slender girl, calm yet distressed, looking into the mirrored surface of the well into which her spindle has fallen. Is this a foreshadowing of Galadriel at the watery mirror? “Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded and lo! She was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.”

Fig. 3. Walter Crane, illustration for “Faithful John”

Similarly, Crane’s illustration for Faithful John (Figure 3) shows a prince and princess in a boat, with John, the faithful servant, making music as they sail. In Crane’s version, the prow of the boat is shaped into a swan’s neck and the sails raised like wings, while Faithful John plays on a harp; neither of these comes from Grimm’s story, but from the illustrator’s imagination. Yet these are the details that Tolkien seems to have drawn on for Galadriel’s parting with the Fellowship:

[T]here, sailing proudly down the stream toward them, they saw a swan of great size . . . its huge white wings were half lifted. A music came down the river as it drew nearer; and suddenly they perceived that it was a ship, wrought and carved with elven-skill in the likeness of a bird.


In the midst of the vessel . . . stood Galadriel . . . and in her hand she held a harp, and she sang. Sad and sweet was the sound of her voice in the cool clear air.

Fig. 4. Walter Crane, illustration for “Rapunzel”

And one more: In Crane’s illustration for Rapunzel (Figure 4), the king’s son, using Rapunzel’s hair as a ladder, has come to the top of the tower and reaches to embrace her. Her hair, the story’s prime mover, takes on a life of its own, curving around the prince’s shoulder to embrace him and flying up in the breeze, while his dark curls rise up to mingle with hers in an embrace of their own. A beautiful image, and one that Tolkien, consciously or not, recreates in the meeting between Faramir and Éowyn as the wind of a new hope begins to blow:

“Éowyn, Éowyn, White Lady of Rohan, in this hour I do not believe that any darkness will endure!” And he stooped and kissed her brow.

And so they stood on the walls of the City of Gondor, and a great wind rose and blew, and their hair, raven and golden, streamed out mingling in the air.

Northern Tales & Another Ring

Still another generation of fairy-tale illustrators, heirs at some remove to Morris and Crane, had a similar impact on Tolkien. These were the contemporaries of Lalique and the Art Nouveau jewelers, and shared with them many of the same concerns and design motifs. We know that Tolkien knew Arthur Rackham’s illustrations, if only because he wrote to his own illustrator, Pauline Baynes, to warn her off Rackham’s weaknesses:

I thought of you, because you seem to be able to produce wonderful pictures with a touch of “fantasy,” but primarily bright and clear visions of things that one might really see. . . . But I do appreciate that it is a tricky task. . . . I have not much doubt, however, that you would avoid the Scylla of Blyton and the Charybdis of Rackham—though to go to wreck on the latter would be the less evil fate.

Rackham’s style was strongly influenced by the black-and-white illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley, himself a protégé of Morris’s colleague Burne-Jones. From Beardsley, Rackham adopted a degree of abstract patterning, an asymmetrical mode of composition learned from the Japanese, and a taste for the grotesque. A penchant for the sentimental maybe disqualifies Rackham from the first rank of artists, as Tolkien noted, yet it might be that Rackham is the ultimate source of one of Tolkien’s most original creations. The well-known willows from The Wind in the Willows, sly, comical, twig-fingered humanoid trees are quite likely the inspiration for Old Man Willow and ultimately the Ents. But how different the Ents are from Rackham’s mildly zany creations: Transformed by Tolkien’s grander imagination, the Ents are creatures of great solemnity, dignity, and strangeness.

Tolkien’s avowed absorption with fairy tales and things Northern likely would have introduced him to the work of another pair of illustrators, the Scandinavians John Bauer and Kay Nielsen. Bauer, a Swede, is best beloved for his illustrated series Bland Tomtar och Troll, which appeared each Christmas but one from 1905 to his untimely death in 1918, and which contain, as the title implies, all the enchanted creatures of the Nordic folktale. Bauer’s magical tomtes may have prodded Tolkien’s imagination in the direction of the Hobbits: They are small, appealing, earthbound creatures who protect the hearth and home, and some of Bauer’s trolls have undeniably furry feet.

But more specifically, Bauer’s illustrations to the fairy tale “The Ring” seem, not surprisingly, to have stayed in Tolkien’s mind and again provided him with material for his own story, just as Walter Crane’s did. “The Ring” is the story of a prince’s quest to find the owner of a magical ring and with it the one true and faithful love of his life; she in turn is looking for her ring and with it she finds him. In his illustrations, Bauer adds to the story the prince’s great gray horse, possibly the model for Gandalf’s Shadowfax.

Fig. 5. John Bauer, illustration for “The Ring”

Fig. 6. John Bauer, illustration for “The Ring”

Two of Bauer’s illustrations seem to conflate into Pippin’s ride over the plains of Rohan: In the first (Figure 5), the prince, filled with unrest, rides wildly over the plain under the starlight. In the last (Figure 6), having found his princess, he wraps her in his cloak and carries her off on his shadowy horse, again through the starry night.

Fig. 7. John Bauer, illustration for “The Ring”

Another illustration (Figure 7), in which the prince and princess discover each other, looks forward to one of Tolkien’s charged confrontations, the departure of Aragorn from Éowyn. In Bauer’s picture, the meeting is a joyful one, a thawing or awakening for the girl, who had not thought to find a prince attached to her missing ring; he in turn looks at her tenderly. Tolkien turns the tender meeting on its head. Instead of a joyful meeting, it is a bitter parting; instead of a thawing, it is a final freezing of Éowyn’s resolve to go to her death. Instead of seeing the tender possibilities of love, the princely Aragorn looks down at her with a tender pity for her impossible situation. The illustration, here as before, contains the kernel of the idea that was later to germinate into full form as Tolkien’s new story evolved.

Inspiration & Art Nouveau

Even more compelling inspiration seems to have sprung from plates from Kay Nielsen’s Nordic fairy-tale collection East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Nielsen, a Dane, originally studied in Paris but fell under Beardsley’s sway and came to London in 1911. There he simultaneously exhibited and published the plates to East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Tolkien may even have seen the exhibition; surely he knew the book. Nielsen’s style combines Beardsley’s flattened abstraction and taste for the strange, Bauer’s elfin piquance, a Japanese sense of design, and a Scandinavian feel for the folkloric: a curious mix once seen, never forgotten, and somehow very Tolkienesque. A few examples might demonstrate the affinity.

Fig. 8. Kay Nielsen, illustration for “The Three Princesses of Whiteland”

The first, a page from “The Three Princesses of Whiteland” (Figure 8), shows a hard-bitten cloaked and armored man with a great sword, striding resolutely through a snowy landscape under the stars. Surely this is Strider! Even his long stride is explained: The snowshoes of the story have become, in Nielsen’s hands, a pair of Nordic skis. Still another page from the same book shows the same armored figure in a moment of battle-madness, just like Eomer at the Pelennor Fields:

Then without taking counsel or waiting for the approach of the men of the City, he spurred headlong back to the front of the great host, and blew a horn, and cried aloud for the onset. Over the field rang his clear voice calling: “Death! Ride, ride to ruin and the world’s ending!”

Fig. 9. Kay Nielsen, illustration for “The Lassie and her Godmother”

And finally, a plate from “The Lassie and her Godmother” (Figure 9) shows us a bemused figure kneeling by a black pool, out of which a ghostly face seems to float as if lit from within. In the story, there is a logical explanation: The lassie is sitting in the tree above and her face is reflected by simple laws of physics. But Nielsen has made it haunting, a scene of enchantment, and one that might have been an additional source for Tolkien’s invention of the faces in the Dead Marsh.

Fig. 10. Kay Nielsen, illustration for “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”


Fig. 11. J. R. R. Tolkien, illustration for The Hobbit

It might be reasonably objected that all of these are purely chance resemblances, if it were not for Nielsen’s strong influence on Tolkien’s own drawing style. Compare the two examples here, Nielsen’s distressed maiden from East of the Sun and West of the Moon (Figure 10) and Tolkien’s trolls (Figure 11) from The Hobbit. The screen of long vertical trunks with curves of smoke swirling upward like Nielsen’s slender birch, the abstract patterning of the bark, the simplified outlines of the figures, and the very manner of drawing all point to a direct derivation from Nielsen.

Fig. 12. J. R. R. Tolkien, Barad-dûr

All of Tolkien’s (regrettably few) drawings would have to be classed stylistically with Nielsen and the Art Nouveau illustrators. His picture of the Black Tower (Figure 12), for instance, looks very much like the office blocks built to house the workings of the Hapsburg Empire in Vienna: a vast, featureless expanse of stone pierced with tiny windows and a kind of Classical portico and cornice pasted on. This was precisely the building style that sparked the Art Nouveau revolt in Austria, the Sezession: These artists chose to secede from such an architecture and create their own.

Fig. 13. J. M. Olbricht, Sezessionshaus

The new age demanded a new art, and a new kind of building to house its vision of grace and authenticity. The Sezession gallery (Figure 13)—an elvish building if ever there was one—presented a clear alternative: clean, uncluttered, white rectangles incised with gilded vines that spring upward into an openwork dome of golden leaves. On the front was chiseled the Sezession motto: To the age, its Art; to Art, its Freedom.

Tolkien’s Elves fell into an error of conservatism: To hold the old creation unchanged, they collaborated with Sauron in the making of their rings. Their resolve to destroy his power will destroy much of theirs also, and the old world will be swept away and replaced with a new one built by younger races. Tolkien’s old world may have been swept away by war, but still he holds fast to the beauteous vision of the land of enchantment, which, ever young and full of promise, lies behind and beyond our own.  

Mary Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children. They live in Naples, Florida.

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