My adventures in Middle-Earth
For anyone who knows me or follows this blog, it will be no secret that J.R.R. Tolkien’s work has had a certain impact on my interpretation of all things fantasy. There are many artists, writers and creators who have guided my own development as a fan but also as an artist and a storyteller in my own right.
My journeys in the lands of Arda started around the age of 10 when I first read The Hobbit. I discovered a whole new world full of wonders, that I could vividly visualize through the words of the author. Yet, my vision was most likely very different to that of other readers. My adventures in Middle-Earth are as much mine as Tolkien’s because that is how he draws us into his universe.
Room for interpretation
When approaching literature, and particularly fantasy and science-fiction, interpretation is key, in my opinion. Some writers help you visualize the fictional world and the story’s protagonists by providing extremely detailed descriptions of everything. They want your imagining of their world to match their own, down to the smallest details. Others create believable settings by leaving plenty of room for the reader to fill in the blanks with their own background, experiences and familiar references. My preference is clearly for the latter and it is also how I enjoy telling stories myself, be it visually or with words. Engaging your audience by giving it the opportunity to contribute is the best way to create an immersive experience.
Considering this, it becomes clearer why Middle-Earth, and the stories taking place there, can generate such divided opinions and perceptions. Keep in mind that The Hobbit was written as the memoirs of Bilbo Baggins and therefore a lot of it can be taken with a grain of salt. It is, in fact, the recollection of a series of events made by one person. It can be interpreted to the letter, as the glorification of mundane happenings, or as a toned down archiving of truly great heroic deeds. Tolkien’s material was in constant evolution while the author was alive. He was continuously rewriting and rearranging his work, including published books. Therefore, one cannot take all events covered as definitive facts. Keep in mind that Tolkien aimed to create a mythology. As with all legends and myths, parts are grounded in its world but a lot of it is left to the imagination. And yours differs from mine.
As I said earlier, I was gifted a copy of The Hobbit for my tenth birthday. Tolkien’s story, as much as the artwork, took me to a place I knew nothing about. Yet, it felt familiar. Norse and germanic folklore and mythology were an inspiration for the author. Being the son of a Dutch father and a Swedish mother, mythology and fairy tales made for an important part of the stories they read to me as a young child. I was growing up in Switzerland, having just moved from France. I learnt about the local folklore as well as the influences of germanic and french cultures and developed a keen interest in the Arthurian legends. Being exposed to all these tales, as well as studying greek and roman mythology at school that same year, gave me the best possible preparation to start my journey into Middle-Earth.
Visual storytelling has been my main means of expression since I was very young. In elementary school, I always gravitated towards drawing and painting as a way of telling stories. Writing and reading were not my preference at all. By the time I was a teenager, reading had become a chore as we were mostly reading french poetry at school before moving on to all the classics such as Stendhal, Flaubert and other Honoré de Balzac. Learning about language was prioritized over developing an interest in reading. As much as reading classics is important, doing so at too young an age can really hamper your passion for books. At least, that’s what it did for me. Reading became a chore rather than a joy. Maybe that is why, when I did read in my free time, I gravitated toward fantasy.
As an artist, Tolkien provided me with the inspiration I needed to draw. Along with the discovery of role-playing games, The Lord of the Rings fed my creative mind with images of places I wanted to explore. Even though, I never illustrated many of the professor’s stories, the Shire, Rivendell and the Mines of Moria were great inspirations for other fantasy related sketches and drawings. Besides, there were already a number of artists who had depicted Middle-Earth at the time, all appearing in a number of publications. Over the years I have gathered a number of books pertaining to the worlds created by Tolkien. Here are a few of my favourites:
- Tolkien’s Ring by David Day: this is an examination of Tolkien’s sources and inspiration, it is also illustrated by Alan Lee.
- Le Monde de Tolkien and Le Royaume de Tolkien: two french books that are curated collections of Middle Earth illustrations by world leading artists. They feature a wide variety of talent and are testament that are many, many ways of visualizing the world of Tolkien.
- J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull: an essential book for fans, it explores Tolkien’s art at length and features many reproductions spanning the author’s entire life.
- Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP) by Iron Crown Enterprises: an out of print tabletop RPG that was for many 80s role-players such as myself the best way to go adventuring in Middle-Earth at the time. All rulebooks and supplements feature the gorgeous art of Angus McBride.
- Adventures in Middle Earth by Cubicle 7: a role playing game that has become my all time favourite. The art is gorgeous, the rules take the best of Dungeons & Dragons’s Open License 5th Edition and turn it into something exceptional that handle the source material of Tolkien with the utmost respect and in a way that truly makes it feel as though you are adventuring in Middle-Earth. I love it so much, I have designed some custom Character Sheets that you can download for free here.
- A Middle-Earth Traveller - Sketches from Bag End to Mordor by John Howe: exactly what the title says. John Howe is one my favourite artists and this book is a gem if you enjoy his work. It features sketches and paintings, new and old. I highly recommend it!
Each their vision
If you consider all the artists that have officially lent their talents to creating images of Middle-Earth, it quickly becomes clear that, indeed, Tolkien’s work gives readers a lot of room for personal interpretation. Ted Nasmith, Inger Edelfeld, Angus McBride, John Howe and Alan Lee, just to name a few of my favourite, all provide thrilling and beautiful views of this world. They all do so in their own way, in the same manner Ralph Bakshi and Peter Jackson did in their respective time as film makers.
And this is where the greatest feat of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work lies. Despite the unprecedented world building, language and culture creation, compelling storytelling and all the years of research and development, he gave each one of us the liberty of our own imagining of his Middle-Earth.
A painting is not a book. It seems obvious, but at its core, an illustration can tell a story in its own way, using a completely different vocabulary than the words it is inspired by. In the same way, a film is not a book and it should never try to be. I feel I am starting to sound like a broken record but, again, it all comes down to interpretation. Peter Jackson’s Hobbit is not The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. If you want the original, read the book. If you want the interpretation of someone else who brings along his own experience, tastes and sensibilities to create his or her vision of the book, open up your mind and experience that. It’s that simple. Whether it’s a book, a painting or a movie, the creator is inviting you to discover their interpretation of a story. Their intent is to tell a meaningful tale with the hope that some of us will respond to it. An artist does not create for the entire world, only for the audience that will respond to it. Most art is not meant as just entertainment, it’s an invitation to think and discuss.
Widening of horizons
There seems to be tendency nowadays for people to go into a movie theatre and have a very clear idea of what they want their experience to be like, before the movie has started. Art - be it a painting, a film, a piece of music, a performance or a book - is a means of discovering something new, being in awe, learning or witnessing something we did not know existed. It is possible to go out there and let yourself be surprised. It’s a matter of mindset.
A comfort zone can, at the right time, be a good thing but it exists so that you can step out of it, be adventurous and let others show you something you didn’t know you needed. Having an opinion and expressing it is a fantastic thing. Having a discussion based on an opinion is an even better thing. As an artist, I need discussions to move forward and grow.
Even though I have only rarely drawn scenes from Middle-Earth, Tolkien has inspired me in more ways than one, the most apparent not being what you would necessarily think.
The road ever goes on
Maps have always fascinated me, long before I decided to draw some of my own. Not road maps or the Google kind. Artistically, I don’t care much for those. They are handy for finding your way or getting an idea of where things are but I actually prefer world globes for that purpose, although their lack of detail limits their purpose.
The maps that fascinate me are the ones that tell stories, like antique maps that are representative of an era and of how people saw their surroundings during their time. The one map that truly inspired me, though, is Bilbo’s map. It isn’t there to show you the way. It tells a story and by looking at it, we can see where the hobbit and Thorin’s company have been. There and back again.
Maps of travels
As opposed to a map that is used as a guide, the ones I create tell the stories of where you have been. They can illustrate the real world and point to the towns, regions, and countries you have lived in. They can be fantastical and imaginary, only to represent important life milestones and events. Lately, I have also started making maps of real countries, with a twist, where places take on fantasy names grounded in folklore, history or my imagination. Some maps are also made to depict places of interest to tabletop gamers and the stories they live in during their role-playing adventures. If you’re interested in finding out more about how I can help you tell a story that matters to you, get in touch!
When creating maps, I strive to inject these works with my own artistic sensibilities while leaving room for you to fill in the gaps as you see fit. Don’t worry, letting your own creativity contribute to it doesn’t take any effort. In fact, you’ll be surprised to see that, once you step outside, there’s no telling where your feet might take you!
Until next time, have fun playing games, telling stories, spending time with people whose company you enjoy or going on an unexpected adventure!
Wouter F. Goedkoop is a designer, artist and storyteller who, after living across Europe, decided to find his home in Nova Scotia where he lives with his wife and kids. He helps people and companies connect with their audience in meaningful ways by telling relevant and impactful stories.