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Casting Tolkien’s spell: The Journal interviews Tolkien artist Michael Hague

“Once I am in Tolkien’s world something magical happens. The everyday world melts away and anything becomes possible.”

Michael Hague is well-known for his memorable illustrated edition of The Hobbit. He is married to children’s author Kathleen Hague, and has illustrated many other children’s books. He trained in Los Angeles, and has been inspired and influenced by Arthur Rackham, Hiroshige, Walt Disney, and many others. As well as book illustration, his work is found on greetings cards, posters, and recently is his graphic novel, In the Small (Little, Brown and Company).

Michael, what led to your interest in illustrating fantasy?

Fantasy has always been a big part of my life. It was the thing that excited me, from my childhood books to the movies I went to see. All of them filled my mind with the fantastic and all possibilities were opened to me. My earliest drawings were of knights and dragons.

How did your specific interest in Tolkien’s work start?

My interest in Tolkien began in high school. It was the most exciting piece of literature I had ever read. I found his books quite by accident. Rummaging through a used bookstore I came upon a set of The Lord of the Rings. It sounded like something I would be interested in. After the first chapter I was hooked and I still have that same well-worn set in my library today.

What has given you a particular interest in children’s literature?

I have always loved children's literature. It is probably rooted in my fond memories of the books I read in childhood, including classics introduced to me by my mother and grandmother.

How did you come to have an English mother? You rate her as a major influence upon you in becoming an artist, I believe.

My mother was born and raised in London. After World War II she immigrated to the United States. She had been an art student in England and has always encouraged me to draw and paint. When she came over one of the few possessions she carried with her was a few of the coloured fairy books selected and edited by Andrew Lang. Most of the illustrations were by H.J. Ford. These are the books that became so fundamental to me as an artist. The craft of drawing was instilled in my appreciation of the illustrations and I loved that I always found something new and interesting in the art. Without my mother's influence I am not sure I would have become and artist, although I have few other skills.

Did you meet your wife, Kathleen, at College? You have collaborated on several books, I believe.

Yes. I met Kathleen while we were both attending Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. We were both Fine Arts majors. The illustration department was strictly magazine illustration in those days. They told me that you could not expect to make a living as a children's book illustrator, which is what I wanted to be. So they didn't bother having classes for the subject. Fine Arts offered me more drawing and creative opportunities so I entered into that programme. We married in 1970 while still students at the school. We have three grown children who have all entered into arts-related fields.

What have been the main influences upon your work?

The influences have been many and varied and I am constantly making new discoveries that impact what I am doing. Disney was a great influence as well as Hal Foster, who did the great Prince Valiant comics. Alex Raymond, who illustrated the Flash Gordon comics, was another great influence. During my college years I discovered the work of Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, W. Heath Robinson, and many others. I go back to the red, blue, and green fairy books and the others of my childhood as being most influential in my love of fantasy and illustration. Where would any of us be without our childhood friends?

Why have you sought to combine realism with fantasy in your illustrations?

The fantastic is always believable if it is placed in the familiar. I give great importance on landscape and background in my paintings. If the viewer accepts your vision of a believable world then they find it easier to accept that a dragon or unicorn can exist in that world. I believe Tolkien once described this. (If it wasn’t him, it could have been!)

How have you achieved such a distinctive, recognizable and consistent style? Do you have any particular technique or secret that you employ?

No tricks or secrets. Just long hours of doing what you love; your style develops on its own.

How much do you feel that you are participating with Tolkien in creating an “other world”?

Tolkien is the creator. I take my cue from the author. Once I am in his world something magical happens. The everyday world melts away and anything becomes possible.

How have you managed to keep in touch with the world of the child and to adapt your work to various ages of childhood?

I have managed to keep in touch with my childhood because in a very real way I have never left it. I believe that I am still at heart a fourteen-year-old kid. The same things that i liked then, I enjoy now. When I write it is what I would have loved to read when I was fourteen. And when I paint I try to tap into those memories of paintings I loved to explore when I was reading as a child.

Unicorns and dragons—what is the appeal of ancient magical creatures, do you think, to today’s child (and adult!)?

I love to see pictures of the future: machines and computers, a fusion of wires and technology. I have always been a fan of science fiction. But then I always love to look back, into a past that never was, but still exists. Unicorns and dragons are magical. I think the modern child finds a connection to the earth and green growing things in these ancient creatures. I think both children and adults need that.

Many people have been introduced to your work through your illustrations for editions of The Hobbit. Part of the strength of these illustrations, it seems to me, is a kind of period setting. How did you set about achieving such a consistency, however it may be described?

I just closed my eyes and let the words flow over me like running water. And when I opened my eyes this was the world I saw.

You’ve said that Tolkien’s work has had such an impact on you and countless others because his beings are part of us and we recognize the land, trees and water that he creates. How have you built such a familiarity into your Tolkien- and fantasy-inspired work?

This goes back to an earlier question. The more real you are able to make your world the more believable everything else will be. By paying attention to the details of everyday life you are able to put the viewer or reader into a trance. Screw up your description of land, tree or water and the spell is broken forever.

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