Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth Exhibition

The Bodleian Library in Oxford is currently (1st June to 28th October) running an exhibition of items from the Tolkien archives. I’ve never been one to bask in, for instance, the particular chair an author wrote in (the chair from Tolkien’s study, and his little writing desk, are both on display), nor to get much from standing in the presence of an original manuscript, unless it’s been made more interesting with doodles (as with Mervyn Peake) or interesting corrections. I was, though, genuinely thrilled to see some of Tolkien’s original artwork, including two I must have known since first reading The Hobbit around the age of 10 or 11 — “A Conversation with Smaug”, which was used as the cover to my copy of The Hobbit, and his illustration of the trolls.

“A Conversation with Smaug” by Tolkien

What struck me about both was how small they were. Neither seemed appreciably bigger than the state in which I’d first seen them, i.e. the page-size of a 1970s paperback (they were probably more hardback size). And this smallness — tinyness, even — became something of a theme throughout the exhibition. For someone who created the first modern epic-sized fantasy, Tolkien, when he wrote, and when he drew, wrote and drew very small. The thing that really brought this home was seeing a letter written by Tolkien’s mother. Her handwriting was extremely neat, quite stylistic, but extremely tiny. I can’t find an example to reproduce, but I particularly remember her letter “p”, which had a strongly angled upright, with a little curlicue at the end, joined onto a perfect little circle. The whole thing looked as regular as typewritten text, but also, of course, being handwritten, entirely unique. And also tiny. Tiny, tiny, tiny.

Moving from that to some examples of Tolkien’s own writing, in his invented scripts, seemed more of a logical step than a leap of invention — with his invented letters being based around tiny circles with lines and curlicues attached, all so neat and tiny. Not quite as tiny as Mrs Tolkien’s, but tiny nevertheless. The tinyness of Mrs Tolkien’s handwriting could, of course, be put down to her writing on small letter-paper to keep down on postage costs, but to me, the tinyness of Tolkien’s runes and handwriting makes me think more of the privacy of imaginative creation, as though, in a way, he was making his “sub-created” world out of deliberately smaller elements, to contain it within our world, not make it stand on a par with it.

And I’ve no doubt that so much practice with tiny, neat calligraphy would have given Tolkien the control of his pen (and paintbrush) needed to produce his very neat drawings and paintings. There was a quote from Tolkien reproduced alongside one of his drawings, saying that he didn’t have the patience to be an illustrator and didn’t think he could draw, but I’m always impressed by how much the more successful of his artworks work because of the sort of sparseness and control you don’t expect to find in an amateur, who’d be more given to over-drawing, filling up the page with detail to compensate for lack of skill. Tolkien seemed to know what he wanted to draw, did it to the best of his ability, then stopped. And his use of colour on occasion makes successful use of quite restrained pastel shades, another thing I don’t associate with someone who “can’t draw”.

I have to add, though, that the last thing I looked at in the exhibition was Pauline Baynes’ watercolour map of Middle-earth, and there you could definitely see the subtle touches that showed a professional was at work. Despite being the original piece, I could only detect the barest hint of supporting pencil work — a very faint line running through the centre of the curves of text naming regions of the map was about it. (The colours were also a lot subtler and brighter than the image I’ve linked to.) Pauline Bayne’s illustrations (for the Narnia books) are something I’ve known for about as long as Tolkien’s Hobbit illustrations, so that was another thrill, seeing some of her original work.

One of Tolkien’s pages from The Book of Mazarbul”

Elsewhere, there were Tolkien’s maps — not just finished versions, but some work-in-progress versions, one of which had a second layer of paper stuck onto it, where frequent rubbings-out and corrections led to his needing to redraw a section. Role-playing gamers of a certain generation will no doubt be thrilled to see one map of Middle-earth drawn on green-lined graph paper, which was, for me, the go-to stationery for your serious fantasy role-play mapping (having smaller squares than standard squared paper, it seemed you were being that much more serious). Role-players will also be happy to see Tolkien’s artistic attempts to recreate pages from the Book of Mazarbul that the Fellowship find in Moria, recording the last days of the dwarves’ attempt to reclaim their old domain. Tolkien has artistically burned the edges and added suggestive smudges of blood-like red. It could be a prop from a particularly well-made dungeon crawl.

There were also letters. On display was a reader’s report from a young Rayner Unwin on The Lord of the Rings, and a few fan letters, one in runes, one from a young Terry Pratchett (praising Smith of Wootton Major), and some illustrations to The Lord of the Rings done by Princess Margrethe, two years before she became Queen of Denmark.

All in all, a good exhibition. Not many physical objects (a chair, a collection of pipes, an old — and, again, tiny — notebook), nor many photos, but the things I got the most out of, anyway, were the originals of the illustrations and book-cover designs (those for The Lord of the Rings and the first hardback of The Hobbit were all there). The exhibition was held in one reasonably-sized room, but it didn’t feel small, thanks in part to that intriguing Tolkienian tinyness.

Frank Frazetta

The Barbarian, by Frank Frazetta

The Barbarian, by Frank Frazetta, from FrankFrazetta.net

He’s elemental. He’s ugly. His body is scarred, nicked, battered, and beaten. His face is a face that’s been punched many times; but it’s the face of a man who comes back every time. His limbs are taut-muscled and gnarly-veined like twisted tree roots; his skin has a green sheen like verdigrised copper. Barbarous, piratical, adventurous, dark-eyed, deadly and dignified, the epitome of contained power in glorious, brooding, post-melee repose, Frank Frazetta’s ‘The Barbarian’ — painted in 1965, and used as the cover for the first of Lancer Books’ Conan paperbacks — is, to me, the essence of the sword and sorcery hero.

He is, of course, surrounded by death — the ghostly skulls hanging like a desert mirage in the flaming sky behind him, and the gloopy mass of blood, bones, and corpse-parts he’s standing on — but he’s triumphant. Unlike the rather stiffly-posed Conans that came before, with their neatly cut hair, their sandals and freshly-pressed tunics, here Frazetta brings mess and dirt to fantasy painting. More than a decade before George Lucas’s idea of a ‘used future’ made Star Wars so convincing, this Conan has been through the wars.

Gustav Adolf Mossa, She (1905)

Gustav-Adolf Mossa, She (1905)

There’s a woman clinging to his leg — the sex to compliment the icky-sticky death, because this is a male fantasy — but I don’t think she’s submissive. She’s holding onto his leg with what seems to me (I may be wrong — there is a chain in the background) to be genuine affection, as if to say, ‘This man’s mine. Clear off.’ And I think she can back that threat up. I’m pretty sure that’s her axe sticking out of the ground behind her.

‘The Barbarian’ is a Symbolist work of art, as the decadent Symbolists (much as I love them) could never have painted it. It’s simply too vital. Just compare it with a similar (though late-Symbolist period) work, Gustav-Adolf Mossa’s ‘She’ (from 1905). Mossa’s ‘She’ is that Symbolist nightmare, the femme fatale, here presiding over a mound of dead bodies; pale and languid-eyed, crows and skulls are in her hair (and a pistol, among other weapons, hangs from her necklace) because she, unlike Frazetta’s barbarous pair, is on the side of death. Frazetta’s barbarian, and his recumbent barbarienne, are on the side of life. But, it should be noted, their life, not yours. This pair is no abstract celebration of vitality. If you get too close, you may end up as one more decoration on their mound of corpses.

Egyptian Queen, by Frank Frazetta

Egyptian Queen, by Frank Frazetta, from FrankFrazetta.net

‘Egyptian Queen’, painted for the cover of Eerie issue 23 in 1968 (though Frazetta modified the face soon afterwards), is perhaps the archetypal Frazettan female. Sultry and kitten-faced, she exudes the same elemental power and dignity as ‘The Barbarian’, only with a shade more (though a very gloomy shade, it has to be said) civility. Her pedestal isn’t a mound of corpses, it’s an actual pedestal (though the chipped stone edge implies battles have been fought in this chamber), and she stands between her snarling pet leopard, and her scimitar-wielding bodyguard, with regal calm. Even that marble pillar presents its flame-like lustre as an aspect of her smouldering vitality. Again, it’s a painting that encapsulates power, perhaps recently-exercised, now in brief repose; and though it may, in this case, be political rather than physical power, it very much resides in the physical figure of the queen herself — not in statutes of law or machineries of state, but in sheer, living vitality. She perhaps owes something to Hollywood — her headgear and leopard could have come from 1934’s Cleopatra — but she has none of that film-star frivolity & foot-stamping pettishness about her. This is a woman who really could rule an empire (albeit a crumbling one — but they’re the best ones to rule).

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra, 1934

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra, 1934

Frazetta_TigerFrazetta’s greatest artistic quality is, I think, the combination of vitality and dignity he gives his figures. (And I don’t just mean his human figures, but his apes and lions and lizards, too.) His battles are always battles between equals. They’re not contests of physical prowess, they’re contests of dynamism and heroism, of sheer vitality. The un-armoured woman with only a dagger in her hand is clearly the equal, in Frazetta’s world, of that flame-eyed tiger, or that pack of wolves, or that flock of pterodactyls, because she has just as fierce a will to live. The conflict isn’t really conflict, it’s a pairing, a flashing moment of dynamic tension between equals.

It’s true, not all his paintings present women as heroically as they do the men, but in the best of them it’s vitality itself that’s the subject, heroically embodied, whether in the human body, male or female, or in troglodytes, gorillas, crocodiles or panthers. It even seethes out of the twisting roots of jungle trees, and the roiling waves of storm-tossed oceans. It’s that sense of elemental vitality I like to find in the best sword and sorcery: the feeling that the life-force (an old-fashioned term, but surely worth a non-scientific resurrection) is at its most potent when faced with death and darkness, surrounded by wildness and fierceness, and couched in the nobility of the individual, however rough and haggard, or svelte and beautiful. Frazetta’s work is, above all, exciting, living, and elemental — the essence of sword and sorcery.

The Cold Flame by James Reeves

Brothers Grimm - The Complete Fairy Tales (Vintage Classics)For some months, now, I’ve been reading a tale a day from Jack Zipes’ translation of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, only having known the more famous ones till now. And they’re a mixed bunch. As well as the very fairy-tale-like stories of princes transformed into foxes or frogs, brothers turned into swans, princesses setting three impossible tasks for their suitors, or that overlooked third brother winning through despite everyone thinking he’s a clod, there are plenty of duds: shaggy-dog jokes about stupid people (“Clever Hans”, “Clever Else”, “The Brave Little Tailor”) or the (once, no doubt very funny, not-so now) misadventures of odd collections of companions (“The Straw, the Coal and the Bean”, “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage”), as well as some of the more traditional kind of tale that don’t quite satisfy as much as the well-known ones do.

Reading these lesser tales, where the shortcomings of the story are often made up for by an appeal to the listeners’ baser nature, you get a sense of their pulpy, lowest-common-denominator approach: silly jokes about talking sausages and stupid people on the one hand, lashings of revenge on the other. It’s not saying anything new to note how gleeful fairy tales can be in not just righting wrongs, but in getting a downright over-the-top bloody revenge into the bargain:

“The evil mother was brought before the court and put into a barrel that was filled with boiling oil and poisonous snakes. Indeed, she died a horrible death.”

or,

“‘The scoundrel deserves nothing better than to be put into a barrel studded with nails on the inside,’ said the old woman. ‘And then he should be rolled down the hill into the water.’”

or,

“‘She deserves nothing better… than to be stripped completely naked and put inside a barrel studded with sharp nails. Then two white horses should be harnessed to the barrel and made to drag her through the streets until she’s dead.’”

…being just three examples. Cinderella may win your sympathy by being forced to drudge for her nasty step-sisters, but some fairy tale heroes and heroines have very little going for them, morally or empathetically, yet the stories only work if you’re rooting for them to lord it over everyone by the end — and not just their oppressors, but often their oppressor’s entirely innocent children, too.

The Cold Flame by James Reeves, cover by Charles Keeping

The Cold Flame by James Reeves, cover by Charles Keeping

The Cold Flame, published in 1967, is James Reeves’ retelling of “The Blue Light” from the Grimms’ book of fairy tales — certainly not one of the more famous ones, but not entirely a dud, either. The protagonist is (unusually, for these mostly coming-of-age tales) a long-serving soldier, dismissed after twenty-five years in the King’s service (“Five-and-twenty years, five-and-twenty wounds”) with only a silver dollar in pay. He falls into the hands of a witch, who makes him drudge for a couple of days, then sends him down a well to fetch a cold, blue, obviously magical light she dropped there. He refuses to hand it over till she’s helped him from the well, so she lets him fall back down to the bottom. Deciding to smoke one final time before he dies of starvation, the soldier lights his pipe with the blue light and thereby summons a little demon, who offers to do anything he demands. And so the soldier gets out of the well, is provided with riches, returns to the city where he was dismissed so off-handedly, and sets about getting his revenge by summoning the King’s daughter each night to clean up his room. He’s caught (on the third night, of course) and arrested, but thanks to his little demon turns the situation round, and by the end is not only king himself but getting inviting looks from the princess.

Perhaps it’s because the main character isn’t such an innocent as Cinderella or Snow White, but although the wrong to him is genuine (dismissed after twenty-five years with only enough pay to buy a single meal), having the tale expanded from short story to short novel only seems to emphasise how unfair it is that the king’s daughter — entirely innocent, as far as I can see — should be dragged into her father’s punishment. It seems even stranger in Reeves’ retelling, because he makes it clear that, for some reason, after being forced to drudge for him, she’s fallen in love with this raddled old soldier, whose only redeeming feature (as in so many fairy tales) is the fact he’s had the good luck to gain magical aid. But perhaps it’s just that, by being faithful to the rather uncompromising spirit of the Grimms’ version, Reeves has retained the essential character of the original, without pandering to any sensitive morals on my part. Anyway, it’s very well-written, if a bit distant from its rather bleak-souled characters. (The soldier is described as having an “almost habitual sardonic self-control”, and a “dedication to the virtue of despair.”)

One of the things that attracted me to the book wasn’t the story, but the illustrations. I think I must have come across Charles Keeping’s work first in Alan Garner’s Elidor. He mixes a sparse, telling line with a sort of random, squiggly-blotchy wildness that somehow works, and somehow fits these late 1960s/early 1970s books with their rather modernistic bleakness and understated, though deeply-felt, deeply-tried humanity — Reeves’, and Garner’s, and, I think, they’d suit the two William Mayne books I’ve reviewed recently, too.

Here are some examples of his work on The Cold Flame:

CharlesKeeping_Flame01

CharlesKeeping_Flame03CharlesKeeping_Flame02

Star Wars day…

For Star Wars day…

Princess Leia by Murray Ewing

 

Princess Amidala by Murray Ewing