One Man’s Modernism

J. R. R. Tolkien

James Trilling
Illustration with three black and white photos of men and a box holding a pasture with running horses
Illustration by Laura Padilla Castellanos

Almost fifty years after his death, J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973) remains a polarizing figure. His popular influence is unquestioned: he established, virtually singlehandedly, the modern genre of heroic fantasy. Within the academic and critical community, however, there has been, and still is, a split between the minority who count him among the important, even the central authors of his time and the majority for whom he remains as marginal, as irrelevant to the study of “serious” literature, as he was in the mid-1950s, when his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings, was first published. We should not be surprised by such a split. It is common practice to contrast writers of the mainstream (whatever, exactly, we mean by that) with “genre” writers, who focus on a particular kind of story: historical novels, romance, mystery, science fiction. The comparison is biased, intrinsically, in favor of the mainstream, and therefore in this case against The Lord of the Rings, which at the time of its publication seemed to represent that most marginal of artistic categories, a genre of one.

The University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library holds the majority of Tolkien’s papers, making it the obvious place for an exhibition on his life and work. (Manuscripts of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and some other works are at Marquette University in Milwaukee, which presciently bought them from the author in 1957, only two years after The Lord of the Rings was published.) Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth was in fact the Bodleian’s second major Tolkien exhibit. The first was held in 1992, to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Tolkien’s birth. (Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth later moved to the United States and was presented at the Morgan Library in New York City in 2019.)

An exhibition on the life and work of a writer—as distinct from a visual artist—is an exercise in magical thinking. Instead of simply bringing the subject’s work together in one place, it tries to create a sense of contact with the subject through a series of tangible relics: manuscripts, of course, but also letters, photographs and other documents. Their purpose, it can seem, is to make the subject real and present, to forge a connection between books written and a life lived, as though it were something we were in constant danger of losing. Occasionally these relics are little epiphanies, embodying something essential about the subject, or the subject’s world, that verbal description would be hard put to match. One such, illustrated in the exhibition catalogue (fig. 8) of the same name edited by Catherine McIlwaine, but not included in the show itself, is a 1929 note from Tolkien’s good friend C. S. Lewis announcing a meeting of the Coalbiters, an Old Norse reading group at Oxford; the note is written in Old Norse! I cannot imagine a document that captures more perfectly the academic milieu in which Tolkien nurtured his mythologies.

One can also find the reader’s report (cat. 152) by the twelve-year-old Rayner Unwin on the opening chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. Rayner was the son of the publisher Sir Stanley Unwin and was groomed from childhood to inherit the family business. When he was ten his father paid him a shilling to read The Hobbit in manuscript, and his favorable response was instrumental in getting the tale published. Two years later he was asked to assess The Hobbit’s sequel. His report was favorable, though he couldn’t help remarking that there was “a little too much conversation and ‘hobbit talk’”; even a precocious twelve-year-old might be excused for missing the deliberate contrast between the hobbits’ exaggerated cheerfulness and the terrors they are about to encounter. A decade and a half later, it was Rayner Unwin who saw The Lord of the Rings into print at last.

In a very different vein, a letter to Tolkien from an American admirer in 1973 (cat. 15C) raises questions about small details of the story. Thus, “we are most interested in why Elbereth, star-kindler, was the name which Frodo invoked when in great peril. In the war with Sauron it would seem that Gilgalad [sic] might be an elf name more hated by the Dark Lord and his servants; and Glorfindel, still walking abroad in the land, should have been the greatest bane to the Witch-King at the Last Ford to Rivendell. But we are unable to find satisfactory answers to the questions thus raised in the available appendices.” This exemplifies the slightly obsessive character of the Tolkien cult, with readers hungry to resolve even the smallest inconsistencies as though dealing with an actual history. The often hairsplitting textual knowledge brought to bear by enthusiasts of Tolkien’s world, and the attending sense of blurred boundaries between imagination and reality, reflected back on Tolkien himself, and linked him, unfairly but one fears semi-permanently, to escapism and frivolous mental effort.

Successive exhibitions on a single author define the author’s changing significance for the exhibiting institution and for the culture at large. The two Bodleian catalogues, from 1992 and 2018, differ little in emphasis but hugely in scale. The later volume is hard-bound whereas the earlier one is paper, and it is more imposing in every way: more pages (416 to 95!), more illustrations, much more color, and (in lieu of an introduction?) six essays by noted Tolkien scholars on subjects relating to the nine divisions of the catalogue but not corresponding precisely to any of them: “J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biographical Sketch,” by Catherine McIlwaine, Tolkien archivist at the Bodleian and the catalogue’s author/editor; “Tolkien and the Inklings,” by John Garth; “Faerie: Tolkien’s Perilous Land,” by Verlyn Flieger; “Inventing Elvish,” by Carl F. Hostetter; “Tolkien and ‘that noble northern spirit,’” by Tom Shippey (an especially fascinating piece); and “Tolkien’s Visual Art,” by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull. All six essays are valuable, but none of them suggests a major reassessment of Tolkien’s life or work. In other words, Tolkien as perceived and celebrated in 2018 is essentially the same as Tolkien fêted in 1992, only bigger, more cinematic.

Only in one respect does the new catalogue suggest a new approach: the greater attention paid to Tolkien’s achievements as a visual artist. His visual world was complex and unresolved. He made, for example, naturalistic, largely academic early drawings in pen and ink, depicting buildings and landscape features. One of the best, from 1912, is reproduced in the catalogue. It is recognized that Tolkien’s most important drawing teacher was his mother. Even her handwriting shimmers with energy and elegance (see, e.g., cat. 17), and it is tempting to see in it the basis of her son’s medievalizing fantasies. Unfortunately we are deprived–like Tolkien himself–of the chance to investigate her influence in detail. After her tragically early death in 1904, her sister-in-law burned her papers: not from fear of any scandal, but because she simply could not imagine anybody wanting them.

There is another possible source for Tolkien’s drawing. During his childhood and adolescence the most popular art magazine in England was The Studio, an uneasy synthesis (to modern eyes at least) of progressive and conservative styles. For decorative arts an Arts and Crafts ethos was preferred, while the coverage of painting follows a rather timid proto-modernist path: Whistler is persona grata, but Cézanne does not turn up until 1903! This, however, was only a part of the magazine’s character. During the period in question it regularly featured ink drawings (and comparable etchings and engravings) of buildings, landscapes, seascapes, and scenes of daily life: a comfortable, low-intensity art with none of the passions of emerging modernism. The Studio provided, in other words, an inexhaustible reserve of the kind of art that Mabel Tolkien taught her son to create.

Although Tolkien would go on to use pen and ink (in somewhat different styles) as an aid in visualizing some of the places in The Lord of the Rings, there was another, very different aspect to his artistic output. Beginning in 1914, with a notebook he called “the Book of Ishness,” he produced a set of representational but highly abstract watercolors, mainly depicting landscapes. Some appear to be little more than doodles (e.g., cat. 41), yet they have an effect beyond anything his drawings might suggest, conveying the impression of landscapes distant, mysterious, and wonderful. In at least one instance Tolkien’s new visual style dovetails with his literary and linguistic world making. This is the watercolor McIlwaine calls “The Shores of Faery” (cat. 65), although the title may technically belong to the poem on the next page of the “Ishness” notebook (cat. 66). In any case the poem and the watercolor have the same subject: the landscape of Valinor, the dwelling place of the gods, with its two light-giving trees, as seen by the seminal figure in Tolkien’s mythology, the wanderer Earendel (later Eärendil). It is exciting to see two major components of Tolkien’s imagination–the mythology and the means to visualize it–moving in step. Here, if anywhere, we can see Tolkien becoming Tolkien, and we can see his imagined world taking shape through his own eyes.

As always when an artist—even an amateur—suddenly adopts a new style, we want to know where it came from. It may be more than coincidence that Tolkien’s poem of 1915 titled “The Shores of Faery” begins “West of the Moon, East of the Sun.” Only a year earlier a collection of Norwegian folktales, lavishly illustrated by Kay Nielsen, was published in London under the title East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Tolkien could not have afforded to buy the book, but given his interest in things Nordic it would be surprising if he never saw it. What he would have absorbed from it is another question. Nielsen and Tolkien painted in very different styles. Nielsen’s art is a giddy combination of ultra-abundant, ultra-precise detail (he learned much from Aubrey Beardsley) with juxtapositions of color so outlandish that they verge on the uncanny. Human figures are bizarrely attenuated and frequently epicene, and the setting evokes a world where enchantment is the order of the day.

There is little or nothing for Tolkien to imitate in all this, if by imitation we mean straightforward copying or even straightforward adaptation. Nielsen’s illustrations are, however, as pure an embodiment of faerie–the realm of wonder tales, including Tolkien’s nascent one–as we can easily imagine. They are varied, exotic, and evocative in the highest degree. There is no telling what a young artist and writer, newly set forth on the paths of his imagination, might learn from such an encounter. The same is true of another artist whose work Tolkien may have known: the Norwegian folk modernist Gerhard Munthe. Like Nielsen, Munthe consistently captured the world of legend and folklore in ways that went beyond the literal level of illustration. It is unlikely that Tolkien saw Munthe’s actual work—Munthe became known outside Norway in the 1890s, but never exhibited in Britain—but several of his works in painting and tapestry were reproduced in The Studio during the first two decades of Tolkien’s life.

Tolkien never saw himself as anything but an amateur artist.

In formal terms, “The Shores of Faerie” and its kind are minor works, however important they may have been for Tolkien’s personal development. When I speak of Tolkien as an artist I have more than these in mind. In 1915 Tolkien used his new style, and his memory of a recent trip to Cornwall, to create something extraordinary. This is the watercolor titled “Water Wind and Sand” (cat. 42). It is representational, but only just. We can make out a sandy beach, breaking waves, cliffs with natural arches, and a rather foolish little human figure standing in a pool in the foreground (Tolkien, like J. M. W. Turner before him, never really learned to draw people, and usually had the good sense not to try). We know from a more literal depiction of the same coastline (fig. 67) and from one of Tolkien’s letters to his fiancée that the view was dramatic in itself, but in capturing the experience he pushed representation to its limits, turning the land- and seascape into a flickering aurora.

In one sense what we are seeing is a simple stylistic device. Instead of depicting the scene in perspective, one takes the component forms and flattens them, differentiates them by applying single, largely unmodulated colors, and brings the resulting two-dimensional shapes forward, up against the picture plane. It is a trick, arguably the trick, of modernist painting, but it predates modernism as we usually understand it. In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, artists often used the same device, especially in depicting forms with ambiguous substance, or no substance at all: light reflected off water, clouds, patches of sunlight. No one, however, seems to have used it in as radical and comprehensive a way as Tolkien before Tolkien himself. Indeed, the only artists who regularly surpassed Tolkien at such effects did so a generation later, on the other side of the Atlantic: Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keefe, Charles Burchfield, Marsden Hartley, Lawren Harris.

Tolkien continued to draw and paint throughout his life for his own amusement, for his children, and to help visualize scenes in his writing. The wildness of “Water Wind and Sand” survives, but only as an element in a more inclusive, less demanding style. Of the watercolors reproduced in the catalogue, only “Fantasy Landscape” (cat. 43), also from 1915, has the same intensity, the same sense of moving beyond observable reality, to a place where color becomes the direct expression of a state of mind. Flames?–shell-bursts?–dark wings?–an eclipse? What, exactly, is going on? It is tempting to connect the apocalyptic luridness of the scene with Tolkien’s experience of war, but he did not see combat until the following year.

In any case, Tolkien seems to have held on to his new style for less than a year before starting to water it down: a brief, strange passage in his creative life. One might imagine Tolkien setting out confidently for the unexplored territories of his own mind, coming face to face with something unexpected and scary, and backing away, unprepared for the full force of whatever he had met. It is a matter for speculation what might have happened if he had chosen images rather than words as the primary vehicle for his ideas, had gone to the right art school and had the right teachers. We might now include him among the revolutionaries who at that very moment were struggling, successfully, to move beyond the constraints of representational subject matter: Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Giacomo Balla, Hilma af Klint. Or not. Perhaps he would not have allied himself with those artists, sensing a deep incompatibility between nonrepresentational art and the narrative character of his own vision. In that case, his work might have ended up resembling that of the couple known as Hipkiss, whose huge scroll drawing “Lonely Europe Arm Yourself” (1994–95) offers not just a panorama of visionary political, military, and architectural activity, but a reimagining of the history of Western art, in which the Renaissance never took place, and the gothic style remained the European vernacular for another six hundred years.

To return to reality, Tolkien never saw himself as anything but an amateur artist. Nonetheless, he did provide illustrations in a variety of styles for The Hobbit (1937), and they were published and well received. In visual terms, his biggest contribution was the design for the book’s dust jacket (cat. 146). The composition balances symmetry and whimsy against an echo of Tolkien’s early expressionism. It is notable, too, for Tolkien’s uncharacteristic disregard for the consistency of his own narrative–he was normally a stickler for accuracy–and for his willingness, this one time in all the years since 1915, to give his visual imagination free rein. The forest in the foreground is far too orderly to be Mirkwood; the mountains come after the forest, a reversal of the story; the Lonely Mountain does not stand alone, but springs from the center of what are presumably the Misty Mountains; the long straight road from the forest to the Mountain has no counterpart in the text; and the Front Gate of the Mountain is conflated with the Elvenking’s gate in Mirkwood. The result is neither an illustration nor a map of Bilbo’s journey but a timeless emblem of it. As the catalogue reminds us, the dust jacket is “now a design classic, and is still in use today.” Yet Tolkien’s American publisher rejected it as having “rather a British look which always seems to disconcert and depress our book trade.” I cannot imagine a pronouncement better calculated to make an American publisher sound like an English ass.

However significant his other achievements, the central question about Tolkien as a visual artist remains that of his distinctive and highly personal style. How did an Oxford undergraduate with little or no formal art training since childhood, with a passion for language and myth but no connection to the avant-garde of his time, come to invent a whole branch of modernism for himself a generation before most professionals? This is actually not a rhetorical question: there is an answer, albeit a highly speculative one. In 1901 Annie Besant and Charles Webster Leadbeater, devotees of the spiritual movement Theosophy, published a short book called Thought Forms. In it they began to catalogue the emanations of form and color which human minds supposedly produced in various mental and emotional states, which skilled “clairvoyants” (such as the authors themselves) could easily discern. Although their chart of colors and meanings includes only twenty-five examples, the distinctions among them can be subtle and suggestive–for example, sky blue for “pure religious feeling,” a darker gray-blue for “religious feeling tinged with fear.”

For a movement little known today (though it still exists), Theosophy exerted a remarkable influence on Western art in the early twentieth century. The influence could be doctrinal or visual; often it was both. Not only did Besant and Leadbeater’s equations of color with state of mind pass into painting, but the “thought forms” themselves suggested a new iconography for modernist abstraction. Some of the forms are visually simple, a few are anything but. This is especially true of the book’s final illustration, meant to express the richness of a musical composition by Richard Wagner: a mountain-like edifice of interlocking colors, some sharp and vivid, some vague and cloudlike. The sense of connection with Tolkien’s most complex and subjective paintings, “Water Wind and Sand” and “Fantasy Landscape,” is both powerful and elusive.

Tolkien was raised a Roman Catholic, and remained one for the rest of his life. I have never heard that he flirted, even casually, with Theosophy as a spiritual path, and I am not suggesting it now. I have, however, no difficulty imagining Besant and Leadbeater’s book circulating among Tolkien’s friends at Oxford, and Tolkien examining it—perhaps seriously, perhaps in the spirit of a game—and opening himself to it briefly, before setting it aside as inimical to his beliefs. This scenario, if accepted, allows for Tolkien and the modernists receiving the same stimulus, but at different times, in different cultural settings, and most important, completely independent of one another.

Tolkien was a writer and scholar first, an artist second. His major tales, the ones that constitute his so-called legendarium or mythology, come from the same place as his made-up languages: his own extraordinary imagination, armed with the skills of a trained philologist. This is true in the literal sense that the tales originated in the languages: having invented the languages, Tolkien set about imagining who might have spoken them and what kind of history those various speakers might have shaped for themselves. It is also true in a more expansive sense, in which virtually every event and circumstance—genealogical, political, spiritual—that surfaces in Tolkien’s longest and most finished tale, The Lord of the Rings, rests iceberg-like on a great foundation of fictive history reaching back to the fictive beginning of time. Tolkien liked to insist that the world of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion was not strictly speaking an imaginary world but the real world in an imaginary past. Hence his assertion that Middle-Earth corresponded in some geographical way to modern Europe. (Did he know about what is now called Doggerland?) This is probably the weakest feature of Tolkien’s legendarium, since he provided no route-map to get us from there to here. There is no narrative bridge between Tolkien’s imagined world and our actual one. There are, however, any number of bridges within the imagined world: the appendices to The Lord of the Rings, the posthumous Silmarillion, and a profusion of notes and tales, mostly fragmentary, which his son Christopher has made it his life’s work to edit and publish.

There is something unsettling about all these bridges. The farther we follow them into the background of Tolkien’s heroes and heroines, their languages, their civilizations, the farther we enter into one man’s imagination. So much invention, and so little shame about it–like a child making things up! Following someone into his or her private world is embarrassing; we do not call it private for nothing. Art historians have a whole category, outsider art, for talent that flourishes without the support of convention: self-taught artists, visionaries, sufferers from mental illness. The crucial difference between mainstream and outsider art is that the former acknowledges antecedents, and allows us to approach a given work through its place in history. The latter has in effect no past, and demands that we engage the creative mind on its own terms, without the mediation of either history or shared assumptions regarding style and content: that is to say, awkwardly. In all likelihood this is the key to the ambivalence which still surrounds Tolkien’s achievement. Tolkien the artist turned away from outsiderhood, whatever the reason, whereas Tolkien the storyteller embraced it. As his son’s labors have revealed ever more of his imagined world, despite his popularity Tolkien has emerged as the ultimate outsider.

James Trilling is an independent art historian specializing in Byzantium, world ornament, and the origins of modernism. His interest in Tolkien goes back more than sixty years.
Originally published:
July 1, 2019


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