Artist Stories

Middle Earth and Beyond in Art: Tolkien’s Illustrations

Rachel Witte 19 May 2020 min Read

J.R.R. Tolkien's written works have influenced many around the globe. However, perhaps less known than his books are his illustrations that he began as a young child. These illustrations further enhance the reading process of The Lord of the Rings series, as well as offer an insight into the mind of a literary genius and his creation of Middle Earth. Here is art made by Tolkien!

Studio of H.J. Whitlock & Sons Ltd., Birmingham, J.R.R. Tolkien, January 1911, black and white photograph, Bodleian Libraries, MS, Tolkien photogr. 4, The Tolkien Trust 1977, Source: The Morgan Library and Museum, New York City.

If you are one to immerse yourself in an artist's or author's life's work, then this is for you. J.R.R. Tolkien's artistic process was very much intertwined with his writing process. The two, together in tandem, offer a unique light into the man's mind.

J.R.R. Tolkien in his study, ca. 1937, black and white photograph, Tolkien Trust, MS, Tolkien photogr. 5, The Tolkien Trust 2015, Source: The Morgan Library And Museum, New York City.

Early Life

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973), the English author and professor, was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa. After his father's death in 1896, the family moved back to England, and after his mother's death in late 1904, Tolkien and his brother were orphaned. They spent the rest of their adolescence being tended to by their local Priest, various family members, and living in boarding houses.

Middle Earth
Tolkien's illustrations: J.R.R. Tolkien, Eeriness, from The Book of Ishness, 1915 and The Shores of Faery, The Tolkien Trust 1995, Source: BBC Arts.

Throughout all these years, Tolkien never stopped writing, painting, or drawing. He continued in his academic search for knowledge, excelling in languages and classic literature. He also met his future wife, Edith, in one of the boarding houses, though they would not marry for several more years.

World War 1 began while Tolkien was enrolled at Oxford. Even during his brief stint as a soldier, Tolkien continued to write. Battle features largely in his stories. It is no surprise that the war had left an impression on him. Later, when he began his teaching career, he brought these stories and illustrations with him and published The Hobbit (1937).

Tolkien's Artistic Style

Much of Tolkien's early art is focused on the rural English countryside where he spent his childhood. Using his surroundings, he created watercolor paintings and sketches of the world around him.

Middle Earth; Tolkien illustrations middle earth art
Middle Earth in art: J.R.R. Tolkien, The Forest of Lothlórien in Spring And Barad-dûr: The Fortress of Sauron, The Tolkien Trust 1972-3, Source: BBC Arts.

Later, with his children, Tolkien used the illustrations to further enhance the stories he wrote. None were meant to be seen except perhaps those for The Hobbit's original publication. Even then, the entirety of that collection was unknown for many years. Not only was the author and professor proficient in drawing and watercolor, he also mastered the art of calligraphy. Within this area, Tolkien created new languages for his stories, as shown below. Readers and admirers of his work have even taken to learning these languages.

Tolkien Fire Writing
Middle Earth in art: J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973), The Fire-writing, 1953, red and black ink, pencil, Tolkien Trust, MS, Tolkien Drawings 90, The Tolkien Trust 2015, Source: The Morgan Library and Museum, New York City.

The Art of Middle Earth

Smaug; Tolkien illustrations middle earth art
Tolkien's illustrations: J. R. R. Tolkien, Conversation with Smaug, July 1937, black and colored ink, watercolor, white body color, pencil, Bodleian Libraries, MS, Tolkien Drawings 30, The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937, Source: The Morgan Library and Museum, New York City.

What began as illustrations to accompany stories for his children and his own concept art later turned into some of the most beloved fantasy works of all time. However, a large portion of Tolkien's illustrations stayed hidden in the Bodleian Library's archives for years. They were later released as part of the 75th anniversary of Tolkien's book, The Hobbit.

Tolkien illustrations middle earth art

J. R. R. Tolkien, Dust jacket design for The Hobbit, April 1937, pencil, black ink, watercolor, gouache, Bodleian Libraries, MS, Tolkien Drawings 32, The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937, Source: The Morgan Library and Museum, New York City.

While the original publication contained illustrations, it was not known at that time how many drawings and paintings the author and illustrator completed. Over 100 illustrations are now available for the general public to view, whether that be online or in various museums. Together with his stories, Tolkien's own personal illustrations help to elevate the process of reading his books. As a result they are capable of fully immersing us into that very special world filled with hobbits, elves, orcs, and dragons.

Hobbiton; Tolkien illustrations middle earth art
Middle Earth in art: J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973), The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the Water, August 1937, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Tolkien Drawings 26, The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937, Source: The Morgan Library and Museum, New York City.

Legacy in Art and Literature and Beyond!

The legacy that J.R.R. Tolkien left behind after his death in 1973 is not surprising. However, it stretches through many genres and avenues. His fantasy writing and art have influenced many generations through activities such as Dungeons & Dragons, other books such as Harry Potter or A Song of Ice and Fire, and much more not limited to other artists.

Tolkien illustrations middle earth art
Middle Earth in art: J. R. R. Tolkien, Bilbo comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves, July 1937, watercolor, pencil, white body color, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Tolkien Drawings 29, The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937, Source: The Morgan Library and Museum, New York City.

From the landscapes, to the characters to the story line, inspiration can found just about anywhere when examining the world of Middle Earth. Tolkien, himself, received inspiration through his own art, using it as the backbone of his stories.

I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit (generally with meticulous care for distances). The other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities, and in any case it is weary work to compose a map from a story.

Tolkien about writing and life, Tolkien Library.
Middle Earth map
A map of Middle-earth was included in the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings; an essential guide for readers, This 1969 version bears Tolkien's annotations, revealing extraordinary conceptual details of his imaginary world, Williams College Oxford Programme & The Tolkien Estate Ltd, 2018, Source: BBC.

Fantasy is Escapist

Oxford and Leeds Universities are a large part of Tolkien's legacy. His involvement with both learning and working at the institutions shaped him as an adult and aided in furthering the creation of Middle Earth. It is partially because of his years at these institutions that we owe our thanks as his admirers. He escaped into his art and writing and we all followed.

“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”

J.R.R. Tolkien

Get to know more:
Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth, Oxford University, Source: YouTube, 2020

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