The Lord of the Rings' Interlace: Tolkien's Narrative and Lee's Illustrations

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Introduction

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. …