J. R. R. Tolkien reinvented the medieval "romance," complete with archetypal characters, quest theme, and interlaced narrative structure, when he wrote The Lord of the Rings and, in doing so, he became a principal founder of the modern literary genre of fantasy and inspiration to a wide range of fantasy art. Tolkien identified the romance with the fairy story, referring to such as the "true fairy story (or romance)" (Tolkien, "On Fairy-stories" 87). Furthermore, he understood Faerie to be a place or state containing, along with fairies, "dwarves, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons," and all the other elements, plants, and things that make up that place or state. Stories set in Faerie are typically "about the adventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches" (38). In spite of the widespread use of illustration in association with medieval narrative, (1) Tolkien was of the opinion that fantasy was a literary form, not a visual one, as he stated quite clearly in "On Fairy-stories":
In human art Fantasy is a thing best left to words, to true literature. In painting, for instance, the visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy; the hand tends to outrun the mind, even to overthrow it. Silliness or morbidity are frequent results. (70)
Though not necessarily due to Tolkien's espousal of it, this opinion has become as familiar as Hobbits: artwork, once regarded as a guarantor of book sales, is now generally dispensed with in all but children's literature, comics, and graphic novels as a distraction from the written word. So it is that Alan Lee's fifty paintings make the 1991 HarperCollins edition of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings one of the rare volumes of later twentieth-century illustrated adult fiction. Albeit of higher than usual quality, Lee's work for Tolkien's The Hobbit is typical of that provided for children's stories insofar as it is limited to visualizations of things already chosen for special attention in the text, such as pivotal actions and strange creatures. Lee's The Lord of the Rings paintings may be enjoyed on a similar level, but as this paper shows, their complexity is as unlikely to be fully appreciated by younger children as is the story itself. Lee's paintings enhance all aspects of Tolkien's original text; most significantly they augment the narrative structure itself, the interlace, a form that relies on design intricacies for both beauty and meaning. (2) This paper is thus dedicated not only to Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, but to Alan Lee's illustrations.
The Lord of the Rings as Interlaced Romance
The Lord of the Rings, like the medieval romance, is characterized by archetypal characters, a quest theme, and interlaced structure. As George Thomson notes, "like the traditional allegory, the characters of The Lord of the Rings are types": Gandalf and Galadriel represent light, Sauron and Saruman represent darkness, Frodo is the hero, Aragorn is the returning King, and so forth (50). The reader's interest is held less by these familiar types and far more by revelations about their strange and unusual world and the adventures had in the fulfilling of the quest (54). Thomson also shows that Frodo and Aragorn together satisfy all of the six characteristics of the romance identified by Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism (1957): the hero's unusual birth, innocent youth, quest involving sacrifice, the success of the quest in the preservation of innocence and goodness in society, the restoration of the cycle of fertility through the union of lovers, and finally, the ending of action by the assertion of a contemplative state (45-8).
Thomson finds Tolkien's principal deviation from the romance form, perhaps made as a courtesy to twentieth-century readers, in his consistent use of his most realistic characters as the narrative center:
In writing a traditional romance Tolkien has thrust forward his hobbits as a hostage to modern realism. Yet they could not be too much in the realistic tradition or they would spoil his whole design. That is why they are not humans. On the other hand, because their natures are so engagingly human, they serve the reader as a point of contact and enable him to enter sympathetically into an extraordinary world. (56)
Tolkien does break this pattern when he breaks the Fellowship; he sends Frodo and Sam off alone to find Mount Doom, allows Orcs to abduct Merry and Pippin, and opens the Two Towers with no Hobbits left to witness the ensuing adventures of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli; but the Hobbits are certainly the most "Human" characters and thus the ones with whom readers are most consistently encouraged to identify.
Narrative interlace, the third definitive characteristic of the romance, is an analogue of the complex patterns found in a wide range of medieval visual media, including stone, metal, fabric, and paint. Eugene Vinaver, John Leyerle, Susanna Greer Fein, and Robert Burlin to name only those cited here, (3) have identified the features and operations of this narrative strategy with reference to such medieval works as Beowulf, La Queste del Saint Graal, Chretien de Troyes's romances, the Faerie Queen, and the dream poems Le Roman de la Rose and Piers Plowman. Though not the first to credit its existence, Vinaver has made the most extensive study of interlace, finding it to be the principal feature distinguishing much medieval literature from that constructed on the Aristotelian principle of "organic unity," with its characteristic beginning, middle, and end, limited number of characters, and uncomplicated plot developed in linear fashion with, at most, a few equally uncomplicated subplots or themes. The interlace of the cyclic romance, Vinaver explains, can only be understood in terms of the simultaneous pursuit of multiple themes that
alternate like threads in a woven fabric, one theme interrupting another and again another, and yet all remaining constantly present in the author's and the reader's mind. The adventures which constitute the great cycles of romances thus become part of a carefully thought-out design of fantastic dimensions--of a narrative composition in which a coherence of the subtlest kind exists, though it is conveyed, not, as most modern readers would expect, through explanatory observations and discourses, but through the amplification and expansion of the matter itself--a device which it will take the modern world nearly half a millennium to rediscover, through the work of a few solitary writers of our own time. (76-77)
In his close analysis of Beowulf, John Leyerle suggests there is a difference between structural and stylistic or decorative interlace. He compares structural interlace to tapestry weaving "where positional patterning of threads establishes the shape and design of the fabric" (5), and associates it with the writer's use of "artificial order," or the arrangement of events out of chronological order to achieve meaningful effects, associations, and comparisons. Such artificial ordering is easily distinguished from the "natural" or chronological order used in works intended for oral delivery. Structural interlace is then analogous to weaving insofar as it pertains to the ordering of events, chronologically as Leyerle specifies, but also thematically, as when a writer moves back and forth between the events and characters articulating various themes, regardless of the simultaneousness or other temporal relationships involved. The interlace design, as Leyerle states, "in and of itself, makes a contribution to the main theme" (10); the design, with its juxtapositions, intersections, and conjunctions, created without temporal limitations, itself reveals the poet's meaning (13).
Stylistic interlace is, according to Leyerle, analogous to "interlace designs in art that are decorative rather than structural. Designs on a sword, coffer or cross are decoration applied to an object whose structure arises from other considerations" (5). In its literary form, stylistic interlace involves the "multiple statement of a subject in several different words or phrases, each of which typically describes a different aspect of the subject" (4). While stylistic interlace is less thoroughly addressed than structural in his paper, it seems the monsters distributed throughout many medieval designs exemplify stylistic interlace, as Leyerle finds analogies to them in the monsters that thread through Beowulfand function outside the norms that keep society in balance. Each monster is a restatement, with variations, of the same underlying theme: hoarding rather …