Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Return of the Emu

So, recently I came across a reference to a forthcoming book on J. R. R. Tolkien, this time a children's biography. There have been many of these in the past, mostly for (younger) teen readers, but this is the first one I've seen that seems to be targeting grade-school kids. At just 32 pages, it looks to be more of a picture book than text-heavy. I admit to being curious to how they reduce JRRT's life into this format. Most biographies for younger readers are essentially biographical fiction that focus mainly on the subject's early life (i.e., up to about the age of the intended readers) and then pass lightly over the rest, just touching on the high points. Let's hope this one doesn't fall into that pattern.

In any case, I've preordered the book and will soon (in about two months) be able to see for myself, at which time I'll post a brief update here. But what I can say about the book right now is that seeing the cover art (available here*; be sure to click on the cover art to enlarge the icon) took me back to the bad old days of the original Barbarba Remington art for the covers of THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS. There the artist, not being allowed time to read the book, created a collage of fantasy images, such as a castle, a lion, an emu, and an eggplant tree. The results was both a bad piece of art and something wholly inappropriate to Tolkien's story.**

Here, there's no excuse to not having Tolkien's story available to the artist, which makes this cover a bit of a poser. For one thing, if shown the portrait on the cover out of context (i.e., without the background), I wd not have been able to recognize it as intended for a likeness of JRRT (I think, if pressed, I might have guessed Stephen Frye). By contrast, the portrait of Bilbo (or perhaps Frodo) looks fine, furry feet and pipe and cloak and all, and among the background details the dragon is wholly appropriate (though the wrong color if he's intended to be Smaug), as are the Ring, the cup, and I suppose the spider. But what are we to make of the moth, the owl in front of a castle, and worst of all the little winged fairy? I suspect the moth comes in through confused memories of the film (Gandalf's messenger). The owl I suppose might be borrowed from T. H. White's THE SWORD IN THE STONE, or (more likely) the Disney movie derived therefrome; the fairy's just some little bit of generic fantasy motif, no more appropriate than a unicorn or pegasus wd be.***

So, if we were to (pre)judge the book by its cover, we'd expect a bright, cheerful story that follows the facts, more or less, in broad outline**** but isn't particularly interested in getting the details right. We'll see: time will (soon) tell.

And if only Dr. Blackwelder were still alive, I cd forward this to him to be added to his gallery of TOLKIEN PORTRATURE; I even know where it'd fit into his classification. Now there's a project I wish someone else wd take up and re-create, perhaps as a website. But I assume the permissions wd be prohibitive. Pity.

--John R.


**the inappropriateness was not her fault, of course; the overall quality was (although perhaps mitigated by her only being given a weekend to do that job).

***if I recall rightly, one of the three Ace Books covers of the first LotR paperback did feature a pegasus -- but at least two out of the three were more or less appropriate to the book, putting them worlds ahead of Ballantine's effort.

****For example, I don't expect them to pass my litmus test for Tolkien biographies: those who state (falsely) that he was 'born in South Africa" and those who (correctly) say that he was born in what is now South Africa -- which is about as different as saying that someone born in East Prussia was 'born in Poland' (I actually know someone of whom this cd be said, since the country of his birth has dramatically shifted its borders during his lifetime).

1 comment:

David Bratman said...

That's not a very good litmus test. What didn't yet exist at the time of Tolkien's birth was the country, the Union (later Republic) of South Africa. But "South Africa" existed; it was a geographic term for roughly the same region as later occupied by the country.

Besides, even Carpenter would fail your test. Though he does not say "Tolkien was born in South Africa" in so many words, that's only because he's writing at a closer level of detail. He says that Bloemfontein was the capital of the Orange Free State (which it continued to be even under the Union of South Africa), but he also makes clear it was located in South Africa, the place you claim did not then exist. "Mabel Tolkien was going to South Africa to marry Arthur Tolkien," p. 9. JRRT's "memories of South Africa began to fade," p. 17.

Garth would also fail. He says the Orange Free State "had won independence from British rule in South Africa," p. 11.