Here be dragons

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Books -

Pic­ture Mid­dle-earth – and it’s likely to be the vi­sion of il­lus­tra­tor and film set de­signer Alan Lee. On the eve of a new Tolkien book, John Garth meets him

As a child, the il­lus­tra­tor Alan Lee had an ob­ses­sion. “I was con­tin­u­ally build­ing cas­tles out of corn­flakes pack­ets and toi­let-roll hold­ers. I’d play with them a bit, then set light to them and start an­other.”

This fas­ci­na­tion, to­gether with a love of J R R Tolkien and a nat­u­ral gift with pen­cil and brush, has brought him a long way. Lee’s vi­sion of Tolkien is now ar­guably al­most ev­ery­one’s. His paint­ings adorn the nov­els’ dust­jack­ets and il­lus­tra­tions. He de­signed the ar­chi­tec­ture and vis­ual feel of Peter Jack­son’s two film trilo­gies – down to the door­knobs on Saru­man’s tower – shar­ing Best Art Di­rec­tion Os­car in 2004. The 69-year-old il­lus­tra­tor may justly claim to have cre­ated the win­dow through which most peo­ple now vi­su­alise Mid­dle-earth.

This week an­other Tolkien tale will be pub­lished to wide in­ter­est, be­cause of its cen­tral­ity to Mid­dle-earth and its per­sonal sig­nif­i­cance to Tolkien. Beren and Lúthien is edited by Tolkien’s son and lit­er­ary ex­ecu­tor Christo­pher, now 92. Lee has fur­nished pen­cil-and­wa­ter­colour il­lus­tra­tions, as he did for Tolkien’s som­bre saga The Chil­dren of Húrin, posthu­mously pub­lished in 2007, which has sold more than 1.5 mil­lion copies.

Beren and Lúthien is likely to be a hit, too. In ori­gin, it is partly a beast fa­ble, hence the wolves and the faithful gi­ant wolfhound on the cover. Tevildo the de­mon cat, in the ear­li­est ver­sion of 1917, sur­prised and de­lighted Lee when he came across it: “Coal-black and evil to look upon… His purr was like the roll of drums and his growl like thun­der, but when he yelled in wrath… small beasts and birds were frozen as to stone.”

But the vol­ume also con­tains later Tolkien treat­ments of the same story, in some of which Tevildo is re­placed by none other than the fa­mous Sau­ron:

Lee thinks Tolkien’s dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the tale “are not like dif­fer­ent drafts that he’s try­ing to get right”. Rather, says Lee, with an artist’s in­sight: “It’s a story that he has a life­time’s re­la­tion­ship with, and that he’s ex­plor­ing in all these dif­fer­ent forms.”

A myth-tinged fairy story, it was in­spired by Tolkien’s es­cape from the hor­ror, ill­ness and grief he had brought from the Somme in 1916. At its crux, the wan­derer Beren sees the el­ven Lúthien for the first time as she dances in a glade abloom with “hem­lock” (cow pars­ley). Tolkien took that scene from life: his wife Edith had danced for him in such a glade in York­shire, near where he was posted with his bat­tal­ion in 1917.

So Beren and Lúthien is a paean to this sense of joy­ous up­lift, one that Tolkien saw as vi­tal to hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. “I never called Edith Lúthien,” he wrote to Christo­pher af­ter her death in 1971, “but she was the source of the story that in time be­came the chief part of The Sil­mar­il­lion… In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance.” At his re­quest, the names Lúthien and Beren are carved on the stone above the Ox­ford grave he shares with Edith.

When I meet Lee at his pub­lish­ers’ of­fice, that scene of Lúthien danc­ing in the glade is the sub­ject of the prints he is sign­ing. He, too, knows that “born again” feel­ing. It’s how he felt when he ar­rived at Eal­ing Col­lege of Art aged 16. Blaz­ingly medi­ocre in ev­ery other school sub­ject, he as­sumed he was con­demned to serve out a full sen­tence at his hated Uxbridge sec­ondary mod­ern, un­til came the rev­e­la­tion that he could move to a spe­cial­ist art school.

His com­mis­sions be­gan with book cov­ers, for Alan Garner’s The Owl Ser­vice, Mervyn Peake’s Gor­meng­hast and many oth­ers in the Sev­en­ties and Eight­ies. Fan­tasy art at that time ex­isted be­tween two poles: “bodybuilding and steel biki­nis and scim­i­tars” from Amer­ica, and a Bri­tish phan­tas­mago­ria crowded to the point of claus­tro­pho­bia. Lee’s work, look­ing fur­ther back to Arthur Rack­ham and Ed­mund Du­lac, stood out for its econ­omy and real­ism. He ren­dered stone and spume, vein and sinew, cloth and cop­per­work, with such vir­tu­oso skill that you could al­most touch them. He opened up fath­om­less spa­ces where you could taste the wind of oth­er­worldly moors.

Or, in­deed, of Dart­moor. Lee went there with his then part­ner, Dutch-born artist Marja Lee Kruyt, for a week­end in 1975. “It was a to­tal rev­e­la­tion. In this one small area around Chag­ford, on the moors and in the woods and on the river, I saw ev­ery­thing I’d ever want to draw.” They stayed an ex­tra day and bought a house.

It was there, with his friend and lodger Brian Froud, that Lee wrote the book that put them on the map: Faeries (1978). Il­lus­trated and hand-an­no­tated like an ethno­g­ra­pher’s note­book, its tem­plate was Rien Poortvliet’s Gnomes, a best­seller the year be­fore, but their book struck an al­to­gether older, stranger note, sig­nalled by their ti­tle’s Spense­rian spell­ing. “It wasn’t that kind of slightly twee, cute look at the way fairies be­have,” says Lee. In­fused with Dart­moor, the 1978 book gave a new vis­ual vo­cab­u­lary to folk­lore’s darker reaches.

More book com­mis­sions fol­lowed, and film too. Froud’s cre­ations were brought to life on screen by Jim Hen­son of Mup­pets fame in The Dark Crys­tal (1982) and the Bowie-led Labyrinth (1986). Lee worked on Erik the Vik­ing (1989),

Tolkien be­gan this joy­ful tale in 1917 to cel­e­brate his es­cape from the Somme

Win­dow onto a fan­tasy world: il­lus­tra­tor Alan Lee’s model for Lúthien was a ‘very nice, quite elfin’ wait­ress from a café in his Devon town

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