The Visual Impetus and the Writings of J.R.R. Tolkien
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Visual illustrations were critical to Tolkien's creativity—they preceded his creation of lexical texts, helped to define the world in which he set most of his literature, and continued to hold a great significance in the publication of Tolkien's texts. Yet the one essay Tolkien wrote in an attempt to bridge the gap between his career as a Medieval philologist and his hobby of creating fantasy stories, “On Fairy-stories”, actively condemned the illustrations that Tolkien was then creating. “In human art, Fantasy is a thing best left to words,” (Tolkien, Reader 70) and even when art is set in support of words, “illustrations do little good to fairy-stories.” (Tolkien, Reader 95) While Tolkien offers a small number of theoretical arguments against fantasy illustrations in “On Fairy-stories,” it is my assertion that such an opinion represents Tolkien's particular personal and historical position rather than an authoritative understanding of the nature of his own art. In my undergraduate honors thesis, I am proposing an alternative to Tolkien's conclusion about the value of his illustrations by showing that Tolkien's illustrations served a critical role in the formation of his literary creations of fantasy. My methodology is to combine a chronologically disciplined close reading of his illustrations with a brief overview of those of Tolkien's writings that intersect with his interest in illustration. I trace the evolution of Tolkien's visual work through: (1) childhood creation of realistic illustrations in which Tolkien developed his ability to comment upon the world; (2) early fantasy illustrations, which predated Tolkien’s fantasy texts but themselves present one-image visual “stories” with philosophical implications and openness similar to his later fantasy texts; (3) illustrations for Tolkien’s “legendary history,” in which he created a geography of emotional landscapes through which he could move the characters of his fantasy texts; and (4) illustrations for children’s stories, in which Tolkien reintroduced the humor, character, and satire from his childhood illustrations to his fantasy fiction. I not only argue that illustrations are a significant companion to Tolkien's lexical texts, but also that they provide another perspective on the study of illustrations.
Garbacz, Robert Scott (2006). The Visual Impetus and the Writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. Available electronically from