Happy Birthday to J.R.R. Tolkien: Author & Illustrator

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Lord of the Rings fans, grab your party hats and your wizard staffs because it’s the artist, the myth, the legend, J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday! We’re about to raise the roof Middle-Earth-style.

Whether you’re a Tolkien novice or a super fan who can speak fluent Elvish, many people don’t know that he was an artist long before his writing career. He was so skilled that he designed the book covers and created the accompanying illustrations himself.


Lucky for us, Tolkien must have known that he would be famous someday because he kept everything from small doodles to intricate watercolors in special envelopes to preserve them. He continued to do so with all of his artwork until his death in 1973. Historians have amassed a vast treasure trove spanning from his childhood sketches of family members and trips to the sea to final prints from his later books.

The idea for The Hobbit came to Tolkien in a rather unusual way. He was a professor at the time and one day he was quite weary from grading endless papers when he absentmindedly wrote down a nonsense sentence: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ While it meant nothing at the time, the idea continued to come back to him for two years and thus The Hobbit began to form.


Tolkien sketched constantly while he was writing all of his books. He said that it helped him envision the story in his mind so he could write it out. Surprisingly, Tolkien originally didn’t want to illustrate The Hobbit. He considered his art as more of a writer’s tool than actual art to be published and printed. However, his advertising agent had seen some of his work and sent him a telegram asking him to draw up some pictures to use in promotions for the upcoming book release. To this, Tolkien sent a telegram back saying to leave the art to the professionals and included a crude, ugly drawing of a hobbit to emphasis how incapable he thought he was.


Lucky for us, he was eventually persuaded.


Over the years Tolkien established a signature style of whimsical images with sparing use of color pencils and watercolor. The runes he created and his illustrative style were heavily influenced by Viking etchings. He explained that he kept most of his illustrations somewhat simplistic because he wanted to give the reader some structure while still allowing them to project their own imagination.



If the world of Middle Earth and Tolkien’s beautiful illustrations pique your interest, a new exhibition called “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” opened in spring of 2018 in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, which houses over 200 items originally owned by Tolkien himself. It includes everything from illustrations to manuscripts, fan letters, art supplies, and personal things like briefcases and tobacco pipes (looks like Gandalf wasn’t the only one that enjoyed some Longbottom Leaf).

So raise a glass of mead in honor of Tolkien’s day. Happy birthday, precious.


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Sammie Seibert


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