What’s the use of a book without pictures?

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David Day Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopædia
Mitchell Beazley 1993 (1991)

ringThis is a work that attempts to live up to its title: it includes an introduction to Tolkien’s published works (not just related to Middle Earth), then rushes straight into chapters on history, geography, peoples and nations (pretentiously called sociology here), natural history and a Who’s Who in Middle Earth, finally ending with indices and acknowledgements. Because David Day doesn’t just limit himself to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, there are charts and maps that help to place the War of the Ring in context, and the whole is profusely illustrated by nearly a score of artists.

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of all of the information — much of it seems to be authoritative but other critics have commented on inconsistent spelling and editing. For a borderline fan like me, whose interest is limited to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, one can only marvel at the obsessiveness that tries to chronicle, catalogue and categorise every aspect of Middle Earth. If only cross-referencing was included this would make the reader’s life much easier; as it is, one has to keep turning back to a very densely printed General Index to make the connections. As for the text itself, this is no great work of literature: there is some attempt at epic writing — “to no avail”, “so it was at the final moment” and so on — but it seems all very clumsy and a poor imitation of Tolkien’s already flowery mock-medieval language.

For me it’s the illustrations that make the book even though their quality is variable: of the principal illustrators Ivan Allen, Rachel Chilton, Lidia Postma and Sally Davies are outstanding, while Andrew Mockett is a mere doodler and I can take or leave (mostly leave) the rest. There are line drawings, maps, timelines and paintings in styles ranging from faintly medieval to Impressionist, from pen-and-ink wash through woodcut to oils. If not for these I would imagine there are better researched and presented Middle Earth reference books.

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6 thoughts on “What’s the use of a book without pictures?

  1. Some books have original illustrations as part of their enduring charm. There are others – particularly epic fantasies, where I often think that illustrations and movies take away from the magic of what the imagination is able to conjure from the written words. Or, perhaps, not everyone can envision more wonder than what these illustrators or moviemakers can produce?

    1. Spluttering on my metaphorical cornflakes, Col, aka tapping wrong bit of mobile phone touchscreen… Now tippy-tapping on laptop.

      What I meant to say was, just playing devil’s advocate (or to be contrary, more like): adding illustrations to storybooks is in some ways always a sop to readers with little imagination, agreed, even those published with the text for the first time. Can we ever read Winnie the Pooh without E H Shepard’s illustrations in mind, even if we wanted to?* “Enduring charm” means we’re fed a version that might well preclude alternative readings of the text, especially in view of the real-life Christopher Robin’s sad adult life. (In fact, for Wind in the Willows I actually prefer Arthur Rackham’s illustrations, much more magical, even disturbing, than Shepard’s originals. But that’s just me.)

      As for epic fantasies, we have to remember that Tolkien himself sanctioned the inclusion of his own illustrations for The Hobbit which (despite their dubious artistic quality) have permanently influenced all illustrators and imagineers since, from Alan Lee to Peter Jackson and beyond. The fact is, most of us have highly visual imaginations (not surprising, given the root of the word ‘imagination’) and the circumstances of our first acquaintance with a ‘text’ (whether in words, in art or on celluloid/digital format) will always colour our view of the work. I can’t think of Tom Sawyer without conjuring up Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade — which is what I was listening to when I read it as a child — and vice versa.

      Actually, re-reading all this, I find I’m actually agreeing with you, but just being more long-winded. So what’s new.

      * Gah, not the dreadful Disney version.

      1. The association of music with places, incidents or books is one I have frequently experienced.
        On illustrations, I have found that although I am instantly able to visualise the Thomas Henry depictions of Richmal Crompton’s ‘William’, the actual pictures of the characters in my mind were different and somehow more lifelike.

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