Jemima Catlin and The Hobbit
by Noble Smith
I have many editions of The Hobbit in my collection, from Alan Lee’s handsomely illustrated edition, to the bizarre Rankin and Bass animated film book tie-in, to the one with Michael Hague’s sumptuous paintings. All of them have a place in my heart for one reason or another, along with my favorite Tolkien artist Pauline Baynes’s work. (She created an amazing cover for the Penguin edition of The Hobbit but, sadly, never did an illustrated version).
And now I have this magnificent new version of The Hobbit (with illustrations by Jemima Catlin) to sit beside the others on my shelf of Tolkien books.
There’s something about Catlin’s inspired work that filled me with a childlike joy—the same joy that I had the first time I saw an edition of The Hobbit with Tolkien’s own line drawings and watercolors. Catlin has created whimsical pictures that capture the innocent wonder of a reader first entering Middle-earth and going along on Bilbo’s journey. Kids will love these pictures because they’re clever, moving and funny. And adults will love them for the same reason.
And what a Smaug-like treasure trove is to be found in this precious (yes, I said precious!) clothbound hardback. There are 150 of Catlin’s pieces in this book. Most of them are neat little watercolor, ink and pencil pictures that appear in random places throughout the story, oftentimes with text wrapping around the image.
Because there are so many pictures in this edition (the most of any edition of The Hobbit in print) we get to see little tidbits that usually get overlooked by artists—Gollum recalling a vision of “eggses” (Catlin shows blue robin eggs inside a sinister looking thought bubble); goblins picking up Bilbo’s buttons with humorous expressions on their piggy-bat faces; Bilbo dreaming of dancing black bears while asleep at Beorn’s; a flash forward (described by Tolkien) of Smaug’s bones on the bottom of the Long Lake; the crown of red leaves and berries in Thranduil’s hair; a sign announcing the sale of Bilbo’s belongings that you can read in a flowing script “Messrs Grubb, Grubb, and Burrowes would sell by auction the effects of the late Bilbo Baggins,” etc. I could go on and on about these glorious little details.
There are over a dozen full page illustrations too, and they are marvelous. There is one showing the trolls after they’ve been turned to stone that evokes the fanciful work of Cor Blok; and the dinner party at Beorn’s with his animal waitstaff (a sheep’s back makes an excellent stand for a serving tray). The image that I like best is a lovely close up of Smaug, snoozing smugly atop his heaps of gold and jewels, crowns and caskets.
Some of the more unconventional pictures are my favorites. There’s one of Thorin as he’s floating down the Forest River—and we know it’s him inside because we get to see through the side of the barrel, as though with X-ray vision, to the cramped and grumpy Dwarf crammed inside. I also like the way she illustrated Bilbo whenever he puts on the One Ring: he’s drawn in black and white, as though he were a ghost.
Catlin did a masterful job of capturing the personalities of Bilbo and Gandalf. The wizard is especially expressive and I love the picture of him displaying the map of the Lonely Mountain to Thorin & Co. and Bilbo at Bag End. There’s also a cool image of Gandalf in disguise at the camp of the Elvenking, and another of him smoking his pipe and blowing colored smoke rings with a perfectly roguish look on his face.
If I haven’t already convinced you to buy this version of The Hobbit and add it to your collection, then I give up. All I can say is that I believe that J.R.R. Tolkien himself would have loved these illustrations because they are in the same spirit as his own pictures for The Hobbit (and even his Father Christmas Letters). Catlin has done herself proud, and publisher David Brawn of Harper Collins UK made an excellent choice when he picked her to illustrate this beautiful edition.
My Q&A with artist Jemima Catlin
NOBLE: You got the job illustrating this new edition of The Hobbit after sending the publisher pictures you had done for Tolkien’s Roverandom (the story he created in 1925 for his son Michael). Is there any way we could see one of those pictures?
JEMIMA: Of course! Here is Psamathos Psamathides—the Sand Sorcerer!
NOBLE: That is very cool! So, you’re a big fan of Peter Jackson’s trilogy. Was it hard pushing Alan Lee’s and John Howe’s iconic imagery out of your head to do The Hobbit illustrations?
JEMIMA: I only looked at Tolkien’s own illustrations during the project, and avoided letting anything else influence me. I really like the Lord of the Rings films but saw them as something completely different from The Hobbit for some reason and surprisingly found it easy not to be influenced by them.
NOBLE: One of my favorite pictures that you’ve done is of Thorin floating down the Forest River in a barrel. We get to see inside that barrel (as if we have X-ray vision) to the grumpy Dwarf crammed inside. How did you come up with that idea?
JEMIMA: I wanted to represent the movement and speed of the barrel, but at the same time show the cramped and grumpy Thorin inside, so thought this was the best way to show that. I could see that image quite clearly while reading the text so made sure to sketch it out before it left my head!
NOBLE: I love the little paintings in your edition of The Hobbit that are sort of like asides in a play: Bilbo munching on sorrel; his dream of dancing bears; the Goblins finding his brass buttons; Smaug’s skull on the bottom of the Long Lake, etc. How did you choose which scenes to illustrate? And did any pictures get cut?
JEMIMA: I started off by picking out scenes I found the most inspiring, then once I had completed around 60 illustrations I began drawing chapter layouts, working out where there were gaps in the illustrations and picking out scenes from thebook to fill these gaps. I had done too many illustrations for some of the chapters and some of these weren’t used in the final book.
NOBLE: Give one word to describe what it was it like when you got to hold the deluxe slipcase version in your hands.
NOBLE: One of your childhood inspirations was the great children’s book illustrator Arthur Rackham. Some people think that his willows (from The Wind in the Willows) inspired Tolkien’s ents. What’s your favorite book illustrated by Rackham?
JEMIMA: I really like his illustrations in Alice in Wonderland, he has managed to capture the magic of the story but also Alice’s fear perfectly. All the characters in his drawings seem so real.
NOBLE: You’ve said that you would love to illustrate The Lord of the Rings. If you could paint a grand wall mural (a la the scene in the film version of the mural of Sauron and Isildur in Rivendell) what scene would you chose to paint from any of Tolkien’s books?
JEMIMA: I’d love to paint Treebeard holding Pippin and Merry, peering at them both!
NOBLE: Your name is very cool (for readers who might now know it means “Dove” in Hebrew). What’s your favorite name from Middle-earth.
JEMIMA: Thank you Noble! My favourite name from Middle-Earth is probably Treebeard. It sums him up perfectly. I love the idea of trees walking on their roots and speaking, I can often see human features in the shapes on trees.
NOBLE: One final question: What’s your next project, and are you going to illustrate any more of Tolkien’s works? Because I would love to see your version of Farmer Giles of Ham, or The Adventures of Tom Bombadil!
JEMIMA: I would love to illustrate another of Tolkien’s works! One day I’d like to revisit Roverandom and illustrate it in the same style as The Hobbit. At the moment I have been doing ink drawings of Trees around my home town of Dorchester, Dorset in the UK. I will be publishing a limited edition book of these, which will be available through my website.
NOBLE: Thanks for participating in this Q&A, Jemima. And I can’t wait to see what you do next.
(A re-post from the original interview in 2014)