We all know how Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit helped put New Zealand on the map. Without doubt, those who worked on bringing the films to fruition definitely have fond memories to share.
One of the great individuals behind the scenes was the acclaimed Canadian illustrator, John Howe, who worked as Conceptual Artist on the two movie trilogies. In his recent book, A Middle Earth Traveller: Sketches from Bag End to Mordor, he shares a range of pencil, ink, and coloured sketches, which flesh out the vibrantly varied landscapes of Middle Earth. As we all know, Tolkien’s deep love of language and lore led him to become a creator and cartographer of one of the finest worlds in fiction. Following Tolkien’s creative spirit (embodied in the character of the artistic Niggle in Leaf by Niggle), Howe maps out this very realm: one sculpted and sustained by myth and power, light and shadow, life and death.
In his valuable reflections, Howe identifies the principal factors involved in envisaging Middle Earth: the stories, their descriptions, places and events that inspired Tolkien, and locations in New Zealand chosen for Jackson’s two film trilogies. Added to these are Howe’s personal experiences in work and travel. Overall, the book evinces a great deal of research, thought, and individual style.
Howe describes Tolkien’s world as a deeply symbolic one. Its geography contains layers of signification as well as historical and cultural influences. The Shire, for instance, has a Victorian rustic aesthetic. His illustrations are impressive and highly detailed. The subject matter covers topographical features, building details, and the myriad creatures of Middle Earth. Readers will definitely enjoy Howe’s skilled depictions of colossal mountains, cities of mortals and dark goblin caves, along with close ups of windows, armour, and musical instruments. Every creature from Ungoliant to the eagles of Manwë make an appearance. Aficionados of Tolkien’s books and the films themselves will be transported back to the realm they would love to call home.
A Middle Earth Traveller: Sketches from Bag End to Mordor is a book brimming with pictorial delights. It is a must for readers of Tolkien, and of fantasy and art in general. Get ready to wander around one of the greatest worlds ever created.
Reviewer: Azariah Alfante
HarperCollins, RRP $49.99