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Middle-earth as Muse
Jef Murray
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“Questioning different artists on why they are inspired by the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien is akin to asking the proverbial blind men to describe the elephant.”

Questioning different artists on why they are inspired by the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien is akin to asking the proverbial blind men to describe the elephant. And the analogy isn’t a bad one, since one can easily liken the works of Tolkien to Behemoth. As his son Christopher has proven with the publication of the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth, one can perhaps best measure them by the pound than by the page.

Nevertheless, I would like to explore some of the works and thoughts on this topic of the three best-known Tolkien artists alive today. To round out this brace of brush-benders, I also felt it necessary to discuss some of my own work, more as a form of extreme contrast than as an assertion of stature. Among giants, and surely as the only Catholic in the group, I hope to appropriately represent the “least of these.” Or, to paraphrase St. Thérèse of Lisieux, among the rose, the orchid, and the iris, there might still be room for the humble violet, or at least the thistle.

John Howe, Alan Lee, and Ted Nasmith are the most recognized names in the world of Tolkien visual arts. John and Alan won Academy Awards for their conceptual art design of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. In addition, both have decades-long histories of developing illustrations for Tolkien tales, and many books to their credit. Ted Nasmith’s paintings grace both recent editions of the illustrated Silmarillion, and he has developed and exhibited Middle-earth themed paintings since the early 1970s. All three artists have their work published regularly in the annual J.R.R. Tolkien Calendars.

The four of us are spread a bit thin on the ground. John and Ted were both born in Canada, but John has since migrated to Switzerland. Alan has always been thoroughly English, and I’m an unrepentant Southerner from the USA. We all have European roots and were all raised nominal Christians, but at present, I’m the only painter in the pack who still practices his faith.

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“It’s too easy to assume that Tolkien’s deeply orthodox Catholic faith most attracts those with similar beliefs to his writings, or, conversely, that his works are so devoid of religious content as to appeal most strongly to the secular world. Neither is, apparently, the case.”

This is important, because it’s too easy to assume that Tolkien’s deeply orthodox Catholic faith most attracts those with similar beliefs to his writings, or, conversely, that his works are so devoid of religious content as to appeal most strongly to the secular world. Neither is, apparently, the case. Tolkien’s popularity remains universal, with The Lord of the Rings placing first among British and European readers as the greatest fictional work of the twentieth century. This to the dismay, it might be added, of the modernist would-be arbiters of literary tastes world-wide.

When I was a guest, along with Ted Nasmith, at the Gathering of the Fellowship in Toronto in 2006, I was on a panel discussion on the topic “Why Tolkien?” The question was asked of a large group of us, including academics as well as artists. The intent was to try to tease out why Tolkien was such an inspiration. And during the discussion, Matt Blessing, of Marquette University, suggested that people were drawn to Tolkien because the world he created was so complete: Tolkien had characterized peoples, places, and events so thoroughly that the reader could become completely lost in his world.

I don’t disagree with Matt’s assessment, but it seems to me that what makes Middle-earth so compelling is not so much its completeness as its rightness. Middle-earth is a place many of us would give our eyeteeth to inhabit simply because it depicts a world that honors the Thomistic virtues: the good, the true, and the beautiful. These are values that the modern world seems to have forsaken in favor of the morally-relative, the agnostic, and the shocking.

With this in mind then, let me return us to our four blind men and our “Oliphaunt.”

John Howe
John Howe is perhaps the most conceptually concrete of the four of us in his pigmented pilgrimages; Peter Jackson has described his work as being nearly photographic. John himself describes his paintings as archeological, and he is a devotee of real history as a means of understanding how to sub-create the look and feel of feigned history. Just as J.R.R. Tolkien used real languages to inform his development of Elvish, John confesses that his “garage and attic are … piled high with shields of every period, with lances, spears, and bits of armour, old tools, tree roots… .”1 The reality of such things shows in his paintings, which often include fine details, such as subtle Celtic knot work on armour, that one might miss at first glance.

John’s paintings are linked in my mind to the more difficult “critters” in Tolkien’s bestiary. His “fell beasts” are slick and dank, his gargoyles and trolls menacing. While viewing his heroes and battle scenes, one can almost hear the clink of metal on metal and feel the brush of feathered shafts flying.

Reflecting on the deep mythological roots of The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, John says that “myths always carry great meaning, and often a hint of the sublime. Of course they are never just stories, (although they often do make good ones, often with incredible pathos) and never just allegory or symbol….”2

Alan Lee
Alan Lee is, by his own admission, very intuitive in his approach to art. Alan’s work is ethereal, fleeting, mist-filled. His trees seem more viscerally alive than even his Hobbits or his Elves. And he appears to conjure images without much up-front planning: “The pencil is continually correcting itself and trying to veer away from what feels wrong,” 3 he claims. Sketches pour prodigiously from his imagination as he works, and he was apparently threatened with broken hands by the craftsmen charged with building backdrops for the Peter Jackson films. They despaired of constructing props fast enough to keep up with Alan’s flying fingers.

Regarding The Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien’s inspiration in general, Alan writes, “I had loved myths and legends from the moment I first encountered them, and it felt as though everything in those stories that most appealed to me had been distilled and refined and forged into this totally compelling narrative.”4

Ted Nasmith
Ted Nasmith’s work, like John Howe’s, is amazingly realistic. The sweeping vistas of his landscapes and the sheer scope of his architectural renderings take one’s breath away. Many of his paintings are almost photographic; it is difficult to accept at first glance that his painting of Tol Brandir, for example, is anything other than a photo snapped by a tourist on the banks of the river Anduin.

“What inspired me originally with Tolkien was that I was wholly unprepared for the type of book The Lord of the Rings is,” says Ted, who first encountered Tolkien’s magnum opus as a teenager. “I'd always enjoyed adventure stories and movies”, he continues, “and it brought back all the love of myth and legend I'd grown out of by then (or so I thought).”

“Much of that same love of the entire, passionate, mythic, magical world of Elves, Monsters and Hobbits still has a hold over me,” Ted says. “It's hard to imagine life without Tolkien....”5

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“As a Catholic, rendering dragons is, of course, akin to a musician delighting in the sound of jet engines or a stonemason lauding earthquakes.”

Jef Murray
As the most obscure artist in this Fellowship, I’m likely best known in the Tolkien world for my paintings of whimsical dragons. As a Catholic, rendering dragons is, of course, akin to a musician delighting in the sound of jet engines or a stonemason lauding earthquakes. However, I share with Tolkien a love of dragons qua dragons. As a child, I, too, “desired dragons with a profound desire.”6

But I also share my fellow artists’ love of myth. And this love is augmented, for me at least, by Tolkien’s own admission that The Lord of the Rings is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” 7 Tolkien, along with C.S. Lewis, believed that all great tales and legends prefigured the one “True Myth” of Christianity. And I can honestly credit Tolkien’s writings (first his fiction, then his very compelling Letters) for having helped me to fully accept the profound and mystical teachings of the Catholic faith. As an artist, I find that Middle-earth speaks to me of the Creator as surely as does rain on parched land or the bursting forth of spring flowers after a bitter winter’s freeze.

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“Despite our different approaches to his mythology, we continue to discern the Good in his works.”

And this brings us back to the landscape of proverb, myth, and the rightness of Tolkien’s world. There is a scene in The Lord of the Rings which ties these legends together and offers us a few additional golden glimmers. Éomer encounters Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn on the plains of Rohan, and when apprised of the news of Gandalf’s death and the impending war, he exclaims “How shall a man judge what to do in such times?”

“As he has ever judged,” answers Aragorn. “Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them….”

And that is, perhaps, the best way to explain why so many artists from so many different backgrounds continue to be inspired by Tolkien. Because, despite our different approaches to his mythology, we continue to discern the Good in his works. And we are all, it seems to me, simply trying to produce paintings and sketches worthy of that Good.

General- LOTR The Two Towers

1. Myth and Magic, John Howe, p. 139, HarperCollins UK (December 1, 2001).
2. Correspondence with Jef Murray, 2008.
3. The Lord of the Rings Sketchbook, Alan Lee, p 12, Houghton Mifflin (October 19, 2005)
4. The Lord of the Rings Sketchbook, Alan Lee, p 10, Houghton Mifflin (October 19, 2005)
5. Correspondence with Jef Murray, 2008
6. Tree and Leaf, “On Fairy Stories”, J.R.R. Tolkien, p 40, Unwin Hyman Ltd., 1988.
7. Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien, p 243, Houghton Mifflin; June 2000

John Howe’s website is at www.john-howe.com

Alan Lee’s website is at www.alan-lee.com

Ted Nasmith’s website is at www.TedNasmith.com

Jef Murray is artist-in-residence for the St. Austin Review (StAR), and the illustrator of Joseph Pearce’s latest book, Divining Divinity. His website is at www.JefMurray.com. See the Journal’s interview with him in Issue One

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