‘The Hobbit’ illustrated by Maurice Sendak? The 1960s masterpiece that could have been

March 25, 2011 | 8:08 a.m.


Tony DiTerlizzi goes on a quest for “The Hobbit” that could have been — the abandoned 1960s Maurice Sendak adaptation.

sendaks hobbit The Hobbit illustrated by Maurice Sendak? The 1960s masterpiece that could have been

Maurice Sendak's "The Hobbit," in pen and ink, 1967 (Credit: Maurice Sendak/Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University)

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.

jrr tolkien photogrpahed by bille 3 The Hobbit illustrated by Maurice Sendak? The 1960s masterpiece that could have been

J.R.R. Tolkien (Los Angeles Times archives)

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.

sendaks where the wild things are The Hobbit illustrated by Maurice Sendak? The 1960s masterpiece that 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.

the hobbit cover The Hobbit illustrated by Maurice Sendak? The 1960s masterpiece that could have been

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.

tolkiens hobbit The Hobbit illustrated by Maurice Sendak? The 1960s masterpiece that could have been

Sketch from the J. R. R. Tolkien's book "The Hobbit." (Copyright 1937, 1951, 1966, 1978, 1995 by The J.R.R. Tolkien Copyright Trust. Image courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

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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17 Responses to ‘The Hobbit’ illustrated by Maurice Sendak? The 1960s masterpiece that could have been

  1. Hayes Reed says:

    Sad that this illustrated version never came to pass. But my favorite illustrations of the novel are from the 1977 cartoon adaptation. I always think back to that cartoon whenever I imagine a Hobbit, a troll, or Gollum.

  2. Sorry, but that Sendak illustration at the top is dreadful. It makes me glad that Tolkien, who had good taste, rejected the possibility of Sendak as an illustrator for THE HOBBIT.

    Look at Bilbo for a start. Is that a furry belly extending down under his waistcoat? Where is the thigh for the right leg? Is that the dark thing extending diagonally down from his body, or does that represent his right arm (with no fingers visible grasping the pipe-stem)? And why is the bench inconveniently directly in front of the door, which does not look round at all?

    Gandalf is far worse. Is he standing up or kneeling on his left knee? Either way, his head is FAR too big for his body, and his hand is tiny compared to his face. He looks sad (“world-weary,” as the author puts it), and yet Gandalf is anything but world-weary or sad in any scene in THE HOBBIT or LOTR. He has a considerable gusto for life, rejecting mere tea in favor of red wine and some chicken and pickles. He plays tricks on both Bilbo and the dwarves to get the group together and out onto the road to pursue the quest. He often takes Bilbo and the dwarves to task and has a distinctly sarcastic sense of humor. World-weary, pshaw!

    Sendak’s view of THE HOBBIT was distinctly superficial (and badly drawn), and Tolkien’s view of Sendak was spot-on.

    • Steve says:

      I agree. Does this plea about Sendak and the Hobbit mean the author of this article would now like to see someone else draw Where the Wild Things Are? It's been more than 40 years, isn't it time for a re-interpretation?

      As far as kids today not being satisfied with older styles of illustration because they are the iPhone generation, take a look at the teens sexting article over at the NYtimes this week. Kids who have been conditioned by modern gadgets to avoid old styles of art are, as with that girl who sexted herself, what we commonly refer to as the "dumb kids." If you want yours to be in that group, go for it. As for smarter kids who think for themselves, they love old and unfamiliar styles of art because kids are pre-configured to like novel things. Remember children, the most easily bored among us? Yes, there are reasons for that, they are empty vessels begging to be filled by all the world's variety, not spoon-fed what's popular and familiar.

  3. Alastair Mullane says:

    There was sufficient darkness in "Rings" already. The Wraiths, the Watcher in the Water, the Balrog…and that's just the first movie! There's nothing especially provocative about del Toro, other than his relentless hype. The best thing that could have happened to Hobbit was del Toro leaving. It's in the hands it ought to have been all along.

  4. szmidt kate says:

    I am in love with all the storys and the illustrations!

  5. David Markham says:

    I think it's too bad that this edition didn't happen because I love new illustrations of classic works and would like to see what Sendak would have done with it. But I don't actually like new *editions* of classic works, so while I miss the drawings, I don't miss the book itself. "Alice" should be illustrated by Tenniel, "The Hobbit" should be illustrated by Tolkien.

    As for Tolkien's supposed dislike for writing for children, that may reflect his views in the late 50's, it certainly wasn't his view when actually writing "The Hobbit". He even tried to re-write it, bringing it into line with LOTR. A friend read it and said something to the effect that it was "wonderful, but not 'The Hobbit'". Tolkien, wisely, abandoned the re-write. (In point of fact, the quote above doesn't even support your assertion that he "despised" the fact that "The Hobbit" was considered a children's book. You would need more supporting evidence for that conclusion)

  6. Carolyn Riddle says:

    Very interesting story — thanks for writing about this. I'm afraid I agree with Kristin's critique, however. Worst of all, Sendak's Blbo has no hair on his toes! His arm holding the pipe doesn't bother me so much, as the eye fills in whatever is missing. However, the pipe is much too long. How could Bilbo reach to fill and light it? I agree with her assessment of Gandalf's depiction. In LOTR wizards are maia (Istari in Quenya), immortal beings of great power and wisdom. In the illustration above he looks more like a dwarf than a wizard. Michael Hague did amazing illustrations of the Hobbit in the 1980's, and more recently so has Alan Lee. Tolkien's own drawings are charming, and don't look dated at all. I think I can live without Sendak's version just fine. The best part of this illustration is the vegetation.

  7. Wayne and Christina says:

    In our work as Tolkien scholars ("The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide"), we've read the extant correspondence between Tolkien's American publisher (Houghton Mifflin) and his British publisher (Allen & Unwin) concerning the Sendak "Hobbit", and need to point out a number of errors in Mr. DiTerlizzi's article. He says that Sendak was invited to illustrate "The Hobbit" "in the late 1960s"; in fact, Sendak signed a contract in 1964, and asked for a couple of years to do the work. The article implies that the only hurdle to Sendak's involvement was Tolkien, who in 1967 'was still overseeing his Middle-earth empire'; in fact, Tolkien had already, in 1963, allowed Houghton Mifflin to get on with a deluxe "Hobbit" to be illustrated by Virgil Finlay (who seems to have dropped out; Tolkien made some positive comments on his sample picture), and when Sendak was proposed he continued in the same manner. Far from "overseeing an empire", by which we suppose Mr. DiTerlizzi means micromanaging, Tolkien tended to defer to his publishers on business matters. Sendak may have made sample drawings 'begrudgingly', but they seem to have been expected of him by all concerned, as from any artist, even one so distinguished.

    Mr. DiTerlizzi also states that the publisher (presumably Houghton Mifflin is meant) 'prepared the art samples for Tolkien’s approval', misidentifying wood-elves as hobbits in one of two finished images. But the correspondence between Houghton Mifflin and Allen & Unwin in January-February 1967 clearly refers to only one image sent by Austin Olney at Houghton Mifflin, received by Joy Hill at Allen & Unwin, and shown to Tolkien by Rayner Unwin: the picture of Gandalf and Bilbo. Tolkien saw it on 16 February 1967, and on 20 February Rayner wrote to Houghton Mifflin that Tolkien was not 'wildly happy about the proportions of the figures', Bilbo being too large relative to Gandalf. There is no indication that Tolkien saw a picture of dancing wood-elves, so any mislabeling 'blunder' was of no consequence.

    Christina Scull & Wayne G. Hammond

    • Justin G. Schiller says:

      Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond's research seems correct, as I was the agent for Maurice Sendak as regards the sale of his original ink drawing (? and pencil preliminary) of Bilbo and Gandalf. Maurice told me it was the ONLY drawing he ever did for "The Hobbit" — so consequently another picture of dancing wood-elves by him never existed. Also, for the record, the Sendak drawing pictured above was not a donation by the artist to Yale but was actually purchased from my antiquarian book business by the collector Betsy Beinecke Shirley along with the annotated copy of Tolkien marked up by Maurice to indicate possible points he might illustrate, and it was Mrs Shirley who donated both book and drawing to Yale as part of her incredible collection of American children's books. THIS is the final word on both issues as I am the only surviving participant in witnessing this transaction, probably dating from the late 1970s.

  8. J-J Cote says:

    What I see here are two sides, one which adores Sendak and figures that anything that he does is wonderful, and the other which adores Tolkien and figures that everything worked out perfectly and anything different would have been awful. My feeling is that Sendak's drawing is pretty good as a sample, and with some comments and changes could have been just fine, but it's not like a Sendak-illustrated Hobbit would have been some kind of nirvana. Meanwhile, Tolkien's art was, frankly, pretty bad.

  9. Mike says:

    Tolkien had so much trouble with illustrators who essentially never read the books. The Ballantine editions of the 1960s, illustrated by Barbara Remington immediately come to mind. I think publishers have a cadre of illustrators they use all the time who may be competent graphic artists but operate under tight deadlines: "Hey, I need an illustration of a Wizard and a little guy with hairy feet. Use you imagination. I need it in 3 days!" I wish Patrick Wynne would get a commission for a Tolkien calendar or illustrated edition. He has a wonderful pen-and-ink style and knows the Tolkien literature.

  10. Rhissanna says:

    I'd have a Tony DiTerlizzi illustrated 'Hobbit'! I keep (and treasure) an early copy of 'Dragon' magazine with a delicious painting of a large, studious dragon and a little chap (race unknown. Gnome? Sober Dwarf?) perched on a coil of his tail, playing chess together.

  11. nomorewaryouprats says:

    I will always be fondest of Tolkien's own illustrations of his work. I absolutely love the many different textures Sendak brought to his interpretation, but as other commenters and Tolkien himself noted, the proportions in the figures of Gandalf and Bilbo appear to be off, and too much of what should be explicit visual context is left to be filled in by the mind's eye.

    I was unaware that Gandalf had lost his left leg, his right hand had shriveled into a tiny non-functional claw, or that he habitually wore an expression of melancholic resignation on his overlarge face. Nor did I know that Bilbo was such an insufferable self-satisfied little burgher, grown (extraordinarily) potty about the middle, taking no pains to conceal his forked tail.

    We can quibble whether Gandalf is standing or sitting, but neither satisfies our visual logic. He is missing either a thigh or a foot. We can even argue whether this intermediation of an image of an image is unfair to Sendak's true ability to supply the missing parts to the mind's eye, or that simply we are too unsophisticated to comprehend his artistry. Maybe we should show it to the children. We've become such captious critics as adults.

    Actually I think Sendak's illustration says more about Sendak than it does Tolkien's work.

  12. Christine789 says:

    That was a long but insightful read. As an aspiring freelance illustrator, I often find myself trying to come to terms with my clients’ ideas and thoughts when I go through their stories before coming up with appropriate illustrations, and yes most of the times dark themes are underlying in the plot and characters.

  13. marty says:

    Stupid publishers if they didn't make the mistake tolkien should have understand that maurice did really understand his faithfulness to his fiction (Stupid mistake!>:()

  14. SerenityNow says:

    To me, the Sendak illustrations are just rough samples that lookslike he focused on Gandalf's face and Bilbo's general appearance. Looks to me that his Gandalf sort of resembles Ian McKellan and Bilbo looks a little like Ian Holme in LOTR.

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