A Long Affair

Ted Nasmith - 2012
Reading NotesReading Notes: Being presentations or compilations, these articles are accessible to all readers. No specific knowledge regarding J.R.R. Tolkien’s invented world is needed.

Une traduction française de cet article a été publiée dans Tolkien 1892-2012, le numéro hors-série de L'Arc et le Heaume.

Tolkien 1892-2012

A french translation of this essay was published in Tolkien 1892-2012, a special issue of Tolkiendil's magazine, L'Arc et le Heaume.

I am writing this as an artist in his 50s, well into my career as an illustrator and Tolkien enthusiast. As I look back over those decades, I realize that the chance encounter with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien has had a profound and lasting effect on me and my art. I've also come to appreciate how significant the love of J.R.R. Tolkien is for countless others. Tolkien's multiplicity of talents and genius combined to generate some of the most renowned imaginative fiction ever created, and his legacy seems to show no signs of fading despite that he 'left the Grey Havens' on his final voyage nearly 4 decades ago.

It was my older sister Cathy who introduced me to The Lord of the Rings (LotR) as a teenager; she had read the books and had been introduced to them via her then boyfriend Tom, who belonged to a group of Tolkien fans at her local high school. This was in the late 1960s when the books had only recently been published in paperback, and were quickly creating a sensation among American and Canadian students in particular.

At around this time I was aware of the three paperback volumes of LotR in our local shop, but because of the stylized cover art (by Barbara Remington) it appeared to be a science fiction novel, a genre which at that time wasn't of significant interest to me (though later I came to enjoy many authors). What looked like a rocket launch was actually a waterfall! Reflecting on that now, remarkably, its confusing book cover treatment didn't discourage buyers of the books, at least not enough to affect its solid rise in popularity. Seemingly, “word of mouth” became the more important factor, I must assume!

At any rate, upon reading the first chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring, I was 100% hooked, in no small part because the last thing I was expecting, as mentioned, was a description of a nostalgic, English-sounding setting. Hobbits, a wizard, a magic Ring, and rumours of an urgent danger to the hobbits' beloved Shire quickly propelled me into this vast, strange-but-familiar world of Middle-earth.

At the time, quite significantly, a change in my life was unfolding, too. I had always loved drawing and painting, but until I was advised about a secondary school commercial arts program in the nearby city of Toronto, I had not realized that I was gifted in art to such a degree that it would be very odd not to develop it. Thus, within a couple of years, having newly found myself in an environment of being admired and encouraged as a young art student, and now confident in ambitions to be an illustrator, the impact of Tolkien on me was almost equally affirming, providing a new and potent source of artistic inspiration; one I was eager to explore.

Despite my general, primary aptitude for and interest in technical illustration, (such as automotive and later architectural), I was now seized with a love of Faerie and woods, water, wind and sky. My mother, a school teacher, quickly saw the positive effect all of this was having on me, and continually encouraged my Tolkien interest, as did others, especially as they tended to praise what they saw as my ability to capture the scenes and characters in a way that accorded with their own imaginations. That particular aspect of my Tolkien art has continued to be noted and mentioned by fans fairly consistently ever since, in fact, a compliment I receive with especial pride.

At about this time, with a handful of paintings and dozens of drawings accumulated, I decided to send photos of a sampling of the work to J.R.R. Tolkien himself, along with a letter. To my great joy, he replied a few weeks afterwards, and praised my art. The most developed painting was of the Dwarves, Gandalf and Bilbo around Bilbo's table reading the map of Erebor by lamplight; The Unexpected Party. It was painted in winter/spring of 1972, and Tolkien's only pointed criticism was that Bilbo looked too childlike. Sadly, despite that it wasn't a handwritten letter but a dictated aerogram signed by Tolkien's secretary (he received much fan mail in this period), I somehow lost track of it. Mere months later Tolkien would pass away (fall 1973), and I came to appreciate how lucky I was to have had that one piece of correspondence!

In the months and years after reading LotR and The Hobbit, along with the lesser tales available, I came to be known among my immediate circle as a big fan of the books, and a faithful illustrator of a growing number of scenes. In those days, there were few artists whose Tolkien illustrations were published or available, something that itself was galvanizing me towards more and more paintings and drawings. I strongly felt that Tolkien's fiction called out for illustration, yet little was available yet. It seemed a safe bet that if there weren't pictures 'out there' by many other artists, or that the ones in circulation were of dubious quality (such as the cover illustrations I mentioned earlier), I could at least bring a level of professionalism and subtlety to books I felt strongly should be illustrated in a detailed, romantic, epic, and classically informed 'traditional' manner, reflecting their author's pre-war Edwardian world and its now lost aesthetics.

I saw LotR as a work begging for careful, sympathetic depiction of its great expanses of land and sky, as well as its many strange and/or familiar seeming characters, and I duly dreamed of sharing my love of translating Tolkien's words into the visual realm with fans of his books in the wider world. Before long, I had accumulated many drawings and a growing number of paintings, and identified myself as someone with a long term commitment to Tolkien.

In the mid-70s, I traveled to Scotland for five weeks at the invitation of my sister. Having survived a recent break-up, it was suggested I take a 'time out' and see the land of my forefathers, where Cathy was studying architecture in Edinburgh. My distant cousin James put me up in his flat overlooking the Prince's Gardens, and along with introducing me to the sights and sounds of the city, he soon arranged to introduce me and my Tolkien art to his art gallery contacts at his architect's offices in the New Town. He also wrote a letter on my behalf to Tolkien's London publishers; George, Allen and Unwin, inquiring about whether they would be interested in seeing my illustrations for LotR. In reply, they expressed appreciation for my artwork, but offered 'regrets' that there were no plans to illustrate the book at that time. This wasn't my exact intention in contacting them, but rather to find out whether my art might be used in one of the illustrated Tolkien Calendars that had begun to appear annually since 1973. I did learn that the calendars I was buying by then in Canada were in fact published by a sub-licensee out of New York City; Ballentine Books. I soon submitted a sampling of my paintings to them, also, only to be told that unfortunately the next several calendars had already been planned. In other words, they weren't interested. This was both discouraging and puzzling, since it wasn't too much to assume that their editor might recognize the potential appeal of my artwork and encourage me by suggesting they put me in their queue for later consideration, at least.

{Let>T}}he next move came after I bought a copy of an art book, A Middle-earth Album by Joan Wyatt, a series of paintings from LotR. This renewed my determination to continue creating depictions of Tolkien's world, seeing how one relatively amateurish artist had found a publisher. I was enamored of her quirky art, and inspired by her authentic feel for the books. Moreover, at the back of the book was a short blurb about The Tolkien Society, a fan society I'd never heard of until then, so I decided to inquire to the address that accompanied the blurb, and soon was joining the “TS” and receiving their bulletins. This encouraged me to take advantage of a contact who knew the Tolkien editors at George, Allen and Unwin, and he duly passed along examples of what was by now a more established series of paintings. Hope sprang anew!

And indeed it was rewarded by a very positive letter soon after, when I was contacted by their editor David Fielder, who was planning to attend the World Fantasy Convention in Ottawa, Ontario in a few weeks. He asked if I would be willing to meet him and show him my originals as part of a four artist group calendar. Breakthrough at last! It was then an agonizing several months before I was again contacted to confirm the inclusion of four original paintings in the upcoming 1987 calendar. It happened that by then I was planning my first visit to the UK since the Scotland trip in the mid-70s, in order to visit several cities and art galleries in pursuit of my avid interest at that time in late 19th century “Pompier” art (neo-Classical revival). I believe I also had my first “Oxonmoot” during that trip; the annual social gathering of The Tolkien Society. For Mr. Fielder, I brought over my original paintings in order that they could be photographed for reproduction, dragging them across London in a custom built-but quite unwieldy-locked wooden case. (London's uneven sidewalk pavers soon destroyed the too-small wheels I'd fastened to the case.)

I duly left the paintings with the publishers while I traveled to see the artists on my itinerary, collecting them once I returned to London on the day of my return to Toronto. It was a very proud moment for me when I received my first copies of the 1987 J.R.R. Tolkien Calendar.

The following year, another four paintings were published in an anniversary calendar devoted to The Hobbit, and then my first full calendar was published in 1989 for the 1990 year. In the ensuing years, several more 'Nasmith-Tolkien' calendars would be published, continuing to the present day. A genteel hobby and a 'fancy' I had to maybe be recognized for my love of Tolkien, was now a fact, and was also increasingly competing with my mainstay career in architectural rendering.

Throughout this flowering of my artistic ambitions, it was clear that something powerful and deep within me was seeking expression; this was more than a passing flirtation with a popular author's invented world. What was it-what is it—about Professor Tolkien's fabulous fiction that was and still is driving my creative agenda? I've asked myself this any number of times.

I've been acquainted with Tolkien and the community of fans long enough to know that my experience of Tolkien as a central driver of my identity is a common response for others, too; innumerable readers have become enchanted to a depth that captures them over long years, if not for the rest of their lives. Tolkien's fiction has such resonance and substance that it satisfies an appetite for something enduring and affirming in his readers; one simply gets hooked!

I've read many studies of Tolkien, both essays and full length books, and it soon becomes obvious that there doesn't seem to be any end of the many fascinating layers of structure in his work, whether it be the study of his many sources, or the vast linguistic foundations, or the sophistication in the way he employs the conventions of fantasy and its array of characters, particularly the Elves. Tolkien had a fanatical zeal towards taking the ingredients that constitute what he called Faerie, and re-constituting them into new guises in order to, as he saw it, reach back into the misty lost worlds of legend and offer his own faux “true accounts” of them. This intellectual and creative 'game' drew him into a vast web of ideas and possibilities, providing him a lifetime of interest; a lens through which his deepest joys, fears, regrets, hopes, and considerable gifts and attitudes could find constant expression. It's hard to properly describe just how many things were constellated in his writing, or what a phenomenal locus of components came together to inform his career.

Artists of genius always tend to draw followings, of course, and Tolkien happened to offer his readers an especially resonant experience of imagination. He basically de-stigmatized something regarded in his time as 'meant for children' and dared to assert that it was in fact worthy of adults–and always had been. Those who, like me, discovered his novels, felt like they were finding a previously hidden door to a Place they almost didn't know they needed to find!

As a child, I grew up in a fractious, nomadic lower middle class family, and my hapless parents separated and divorced when I was about eight years old. Our religious lives were influenced by small town, somewhat repressive Baptist/evangelical morals, but there was plenty of freedom to read and draw and dream. When I was a very young boy our family sailed to France for three years, my father having been assigned overseas duties in the Royal Canadian Air Force under the NATO treaties. We lived in the nearby town of Marville, near Longuyon. It was a period that in hindsight definitely influenced my imagination, whether it was the landscape, the summer camping vacations, or the interesting parks and tourist attractions. We visited the Rotterdam zoo, the Miniature Village in The Hague, the airfield at the base my father worked at, and notably, Parc Merveilleux in Luxembourg, a wonderful park devoted to faerie tales. We also visited the great war cemetery and mausoleum at Verdun. This latter place confronted me with solemn death, though I only dimly recognized it. Possibly it explains my sense of familiarity with an author who served in the war that resulted in so many graves. When many years later I came to want to visualize Barad dur, the great tower of Sauron, the Dark Lord of LotR, I unconsciously manifested the image of the Verdun mausoleum's tower, I now realize. I deliberately modeled it to vaguely resemble a gravestone, but I now think the idea had roots at Verdun.

Once back in Canada, it became a favourite family activity to watch the slides we took of all our travels in France and Europe, keeping the memories very much alive, and feeding my young imagination.

Ultimately I believe Tolkien's books provided me with something primary; that wonderful paradox where the discovery of a thing resonates so powerfully that it seems as though it was written personally for you, and in turn it stimulates an equally powerful echo in your creative soul. Prior to its impact on you, your creative and personal identity had no firm shape, but after the fateful encounter, you gain a profound sense of Purpose and Place suddenly, almost a religious experience of affirmation.

And as with a religious experience of revelation, one then looks back and realizes how 'inevitable' it was, how you had responded to fragmentary or fleeting encounters with this 'existential nourishment' in childhood, as I began to describe above. In hindsight, I now saw such occasions in a new light. Along with how my itinerant childhood and especially my early memories of Europe imprinted on me, I had a fascination with films like The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm or In Search of the Castaways, or a series of books I delighted in from the school library, called Legacy Books, each telling a story from a variety of myth traditions.

My experiences of physical impermanence (a series of new communities and disruptions of surroundings) as well as psychological and emotional impermanence (anxieties fueled by my parents' divorce) left me primed for Tolkien's tale of an orphan (Frodo) who must give up the familiar in order to fulfill his destiny. To the extent that I felt 'adrift' in my adolescence and childhood, and was surrounded by a world itself beset by not only profound change socially but also the threat of unthinkable atomic war, it's little wonder that The Lord of the Rings grabbed me and wouldn't let go.

Part of my search for 'what I lost' was explicitly religious, too, I should add. A few years after Tolkien's books transformed my outlook and my sense of being, I reached back to what seemed more innocent times when our family attended church on Sundays and life seemed to have a sense of order and meaning. I'd already been one to feel a great need to seek peace of mind and oneness with God, and even though this nostalgia was incomplete and more impression than reality, the tumults of growing up with uncertain moorings, including exposure to a fractious 2nd marriage for my mother, as well as her 2nd divorce, and painful experiences socially as I negotiated the perils of friendships and girls, pushed me to take shelter in the Christian church. However, over time, despite much that was positive, that proved not to be the rescue I assumed it would be, and in hindsight I believe my love of Tolkien helped me stay a far steadier course and mitigated various shadows that come with the sort of moral prohibitions that, if not challenged, can produce damaging results and a worse state of personal angst-at least for a sensitive, conflicted individual like me. It would take many more years for me to work through those dilemmas, but in the end, most who know and knew me would affirm that my love of Tolkien was a sort of Gibralter, a great constant in the swirling influences around me.

Years later, in my forties, I found an obscure book at a yard sale called A Place For You (Tournier), and it reinforced for me that having a Place-psychologically, emotionally, physically, spiritually-is absolutely essential to human fulfillment. It is no coincidence that a typical hero's journey tends to involve the coming of age of a protagonist who is set apart from others, and whose loneliness drives them to venture into unknown places in search of their Grail. Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Ulysses in The Odyssey, or the parable of the Prodigal Son, for instance, all illustrate this concept of leaving the familiar (“home”) in order to recover it as transformed individuals. At its best, imaginative fiction rooted in this tradition offers Escape and Recovery, a dynamic that Tolkien explicitly understood, as we know.

And when you have a collective experience of recovery as multi-faceted as Tolkien provides, another benefit is available, that of the warmth of belonging to its fan community. Initially I identified with the author's works, and found myself and my artistic vision as a result, but within a few years I was also drawn into the fan community, and experienced Place on that level, too. Indeed, it is nearly impossible for me to summarize how wonderfully welcome I've felt as a part of the larger Tolkien community, and how inspired. The solitude of my studio and my inner voyaging is answered on the outside by the circle of friends I cherish. Together we challenge and encourage one another, and at our best share a hobbitish camaraderie in a healthy environment of mutual celebration. That is priceless, or as Niggle proclaims upon seeing his Tree realized as a physical reality, “it's a gift!”

And as the saying goes, it's a Gift that 'keeps on giving'. There is more than enough interest to be found in Tolkien to devote a lifetime to. I cannot imagine not having encountered Tolkien, though wisdom says that I would have found at least some the things he represents in other places, and somehow would have pursued its artistic possibilities. Indeed, if life teaches us anything, it is that life is remarkably fragile and tentative so often, yet that truism itself makes the discovery of something precious, something one might've missed, that much more meaningful, paradoxically. We also know that a thing of supreme power and beauty can be lost in ever-present chaos, and never be known, like the proverbial tree in the forest which makes no 'sound' because no one witnessed its fall. Tolkien himself, narrowly surviving The Great War, was poignantly aware of this terrible possibility, and expressed it in poems like The Sea Bell or stories like Leaf, by Niggle. The fact that Tolkien knew this, whose stories involve deep themes of death, irrevocable change, heroic courage, hope, friendship, love, nature, enchantment, and other powerful forces, shows us that he understood human dilemmas, and more importantly, how to express them in a flowering of creative genius of staggering beauty.

His life was devoted to an idea that drove him almost cruelly as he at times struggled to harmonize his vast 'legendarium' into the most coherent final form he could manage, and it isn't lost on his readers-me certainly-that this Quest to set down on paper his Gift for posterity, amid his many other duties and responsibilities, sets an inspiring example for me and others to stay the course, dwell imaginatively in the great World he built, and bind ourselves to his art in order to ensure its lasting legacy.

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