Tony DiTerlizzi goes on a quest for “The Hobbit” that could have been — the abandoned 1960s Maurice Sendak adaptation.
As I eagerly await Peter Jackson’s return to Tolkien with his adaptation of “The Hobbit,” I can’t help but wonder what the film would have become had Guillermo del Toro remained in the director’s chair. Though the story of Bilbo Baggins takes place in a more halcyon Middle-earth than the later “The Lord of the Rings” books, there are pockets of darkness that foretell what is to come.
I’ve observed a gravitational pull toward the dark in film adaptations of books primarily published for children, especially in Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” and in the latest installment of Harry Potter. Traditional fairy tales abound with dark themes and places for the hero to adventure, and rightly so — the world can be a dark place. This author cannot think of any better way to broach these notions and address these fears with his daughter than through a story, and “The Hobbit” sits in perfect company with these types of fairy tales.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s masterpiece about his hairy-footed hero was conceived in the early 1930s while Tolkien was teaching Anglo-Saxon (Old English) at Oxford University; it was released in 1937 by George Allen & Unwin. The publisher’s intention was that this was a new fairy story written primarily for children. To further charm the book’s intended audience, text was decorated with full-page pen & and ink illustrations by the author, not unlike books illustrated by Arthur Rackham or Kay Nielsen. Subsequent editions would have full-color plates by Tolkien.
As one who crafts stories for children, I’ve come to understand that the darker the story gets, the brighter the happy ending. It is a symbiotic relationship. This is enhanced by the use of illustrations — an aspect of bookmaking that nowadays seems relegated to stories for the very young.
So I circle back to the reimagining of “The Hobbit” by another visionary and how integral reinterpretation is to the lifespan of a classic, whether book or film. Each generation should have an edition of these timeless stories that speaks directly to them in a style and design that they are familiar with. If you don’t believe me, ask a group of fourth-graders to put down their iPhones and Wii game controllers and see what they think of Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations for [Lewis] Carroll’s first edition of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
This leads me to a rendition of “The Hobbit” that would have been treasured by many: “The Hobbit” as illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Heard of this version? Probably not, because it never came to pass, and yet, we have surviving glimpses of what could have been.
In the late 1960s, Middle-earth enjoyed a renewed interest with the release of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy in paperback. As “The Hobbit” neared its 30th anniversary, the American publisher invited Sendak to reimagine Bilbo Baggins and his classic quest. Caldecott Medal-winning Sendak, though his work could be thorny and at times scary, was nonetheless the darling of children’s publishing that decade. He had the ability to delight the young as he balanced the light and dark in titles from “Pierre” to his pièce de résistance, “Where the Wild Things Are.” Sendak understood not only the physical hurdles that a story’s character faces but the psychological ones as well. He was the perfect visionary to reinterpret Tolkien.
I wanted to know more about the details of the relationship between two literary luminaries, so I spoke with fellow author Gregory Maguire (of “Wicked” fame), who interviewed Sendak in 2004. Though Tolkien was 75 in 1967, he was still overseeing his Middle-earth empire. He requested samples from Sendak in considering the artist’s involvement. Begrudgingly, Sendak obliged, creating two finished images — one of wood-elves dancing in the moonlight, and another of Bilbo relaxing outside his hobbit hole smoking his pipe beside Gandalf.
There is a real passion and understanding of content and audience in these spec pieces. Sendak rendered these in a detailed pen-and-ink style similar to that of the illustrations for “Higglety Pigglety Pop!” and “Little Bear.” It hearkens back to epic pastoral imagery seen in etchings by the likes of Rembrandt and Samuel Palmer. If you look closely, you will discover a master at work in the art of subtlety: Notice the heavy crosshatching used to weigh down a world-weary Gandalf contrasted with the open, airy line work that renders the jovial Bilbo. These depictions speak in an artistic conversation that has been ongoing for centuries, yet they are immediate and approachable by the child of today.
As Sendak noted passages for possible illustration and sketched in the margins of his copy of the book, the publisher prepared the art samples for Tolkien’s approval. The editor mislabeled the samples, however, identifying the wood-elves as “hobbits,” as Sendak recalled to Maguire. This blunder nettled Tolkien. His reply was that Sendak had not read the book closely and did not know what a hobbit was. Consequently, Tolkien did not approve the drawings. Sendak was furious.
In hopes that all could be smoothed over between the two, the publisher arranged for a meeting in Oxford while Sendak was in England touring for the U.K. release of “Wild Things.” The day before their meeting, Sendak suffered his first major heart attack. He was 39. Sendak spent several weeks recovering in a hospital in Birmingham. He never met with Tolkien, and the project was abandoned.
Was it a scheduling issue that forced the project to be shelved? Perhaps a reconsideration on Sendak’s part as he recouped in the hospital? It’s not clear. What I do know is that “The Hobbit,” as illustrated by the author, had remained in print for 30 years. As those years passed and the book’s fame grew, Tolkien despised the fact that it was considered by many to be a children’s story, as indicated in a letter from 1959, “I am not specially interested in children, and certainly not in writing for them.” Proposing a new illustrator for his tale, culled from the best in children’s illustration, was a direction he could not have been particularly fond of.
As an artist who has illustrated another’s words, I take responsibility when I begin envisioning a story. After all, by way of my artwork, I am showing readers what I imagine the author to be saying. There are many words or sentences an illustrator can home in on and exploit to create their accompanying imagery. I often compare it to the lyrics of a song mixed with the melody. If they work well together, you get a wondrous and memorable harmony.
Sendak’s sample holds the light and dark not only of Tolkien’s narrative but also of the events that swirled around the artwork’s very creation. Regardless of the outcome, what we are left with is an extraordinary peek into a master illustrator’s imagination as he interpreted another master’s prose. (Sendak donated his finished illustration of Bilbo and Gandalf, as well as his marked-up edition of “The Hobbit,” to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where it is located today. The location of the second, mislabeled illustration of the elves is unknown.)
Had Sendak’s edition been released, I have no doubt it would have been a smashing success. I even speculate that he would have been asked to continue onward with “The Lord of the Rings.” Sendak’s “Hobbit” would be found lying on the cluttered floor of a child’s bedroom next to a newly illustrated edition of Grimm’s “Fairy Tales” or, perhaps, on a collector’s shelf next to a favorite version of Barrie’s “Peter and Wendy.” Like them, “The Hobbit” is a classic. It should be reimagined and celebrated in books, film and whatever new media await, for generations to come. As Mr. Baggins once said, “Roads go ever ever on.”
– Tony DiTerlizzi
Author Tony DiTerlizzi is also the illustrator of “The Spider & the Fly” and the creator of “The Spiderwick Chronicles.” His latest illustrated novel, “The Search for WondLa,” is currently in development at Paramount Pictures.
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