Here be dragons
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