And then there's this. This year's calendar is illustrated by Cor Blok,* a Dutch artist now in his mid-seventies who has the unusual distinction of having shown his works to Tolkien himself, during a visit to Oxford in August 1961. To me Blok's work looks like a deliberate and unsuccessful attempt to capture a naif primitive style, screened through the pyschodelia that was briefly popular for science fiction and fantasy book covers back in the '60s and early '70s (cf. Barbara Remington's covers for the Ballantine LotR and E. R. Eddisons, or Bob Pepper's work for the Adult Fantasy Series). So I'm astonished to learn that Tolkien apparently liked them. Indeed, he liked them so much that he bought two of them**and accepted a third as a gift from the artist, and apparently went so far as to frame two of the three. This is all the more surprising, given how prickly Tolkien cd be about artists attempting to illustrate his work (he once famously described Pauline Baynes' Gollum as looking like the Michelin Tire Man -- and this was by an artist he liked) and the fact that Blok makes no attempt to be factually accurate: he portrays Gollum as a kind of giant duck*** and has Eowyn stab the witch-king in the lips with a needle-thin spear. The overall effect is both comic and weird, as if Jay Ward's Bullwinkle tried to reproduce some medieval Flemish art.
The best of these pieces are the large-scale battle-scenes, such as The Battle of the Hornburg (August) and Frodo's Vision from Amon Hen (April), which in their crowded muddles echo Brueghel (esp. his Triumph of Death) and create a sort of Garden of Earthly Delights -like creepiness. And he's at his worst with any small-scale scene which involves depiction of actual characters, like the laughably amateurish March of the Ents (May). It would be hard to imagine a worse Ent: I think Blok has probably claimed the all-time-worst prize in this category.
Ironically enough, the lengthy essay by the artist that fills the first few pages of this calendar, "Pictures to Accompany a Great Story", is far more interesting than the art itself. In the essay, Blok gives a brief overview of his career, explains how he came to create his Tolkien art (more than a hundred pieces, all in the period 1958-1962), describes his meeting with Tolkien, and provides a brief technical explanation of how he creates his effects.
From this account, it's clear that Blok was a kind of kindred spirit to Tolkien in one very important and unusual way: just as Tolkien created invented languages set in his own subcreated world, starting in his late teens Blok began to create art from his imaginary country of Barbarusia ("invented to provide the setting for a fictional history of art running from Palaeolithic cave paintings to a local version of 20th century Futurism"). That is, he worked to develop his own distinct style to reflect what the art of this imaginary European country might have looked like. And it was on this Barbarusian art that Blok drew when he turned to painting scenes from Tolkien. The Brontes wrote their shared-world stories, Tolkien created his vocabularies, and Blok painted his Barbarusian art: all differing expressions of a similar impulse.
Perhaps it's better to simply try to enjoy these pieces -- either as art or as outstanding pieces of dadaesque folly, depending on how they take you -- than as anything actually illustrating Tolkien's story. Certainly this is how Tolkien himself took them, writing the he found them "attractive as pictures, but bad as illustrations" (JRRT to RU). Blok, for his part, admits that he gets plenty of details wrong but falls back on the argument that "There is a distinction, after all, between depicting and describing . . . This is why I refer to my work on The Lord of the Rings as 'accompanying' rather than 'illustrating' the story." and again "My pictures try to re-tell parts of the written narrative by means of pictorial signs. They are not projections of whatever images Tolkien's text conjured up before my mind's eye. They are pictographs, not photographs".
In short, these are the visual equivalent to music 'inspired by' a poem or story; they have no real value as illustrations but stand or fall as pure art. That's probably why I, personally, find so little value in the result. But, as a wise man once said, your milage may vary.
*I first became aware of Blok's work through four paintings reproduced in REALMS OF TOLKIEN: IMAGES OF MIDDLE-EARTH , the second of two art collections from HarperCollins that came out in the mid-ninties; the one-page artist's bio on Blok in the back quotes from two of Tolkien's letters to him. I was incredulous even then that Tolkien wd have liked this stuff, but the evidence seems too solid to doubt.
**"The Battle of the Hornburg", reproduced here as the illustration for August, and what Blok calls a version of "The Dead Marshes". The picture Blok gave him as a present was of "Dunharrow"; the two Tolkien had framed were "Dunharrow" and "Helm's Deep" (i.e., "The Battle of the Hornburg").
***in the illustration for June I just assumed he had a liripipe (a la Baynes' Smith), odd though that wd be; but the illustrations for October and November makes his giant-duck shape (complete with bill and big duck feet) irrefutable.