Festival in the Shire Tolkien inspired!

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An interview with Jef Murray

Jef Murray is an internationally known artist and illustrator of J.R.R. Tolkien and fantasy. His paintings and sketches appear regularly in publications devoted to Tolkien and the Inklings (Amon Hen, Mallorn, Beyond Bree, Silver Leaves, Mythprints) and in Catholic publications worldwide (The St. Austin Review, Gilbert Magazine). He is Artist-in-Residence for the St. Austin Review (StAR). His latest book illustrations appear in Black & White Ogre Country: The Lost Tales of Hilary Tolkien by Hilary A. R. Tolkien (the brother of J. R. R. Tolkien). When interviewed by Colin Duriez for the Fesitival in the Shire online magazine, Jef revealed that he “resides in Decatur, Georgia, USA, with his wife, author and columnist Lorraine V. Murray (www.LorraineVMurray.com), Hamster-in-Residence Ignatius, and about 60,000 honeybees”.

Jef, how did you come to be so interested and creatively responsive to the work of J. R. R. Tolkien?

My earliest memory of purchasing a book (with my own allowance money!) was when I was about seven years old, and that book was Fifty Famous Fairy Tales. It included some rather ghastly contemporary 1960s-style illustrations that I studiously ignored. But the stories themselves I read over and over again. At about the same time, my mother read bedtime tales to my older sister, my younger brother and me, and the most delightful of these, to us, were the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. My mother also, as I recollect, had a copy of The Hobbit, and I think she must have read it to us, because I remember having gotten a sense of some great sequel work, entitled The Lord of the Rings, that was deemed “too mature” for us at the time.

Of course, like any prohibition implied or otherwise, the fact that such a book existed and was put “off limits” gave it that mystical sense of something very worth pursuing indeed; a grail to be sought after.

But, happily, I didn’t immediately take up the gauntlet. I went on to discover Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens, R. L. Stevenson and T.H. White and Dante. I read Kipling, Rider Haggard, Fenimore Cooper, and many, many other writers. I found and read diverse collections of fairy tales akin to the one I first bought for myself at age seven. And, finally, at about age fourteen or fifteen, I sat down to find out what had ever become of Bilbo and his magic ring.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that, by the time I returned to Middle-earth, I had become at least minimally acquainted with many of the great treasures of Western folklore and legend. And with that grounding, Tolkien’s magnum opus was able to work its magic on me to best advantage: touching on themes that were familiar; echoing story elements that to me had a deep resonance in cultural truth.

And this not simply because I knew of Arthur’s Round Table and King Solomon’s Mines and the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea, but because I also was aware, by this time, of the deep medieval legacy of Christian myth and lore that bound all of these together as if they were some grand and ongoing tale: one that was beyond time and beyond the knowledge of us mere mortals, and in which we ourselves were deeply imbedded.

This was what The Lord of the Rings became for me: a portal into those older realms, and into a deeper understanding of who I was as a young soon-to-be man. Once discovered, this portal remained a tremendously powerful lodestone for me, and continues to be so to this day.

An enormous part of your oeuvre is inspired by Tolkien, isn’t it?

Yes, Colin, and for obvious reasons, given what I have just mentioned!

But exploring Middle-earth is not my only great joy as an artist. I regularly develop images that are not Tolkien-themed, including (as one might expect) scenes from C.S. Lewis’ works, fairy tale images, and other medieval-flavoured sketches and paintings. In addition, I’ve done many wildlife paintings and developed some specifically religious works.

All of these seem “of a piece” to me—they work to inform each other and suggest ideas for new works. And things move in odd directions sometimes, as lately I’ve been very busy developing black and white illustrations for a new edition of Fouque’s masterpiece of chivalric romance, The Magic Ring. This work, which was set during the third crusade, will be published by Valancourt Books in the spring, and I hope to discuss it at the Festival in the Shire in August. But as with so much of my work, there’s still a Tolkien connection, because Fouque’s writings predated and influenced the works of Edgar Allen Poe, George MacDonald, and, according to some scholars, even Tolkien himself, despite the fact that modern day readers will know little about him (other, perhaps, than of his fantasy short story Undine, which is regularly included in fantasy anthologies).

Your work is becoming publicized and exhibited more and more in Britain through The Tolkien Society and now Festival in the Shire. As an American coming here, did you find parts of Britain were like The Shire or Middle-earth, particularly in a visual way?

The Cotswolds and West Midlands reflect the consensus that most Tolkien artists and readers have about the “look and feel” of the Shire, no doubt about it. I think many of us have almost an archetypal view of these sorts of landscapes—as if they were “home” in a very profound sense. I don’t know if this sense of “rightness” is what has shaped the West Midlands landscape or whether it’s the other way around, but it is certainly a fact that most folk breathe the air of the Cotswolds deeply and appreciatively.

What meagre English sensibilities I personally have come from a very devout Anglophile grandmother and from my own heritage (Scottish, English, and a bit of Irish, plus a great-great-great-grandmother who was Cherokee Indian). But Lorraine and I also live in the Deep South in the US, where most settlers were of British Isles extraction, so there are resonances, especially in rural areas like those in which I was raised.

Which of your works are you particularly satisfied by? If you had to choose one work when you were escaping a flood, what would it be?

Both are difficult questions. I don’t know if this is generally true among artists or whether it’s a quirk of my own, but I am most interested in and often (though not always!) most satisfied by the work that I am doing now rather than with past pieces. And I’m sometimes startled when someone tells me how much they like a piece of mine that’s several years old. It’s not that I don’t think my older work has merit; just that that particular turn in the road is, for me, long past. And in order to deeply appreciate it again, I’d almost have to go back and repaint it, or develop a companion piece for it.

And I guess this gets to an aspect of my painting that might need a bit more explanation. If you accept what I said about Tolkien’s writings being like a portal into the riches of our shared Western heritage of story, myth, and magic, then my paintings and sketches represent my travels through that portal and back again. I often think of the drawings that I come up with as souvenirs of trips I’ve taken—to Middle-earth, to Narnia, to Atlantis and the Black Forest, to the gates of Eden. The trip’s the thing, and the sketches and paintings are like snapshots I’ve taken along the way.

I’m not one of those people who takes a lot of photographs when I do travel, so am not one who enjoys poring over holiday snaps with relatives. So, when I say my paintings and sketches are like snapshots, that’s not exactly what I mean. Rather, they’re almost like (dare I use the term?) sacramentals. They remind and reconnect me with those travels and those places in a way that a photo never can. But the more recent the trip, the more intensely I can feel what it was like to be on the road; so the older the image, the less pull it has on my imagination. This isn’t always true, and some painting I’ve not seen in a few years can suddenly reach out and grab me and pull me, kicking and screaming as it were, right back to the shores of the Anduin or to the depths of Fangorn forest. The magic is still there, but it “rests” with time, waiting for other opportunities or fresh eyes to tap into it.

How do you see your Tolkien-inspired works developing in the next couple of years?

I’m afraid there’s no good answer to this question, either! As Tolkien would suggest, the road goes ever on and on, and I can but follow. The realm of Faerie is an unpredictable and perilous land, especially for those arrogant enough to pretend they understand its ways. I try studiously not to so pretend!

But, I can at least answer where my Tolkien works seem to be headed at present. I’m finding that my colours are becoming more muted and more realistic. I’m spending more time with landscapes and with the human figure, with the result (I hope!) that the images maintain a deeper sense of the depths of Tolkien’s works themselves. One patron has described recent works (e.g., “Andúnië”, “Meduseld”) as moodier…stormier. I think some of this may have resulted from my work on The Magic Ring, which is a richly Gothic piece, but, as I say, one can’t entirely predict or explain such things.

Which of Tolkien’s writings most makes you want to grab a sketch pad?

I have a great fondness, as do so many folk, for Hobbits, and I seem to see these in particular cropping up over and over again in my sketchbooks. They so marvellously demonstrate the very best, as well as the very noblest, aspects of simple, joyful participation in God’s world—putting the most important things first (love, humility, family, joy, generosity, humour) and being willing to fight for these things any time they are threatened. Hobbits make me happy, and my wife, Lorraine, can usually tell if I’m sketching a Hobbit scene by the broad grin I have on my face as I work.

I am a big fan of G.K. Chesterton, and believe that, had he lived to read about Hobbits, he would have roundly approved of them as protagonists. In a world full of fame and hubris and grand schemes for the domination of others – in a fallen world, that is – Hobbits cut through the nonsense and show us what makes life truly worth living.

Why do you think J. R. R. Tolkien was so shy of visualization in his storytelling (for example, in his dislike of film) when he was such a natural illustrator and calligrapher?

Well, it has something to do with the nature of Tolkien’s preferred medium, doesn’t it? Communication via the word brings its own strengths, and not least among them is the ancestry of the words themselves and their resonance with the whole canon of western literature. Literature and language (“Lit” and “Lang”, in the parlance of academics) are not separate, and Tolkien was a poet who understood this. To try to “translate” his tales from the written word into an entirely different medium (e.g., film) would mean, inevitably, losing much, if not all, of the “Lang” portion of what he wrote; a loss that was, to Tolkien as philologist and poet, completely unacceptable.

That said, Tolkien clearly appreciated visual artists who tried their hand at visualizing scenes from his tales. But these were, as I mentioned, more like “snapshots” than an attempt to tell the tale in full—again, a portal into Middle-earth rather than a recreation of the tales as a whole in the visual artist’s own image.

And all of this reminds me a bit of the Eastern Orthodox teachings on iconography. That is, the images of Christ, the saints, scenes from Scripture, and such, that one sees in a Greek or Russian Orthodox Church (and increasingly, I’m happy to say, in Roman Catholic churches as well) are not simply illustrations. They are, instead, “windows into heaven”, and are intended to invite the viewer to participate in the scene or commune with the person depicted, prayerfully. This is, in the most profound sense, exactly what the best paintings and sketches also can be, although perhaps not as intentionally. They become a threshold over which you are invited to step. But, to do that, you have to leave yourself behind; you have to become like a little child again, suspending disbelief, before you are able to plunge into that mystical realm.

Do you always have a specific public in mind when you paint and illustrate?

Yes. Myself. Or rather, that part of myself that is stirred by something (something I’ve seen? Something I’ve heard? Something that Dame Melancholy has whispered in my ear? It is impossible to say for sure …) that seems to need to be put down on paper or canvas. I do sometimes paint an image for something (a book cover, for example) or because someone suggested it or wanted me to try my hand at it. But, ultimately, if that lady whom I call my Muse remains unmoved, I am powerless to proceed. This, again, is the realm of Faerie exerting its influence; one dances with one’s Muse when she is willing, not necessarily when you are.

What are the main inspirations for your artistic work? Are there influences from classic illustrators like Arthur Rackham, Beatrix Potter and Pauline Baynes?

I love the works of all three of these and have multiple books by them which I will sometimes look through for inspiration or to clarify how a particular technique might be achieved. But I do the same with works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Maxfield Parrish, the Wyeths, Winslow Homer, and many others. And like Tolkien, I doubt if anyone can precisely pin down who influences an artist of any sort in their work—certainly not the artists themselves.

Thinking of your recent work, how did you come to be involved in illustrating Hilary Tolkien’s Black and White Ogre Country?

The short answer is through the grace and goodness of God. But the longer one is through the kindness and forbearance of Chris Tolkien, Angie Gardner, and Andy Compton, who collectively pulled me into the project as it was spinning up, and were tickled by the earliest sketches I developed to illustrate Hilary’s delightful tales.

Do Hilary Tolkien’s illustrations and writings help us in understanding his brother’s inspiration for the magical and fantasy in the ordinary. Both were responding to their childhood worlds, weren’t they?

Yes, both Hilary and Ronald were “sub-creating” tales that had deep roots in their earliest childhood memories. But Hilary was no writer, and his tales, as a result, maintain an innocence and delight that shines through in some ways even more powerfully than it does in his brother’s! Hilary’s writings and reminiscences provide us with a “lost piece of the puzzle” of who Ronald was and how Middle-earth came to be. And with the more complete biography, Wheelbarrows at Dawn, I think folks will learn even more about the deep love that the entire Tolkien family shared and how that love manifested itself in the writings we all know and treasure.

You share not only J. R. R. Tolkien’s faith, but also his particular church denomination. How far has that huge affinity shaped your work?

Enormously. As I said before, I “finally” read The Lord of the Rings when I was about fourteen or fifteen. But I became a Roman Catholic only years later as an adult, and then only nominally. I originally was drawn to Catholicism, to be honest, through the aesthetics of the Church rather than through her teachings, although this changed later as my understanding of the teachings deepened.

But just when I was beginning to paint professionally, I also started reading, for the first time, Tolkien’s Letters and his essay On Fairy Stories. And I distinctly remember a point when I had an intense burst of realization that all of these stories I’d grown up with, about God and Jesus and the figures in the Bible, weren’t just stories: they were true. They had really happened, and the events that they described, the ones that seemed like some marvellous fairy tale, were in fact part of the very same story that I myself was a part of.

This resonance with what Tolkien had to say about his faith, coupled with my own belief and experience that art allowed one to use the gifts God had given one to their fullest, made me want to go back to that portal that The Lord of the Rings represented. It made me want to journey through Middle-earth again, and to bring back images of what I found there. In this, I found myself trying to bring into physical being tokens of the goodness, truth, and beauty of God’s world as Tolkien had seen it and expressed it. Middle-earth is our earth, just seen anew. And I found myself (and continue to find myself) wanting to experience the magic of that world over and over again, and to share that magic with others.

Christians of other denominations, many of them Protestant, have warmed thoroughly to the writings and themes of J. R. R. Tolkien. Do you see him as foremost a “mere Christian”, in C. S. Lewis’s famous sense?

I certainly see how his works cannot help but appeal to all Christians, and to those who are not Christian, but who are still drawn to the “rightness” of the world Tolkien sub-created. The Thomistic values of goodness, truth, and beauty are our common heritage, after all.

But just as studying only “Literature” and ignoring “Language” diminishes the power and depth of a written work, so focussing only on the core beliefs of all Christians to the exclusion of Tolkien’s Catholic sensibilities impoverishes, I believe, one’s appreciation for the depths and nuances of Tolkien’s writings. The American writer Flannery O’Connor once said: “I write the way I do because and only because I am a Catholic. I feel that if I were not a Catholic, I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason ever to feel horrified or even to enjoy anything.” Tolkien might not have proclaimed so bold a statement for himself, but his Catholic faith was certainly as much at the core of his being as it was for O’Connor.

I’m certainly not saying, here, that one has to be a Catholic to appreciate Tolkien. Far from it! But the more one understands what Catholics believe and why we believe it -- particularly when those beliefs differ from or expand upon those described by Lewis in his book Mere Christianity -- the more one can “get” many subtleties and depths of Tolkien’s genius. Going back to the “Lit.” and “Lang.” example, I’ve known of folk who learned Russian so that they could read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in their native language. Tolkien’s “native language”, the ground of who he was, was Roman Catholicism, not simply generic Christianity. One may not like that fact (particularly if one has deeply held prejudices against Catholicism, as C.S. Lewis himself apparently did), but it is just that—a fact.

You of course don’t only create work inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien. How did you find it illustrating Joseph Pearce’s book of poetry, Divining Divinity?

I enjoyed working on Divining Divinity tremendously. Joseph Pearce is a very gifted writer, and unbeknownst to me when he first forwarded the poems to me, an extremely clever, thoughtful, and humorous poet as well. Ours was a lively collaboration, with my images attempting to capture some bits and pieces of his profound verse, almost always inadequately. But, the attempt allowed me to stretch myself more into black and white illustration in ways I’d not tried before that, and I was grateful for that opportunity. Joseph remains a good friend as well as my ongoing editor at StAR (the St. Austin Review, www.staustinreview.com), and I am extremely grateful to be able to continue to share my work with the readers of that highly-respected journal. I should note that the upcoming January/February 2010 issue of StAR focuses on C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as “Masters of Myth and Tellers of Truth”. I think Tolkien and Lewis fans will find much in it of interest.

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