Drawing the Hobbit

Hobbit 2012 movie posterI am ashamed to admit I have yet to see Peter Jackson’s first installment of The Hobbit, and it has been out for four days. The purists among my colleagues, blogmates, and digital friends are horrified at Jackson’s adaptation. Many of them are still angry about The Lord of the Rings, which they felt betrayed Tolkien’s artistry, majesty, and, ultimately, his agency. I am a member of a sleepy little myth listserve which has now lit up with Jackson and anti-Jackson debate. I’ve avoided it–not wanting to spoil the movie. But as one member entitled his post, “Can one spoil a film that is so rotten?”, I think I know the purist consensus thus far.

Honestly, though, I loved The Lord of the Rings. I have read the books numerous times and watch the movies every Christmas break. I thought his treatment of Hobbiton was marvelous, and I revel in that twenty minutes or so that we are in hobbit environs. Peter Jackson’s first hobbits on film took up my reading experience and filled it out with colour, shape, form, and humour.

bag end inside hobbit

I cannot imagine the process that Jackson went through to conceive of the hobbits, pressed as he was between competing fan expectations and historical matters. As it turns out, Jackson was not the only one to struggle to create a visual that would complement the story. Much to his own surprise, the first edition British publisher of The Hobbit used many of Tolkien’s own drawings, and the edition I have now includes Tolkien’s original cover design.

The adaptation of Tolkien’s sketches was not a simple matter, and took up much of 1937. This months-long conversation began when an American publisher requested more illustrations for an edition with The Hobbit by JRR Tolkiencolour plates. Tolkien expresses doubt in his own hand, but also sets some limits.

“I am divided between knowledge of my own inability and fear of what American artists (doubtless of admirable skill) might produce…. It might be advisable, rather than lose the American interest, to let the Americans do what seems good to them–as long as it was possible (I should like to add) to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing” (Letter to C.A. Furth, Allen & Unwin, May 13, 1937, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #13, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, 1981).

Tolkien finds out that this letter was forwarded to the American publisher with the Disney dig included, and is “perturbed.” He said, “It was not intended for American consumption unedited: I should have expressed myself rather differently” (To Allen & Unwin, May 28, 1937, Letter #14). This publisher miscue made Tolkien even more anxious about “posing as an illustrator.” Still, he kept submitting photos of the cover, Mirkwood, and various aspects Tolkien's illustration of Bilbo Baggins's homeof Bilbo and asking for some remuneration in an Aug 31, 1937. Money was tight, and he spent much of his research time that year proofing The Hobbit and drawing pictures for the American audience.

Tolkien was still confirming these details with his own publisher at Christmastime, and in the spring of 1938, the American publisher asked for more pictures. Once again, Tolkien is anxious about his ability: “I am afraid, if you will need drawing of hobbits in various attitudes, I must leave it in the hands of someone who can draw.” But in this letter we have a wonderful description of how Tolkien imagined his hobbits.

“I picture a fairly human figure, not a kind of ‘fairy’ rabbit as some of my British reviewers seem to fancy: fattish in the stomach, shortish in the leg. A round, jovial face; ears only slightly pointed and ‘elvish’; hair short and curling (brown). The feet from the ankles down, covered with brown hairy fur. Clothing: green velvet breeches; red or yellow waistcoat; brown or green jacket; gold (or brass) buttons; a dark green hood and cloak (belonging to a dwarf).
“Actual size–only important if other objects are in picture–say about three feet or three feet six inches…” (To the Houghton Mifflin, March or April, 1938, Letter #27).

Bilbo Baggins 2012 Hobbit

I am, for good or ill, not a purist. I a pleased to see the adaptation and judge it on its own merits. But it seems to me that Jackson, it the task of picturing Bilbo, Frodo, and the little folk of Hobbiton, has at least avoided the concern that was utmost for Tolkien: avoid anything that looks like Disney. I think this, at least, Jackson has done. Moreover, there are features that I think are drawn out better on film that Tolkien’s (admittedly) limited sketches. Beyond capturing the hobbits well, I think Jackson did an exceptionally beautiful job carving the landscapes of middle earth. And, taken by themselves, The Lord of the Rings was a good film. I can’t wait to see if he is able to pull it off again!


About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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20 Responses to Drawing the Hobbit

  1. Mary says:

    I’ve seen The Hobbit twice now, once in 2D and once in the higher rate 3D. I highly encourage you to see it in the higher rate if you can. It looks amazing (and I’m usually pretty indifferent towards 3D) (I also have to wear glasses when watching movies, wearing the 3D glasses over them wasn’t bad at all, if that’s an issue for you) . Overall, I really liked the movie. There were changes of course, but I felt they worked well.

    Have you seen “J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator” before? It’s a gorgeous book that compiles his sketches, drawings and watercolors and gives some background about his work as well. Unfortunately, it’s out of print now I think since all the copies I can find are in or near the triple digit price range. My public library has it though so I imagine you could find it that way easily enough, if you’re interested.



  2. Well done for negotiating the purist v ‘the appreciate-the-thing-for-what-it-is’ minefield. I can’t imagine how Tolkien felt trying to convey his story-realm through pictures, especially when people are pushing for more information (and publishing private correspondence…).


  3. insiderhedge says:

    Reblogged this on Parrot Reviews.


  4. jubilare says:

    I consider myself a purist, though other purists might scoff at that because I don’t do the angry-dance over every little change. I like your pointing out that Tolkien’s work didn’t spring from his head fully formed, like some literary Athena.
    I can imagine lots of people up in arms over The Hobbit, and lots of people defending it. I am neither, and prefer a more Hobbitish reaction. Let’s all have a nice quiet tea!


    • Ah, tea. A good response to any controversy.
      I’m hoping to reblog your Khazadum (sp?), Jubilare, when you’ve finished. You hinted at a part 4 somewhere. Is that all right?


      • jubilare says:

        Tea is a good response to many of life’s problems.
        Your guess is as good as mine on that spelling! Khuzdul is a mystery,
        Part 4 (the last installment) is nearing completion. I’m having to carve it down to a reasonable length. I would be honored (and surprised!) to have any part of it re-blogged.


        • It is a good series, a lot of work, and worthy of sharing. Can I suggest you crosslink them–put links at the bottom/top of each. Then I’ll blog the first one and readers can find their way through them.
          Well done. And I tried to get tix to the Hobbit tonite and they were sold out.


  5. robstroud says:

    Shoot–I was hoping for a Disney version! Guess I’ll have to settle instead for something closer to the real thing… well, not close enough for the purists, but perhaps close enough that it wouldn’t offend dear Tolkien.


  6. David says:

    Like Jubilare, I’d tended to consider myself a purist until I realized that I actually do allow adaptations a certain leniency. I’ll do the angry dance (haha) sometimes, but generally only for things that really change the whole tone or meaning of a work. And for Jackson’s adaptations, both LOTR and the Hobbit, I chose to become familiar with the biggest/worst changes well beforehand so by the time I saw the movies I’d be resigned to them and they wouldn’t surprise me. I haven’t seen the movie yet (hopefully this week!) but I’m excited, even as I know that enough will be changed to keep this from being the ideal adaptation of the book. I expect to have a lot of fun.


  7. jubilare says:

    Thank you. I am glad you like it. I hope the last installment isn’t a disappointment. It is up, now. I finished shaving it down last night, and it is still twice or three times the length of my usual posts! I also cross-linked them. That is good advice. Thanks!


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