In one of JRR Tolkien’s posthumously published letters, he explains that his short story Leaf By Niggle “is not really or properly an allegory”. Allegory was one of his red-rag-to-a-bull words; he disliked the form to begin with, and people wouldn’t stop asking him whether Sauron’s Ring was an allegory for the A-bomb.
But if Leaf By Niggle isn’t an allegory (a contestable point), it’s very easily read as spiritual autobiography. It’s about a painter trying to produce a great work, and failing (or perhaps not), because his talent is too modest for the breadth of his vision, and his life is too short, and the world won’t leave him alone to work. “I dare say it was not really a very good picture,” the narrator remarks, “though it may have had some good passages.”
Some good passages? If you want a smoking gun, there it is: Leaf By Niggle refracts Tolkien’s writing life through the prism of visual art. The choice of metaphor for this self-description was not arbitrary: he was a visual artist, and his stories were partly driven by the illustrations he did as he was writing them.
No one has done more to – forgive the wordplay – illustrate this than husband-and-wife research librarians Wayne G Hammond and Christina Scull. Their JRR Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator is the urtext of scholarship on the subject, and also a gorgeous coffee table presentation of the paintings and drawings themselves. It’s so comprehensive it’s hard to believe there’s more to unearth.
But Tolkien, here as in his writing, was afflicted with the perfectionist’s desire to tinker. Multiple versions and an evolutionary sequence of trial sketches exist for many of the works, meaning a fair chunk of Hammond and Scull’s The Art of The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien has not been published previously.
This chunk consists largely of incomplete pencil roughs, presented to maximum advantage in the order of the stages and versions of their composition. The book is beautifully designed and produced (apart from a series of fold-out pages that are hard to fold back in). It’s perhaps more a bonbon for the serious Tolkien nerd than a book for the general reader. But speaking as one of the former, it’s a very nice bonbon indeed.
THE ART OF THE HOBBIT BY JRR TOLKIEN, by Wayne G Hammond and Christina Scull (HarperCollins, $69.99).
David Larsen is a writer and Listener film reviewer.