A world of pure hue

In my reread of The Lord of the Rings I’ve paused at the Ford of Bruinen, the ending of Book I in The Fellowship of the Ring, so I can take stock of the way I’ve come. In so doing I note that the cover of my one-volume edition features a design by John Howe of Gandalf the Grey in full flow; however my first single volume copy had a design by Pauline Baynes front and back, adapted from her earlier slipcase design for the three volumes of Tolkien’s epic, with Gandalf and the hobbits gazing out over a Middle-earth landscape as one’s first view.

What sticks out for me from both Pauline Baynes designs is the strong use of colour — the yellow-gold of the trees framing the inset images, the bold red of the title and author’s name, the greens of the Shire-like landscape on the front cover, the blue tinge of Mordor’s spiky landscape on the reverse.

Memories of those colours, along with Tolkien’s own illustrations for the third edition in 1966 of The Hobbit, drew me back to an essay I remembered reading in Mythlore, a journal focused on Tolkien, Lewis, and Charles Williams, as well as on general fantasy and mythic studies. Did I still have it? I rummaged amongst miscellaneous papers and magazines I’d brought with me over at least three house moves, and there it was, Mythlore 26, Winter 1981, Volume 7, No 4. I dived straight in.

Tolkien’s The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the-Water

Miriam Younger Miller’s ‘The Green Sun’ was, as her subtitle has it, “a study of color in J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings“. Her opening sentence reminds us that even the most casual reader “cannot fail to notice the prominence of color words throughout the trilogy,” and not just the “thematic oppositions of white and black, light and dark, good and evil.” She noted that the author used a limited palette of colours, and that they are with very few exceptions used without modification. She further noted that Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’ used colour as a means of illustrating how secondary fantasy worlds can be created using “the invention of the adjective”. And whether or not Tolkien was aware of the main primary configurations described by colour theorists — pigment, light ray, and vision — Miller feels that these are of use in understanding how he employs colours in the epic. She quotes a paper by an author and industrial colour consultant:

… there are remarkably few primitive color terms — red, yellow, green, blue, white, black. Most other names are borrowings. … Orange, violet, lilac, orchid, rose, on and on, all refer to other things such as flowers. … Emerald, ruby, sapphire, tuquoise are precious stones. Gold, rust, cobalt, terra cotta are minerals. Cherry, lemon, lime, chocolate, olive, peach are familiar edible products. Salmon, canary, cardinal are fish and birds. Delft, Nile, Sienna, Magenta are places.

Faber Birren. Principles of Color: a Review of Past Traditions and Modern Theories of Color Harmony (1969)

So, this gives context to how Tolkien may have approached giving Middle-earth a certain vividness. As Miller says,

Tolkien uses only four psychological primaries (red, green, yellow, and blue), the three neutrals (black, white, and gray), the two metals (silver and gold — which as in the heraldic terminology argent and or can also at times be interpreted as white and yellow), and brown. Brown, which is technically a shade (color mixed with black) of orange (yellow-red), does not fit neatly into any color pattern. I think that perhaps for Tolkien with his great interest, both literary and graphic, in trees and forest and other aspects of nature, brown had a psychological primacy not typical of psychological perceptions in general.

Miller 1981: 5

Miller goes on to draw attention to the fact that, other than grey and brown, the colours used are those found in heraldry as gules, vert, azure, or, argent, and sable (red, green, blue, gold/yellow, silver/white and black, respectively); and heraldry is frequently employed in the designation of forces during the War of the Ring, for instance by Gondor’s Stewards, Saruman’s orcs, Rohan’s horsemen, and in Aragorn’s regal device. Then she also points out that “the colors used in personal and group names […] are still more limited” (with the exception of Radagast the Brown): only the three neutrals (black, white, grey) and the two metals (silver and gold). Examples are the Black Riders, the White Council, Gandalf the Grey.

Opposing the triad of grey, silver, and white are the colours of evil, war and destruction: black and red. And the remaining colours — green, gold/yellow, and blue “are most often associated with the morally neutral forces of Nature in Middle-Earth. Miller argues convincingly that Tom Bombadil (“a merry fellow; | Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow”) and Goldberry — with her yellows, greens, and blues — are typical of these neutral aspects of Tolkien’s secondary world, generally taking no sides in the War of the Ring. “It is clear,” writes Miller, “that color in The Lord of the Rings can be used as a marker of identity, literary and figuratively heraldic. Color also functions as a sort of visual leitmotif: […] the presence or absence of color seems to be an external indicator of the most profound emotional states.”

There is much more to Miller’s paper — about the significance of Gandalf the Grey becoming Gandalf the White, for example, but I shall leave her discussion with her final sentence.

Middle-Earth is a world purposely simplified, a world of pure hue, a world of black and white, as it were, a world unlike ours with its bewildering range of ambiguities, where nothing is clear-cut.

Miller 1981: 10

As early as The Hobbit it’s clear Tolkien had a colour schema in mind, especially when we look at the colour plates included in the 1966 edition. ‘The Hill: Hobbiton across the Water’ is full of blues, greens, yellows and the earthy browns of fields and the terra cotta of roofs. ‘Rivendell’ is dominated by greens and golds and the silver-white of the ravines; only the distant red roofs of Elrond’s House suggest that evil may yet affect this haven of peace. When the travellers escape Mirkwood in barrels, as shown in ‘Bilbo comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves’ we are met again with greens, blues and the yellow sun emerging behind a hill. ‘Conversations with Smaug’ shows the hoard of gold within the Lonely Mountain, neutral in itself but a positive force if used for good; but straddling across it all is the red dragon, and red was to be a sure marker for evil in the sequel.

By coincidence, in this issue of Mythlore appears a letter from a correspondent in Farnham, Surrey, who at 56 describes herself as “elderly, and certainly not willowy; not too much hair either. My eyes are not as good…” Before we decide the lady doth protest too much, Pauline Baynes (for it is she) goes on to clarify some points made by a previous correspondent:

About the illustrating, or, non-illustrating of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien did mention that he was working on this book and would I be interested in illustrating it. (At that time he visualised something with a nature of marginal illustrations, on the tops of pages embellished.) But when it finally came to printing, the book had grown somewhat! The publishers realised, quite rightly, that illustrations would not be feasible, and the whole idea was dropped. […] He told Rayner Unwin that he considered he and I were the only people who could illustrate his work.

We remained very good friends for the rest of his life. Indeed, he was to have come and stayed with us the fortnight after he died.

Mythlore 1981:22

It is tantalising to imagine how The Lord of the Rings might have appeared in our minds’ eyes if the proposed plan to include illustrations by Pauline Baynes had indeed proved feasible. Those cover designs may indicate the style we might expect; but is it what we would have imagined with only the text to guide us and to give us what Miller describes as a world of pure hue?

This post is the latest in my discussions in the series Talking Tolkien, and a contribution to the Wyrd & Wonder meme

24 thoughts on “A world of pure hue

  1. Fascinating, Chris!

    I’d add that in my mind’s eye, the greens and yellows are the colors of previous eras, mostly – natural, as you say, without the touch of civilization about them. And it is telling that these two colors are so beloved by hobbits, and only after Saruman’s meddling Shire loses the virgin, verdant greens for sooty blacks and dirty greys.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m pleased you liked this discussion, Ola: I think that what you say here is possibly a mix of your own instinctive observations about the world and of the long term effect Tolkien’s writings have had on all of us fans — the division of colours into good, neutral and bad.

      Now I know that most of us, whether artistic or not, have a more subtle appreciation of colour, and that such appreciation encompasses synaesthesia, our choice of house decoration, furnishings and clothes, how we rate the appearance of food on our plates, and so on.

      But in fantasy writing I think we may accept a more limited palette to indicate intention, motivation, mood and character; and so I shall be paying more attention in my future reading of this genre to see if this theory stands up!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh this is really interesting! Next time I reread LOTR I’m going to take more note of the colour descriptions. Miller’s essay sounds fascinating.

    What really strikes me about all of this is that green, blue and yellow, are the colours of the land, sky and sun on a sunny day in the countryside. To me they represent the earth when everything is healthy. This ties in to Tom Bombadil who I see as a personification of the earth, a master, lover and guardian of nature.

    Great Post btw!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jo! Miller’s post is really thorough — she gives a lot of examples to support her argument and has a section explaining the significance of how Saruman interprets his white robe, and then how Gandalf goes from Grey to White — and she really opened my eyes as to how Tolkien’s limited palate makes Middle-earth a different world to inhabit compared to our own.

      But yes, it’s a world not unrelated to ours in the contrast between a rural ideal and the satanic mills Tolkien saw overtaking his childhood corner of the Midlands.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. How interesting to imagine The Lord of the Rings illustrated by Pauline Baynes in a similar way to the Narnia series. I had no idea that was ever proposed. Thank you for another enlightening post, Chris.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Baynes illustrations for the Chronicles of Narnia somehow fit the atmosphere created, Anne, though as it’s hard to imagine the texts without them I wonder I much we’ve taken them as gospel.

      Her pastiche medieval images for Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham are just so apt, so perfect, I’m glad she did them, but for all her close adherence to texts I’m retrospectively glad she didn’t illustrate LOTR, as Middle-earth’s animus is in my opinion very different from Narnia’s.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting. I wonder how consciously Tolkien made these colour distinctions in his writing? I like the mention of heraldry in this context, and the notion of colour as motif (similar to Wagner’s use of melody as leitmotif). There is definitely a very visual quality to Tolkien’s sub-creation (I remember being surprised by the similarity of some of the characters and scenes in the films to my imagining of them while reading the books – so clearly he is managing to get across a very accurate sketch in words). I re-read the Hobbit during lockdown, but I am saving up a second reading of LOTR for another time – it was my first true immersion in a literary work as a kid and as such it has a kind of sacred glow in my memory still!

    By the way, as coincidence would have it, I began ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ last night. As you may remember from a previous conversation, I had never read Ursula Le Guin before. Anyway, I hadn’t really registered that it might also be suitable reading for an eleven-year-old, but was over the moon to find that to be the case. I read the first chapter with my daughter, and I have to say it did not disappoint – we are already spellbound. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tolkien is very good on detail, I agree. A close reading of the text gave the films’ concept artists John Howe and Alan Lee a chance to give the cinematic look an authenticity, and of course there have been books of maps and calendar dates based on the precise indications in the text. I think your eventual reread will make it clear how consistent Tolkien was with his colour distinctions, especially their functions as leitmotifs as you point out.

      The Earthsea books, like LOTR, are a good example of how the writing can appeal to different reading ages: and of course maturity brings new insights into the emotions and intertextuality so both you and your daughter will find both similar and discrete aspects to appreciate. Be prepared for many ups and downs!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. What a fascinating post, Chris. Yes, I do agree that Tolkien’s world is very black and white in what is good and evil – but I don’t always think his characters are that defined. It is, of course, a long time since I read the books, but I do recall some moral ambiguity in there – I wonder how I will feel about this aspect on a re-read. As for the illiustrations by Pauline Baynes – well, wouldn’t that have been wonderful! Her Narnia drawings are *my* Narnia! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I agree, there’s definitely moral ambiguity in the trilogy — Gollum, Boromir, even Frodo — and I don’t think Miller is trying to say that everything is morally black and white; I think her statement “color frequently serves as a marker of identity”, with frequently implying that there may be and are exceptions, is telling. In any case my summary of nine closely-typed double-columned pages with notes can only give headline arguments, not the detail, examples and digressions that a paper will offer.

      In many ways I’m very glad she didn’t illustrate Middle-earth as she did with Narnia — the two secondary worlds are so different that I fear that with her doing both narrative arcs it would be too easy to visually confuse the two.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I think, even though it’s clearly a judgement made with the benefit of hindsight, that her vision of Narnia was perfect for the Chronicles for that period. It would be interesting to see what fresh eyes artists of today would bring to that world.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. catherinebasedonthebook

    aw, I love Pauline Baynes’s illustrations, I wish she’d got the chance to illustrate Lord of the Rings. The colour thing is so interesting (although the characters don’t always seem that black and white to me, especially someone like Boromir)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t recall Miller mentioning Boromir — in fact there’s little about the Fellowship in her paper — but she does refer to Faramir in passing when discussing the shade of brown: “Tolkien needed brown […]: the forest of Fanghorn, Treebeard, the Entwives and other references to trees and landscape, the Robin-Hood-like green and brown camouflage costumes of Faramir’s patrol, Legolas the Wood-elf, and Aragorn setting out from Rivendell, … the Hobbits and Tom Bombadil, and finally Radagast the Brown.” And that’s pretty much it as regards the Stewards of Gondor.

      I think the nearest we get to LOTR illustrations from Pauline Baynes must be the poster map and its marginal figures as well as the book covers. Sadly we’ll never know how she would’ve have treated the whole saga.


  7. Pingback: The Lord of the Limited Colour Palette – Odd Bits About Books

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