Extraordinary pairing of letters from Tolkien to Mary Fairburn, an artist who sent him paintings of several scenes from Lord of the Rings:
TLS, one page, 7 x 9, personal letterhead, May 24, 1968, in part: “I think the samples of illustrations you sent me are splendid. They are better pictures in themselves and also show far more attention to the text than any that have yet been submitted to me. My publishers and I decided long ago not to have The Lord of the Rings illustrated, largely for the reasons which I myself dealt with in my lecture ‘On Fairy Stories,’ now included in Tree and Leaf. I should not think of employing Pauline Baynes because, thought she can be quite good at certain points, she cannot rise to anything more noble or awe-inspiring. See, for instance, her ridiculous picture of the dragon…After seeing your specimens I am beginning to change my mind, and I think that an illustrated edition might be a good thing.”
ALS, two pages both sides, 5.25 x 7, personal letterhead, October 10, 1968, in part: “I had no idea that your situation was so desperate—and I marvel at your courage in still practising your art. I don’t think your ill fortune (in the matter of the illustrations) is really bound up with mine. It is mainly due to the present situation in the book world. Allen and Unwin have found that ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in any form is now so expensive that any attempt to produce it in a special or more sumptuous form is a failure. It is also subsidiarily due to the fact that the effective partner, Mr. Rayner Unwin, has been abroad on business…I have not been able to get him to come and see the specimens of your work.
I am reluctantly sending back the pictures I have received…I suppose the 3 drawings that I have not yet seen are also included in your debt?…I would beg you to let me see them (they sound most interesting especially The Old Forest). By odd chance Mr. Unwin has just rung me up on business, and I had an opportunity of speaking about you. He was not so decisive as I had expected, & was evidently ready to ‘consider’ an illustrated edition…but he was also clear that black and white illustrations would be much more likely to prove publishable…My experience is that the process of ‘considering’…takes time…I am, of course, a very ’successful’ writer—astonishingly and belatedly, and publishers like to trumpet such things abroad.” He goes on to offer Fairburn a gift of £50, and adds a postscript at the top, signed “J. R. R. T.,” in full: “I can only hope that the ancient proverb (attributed to King Alfred): ‘When the bale is at the highest, then the boot (betterment) is ever highest’ may prove in your case true.” Accompanied by the original mailing envelope addressed in Tolkien’s hand.
Also includes on of Fairburn’s original Lord of the Rings sketches, showing the castle at Minas Tirith, accomplished in pencil on a white 11.5 x 16.5 sheet. Signed in the lower right corner in pencil, “Fairburn.”
In overall fine condition, with intersecting folds and scattered light staining to the typed letter. After having seen various illustrated editions of The Hobbit produced—most not to his liking—Tolkien was understandably weary of would-be illustrators. Just one year before receiving Fairburn’s paintings, Tolkien wrote to his publisher Rayner Unwin, ‘As far as an English edition goes, I myself am not at all anxious for The Lord of the Rings to be illustrated by anybody whether a genius or not.’ There were a handful of artists whose Lord of the Rings-inspired work he did appreciate, but he made a clear distinction between what he liked on artistic merit versus what he believed was fit to accompany text. In the 1947 essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ mentioned in the typed letter, Tolkien explains: ‘However good in themselves, illustrations do little good to fairy-stories. The radical distinction between all art (including drama) that offers a visible presentation and true literature is that…literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular.’ Based on all of Tolkien’s comments and correspondence, this was a strong conviction. However, he was so struck by Fairburn’s work that he did again begin discussions with his publisher about an illustrated edition. Although that never came to fruition, Fairburn’s illustrations finally saw publication as the basis of HarperCollins’s official Tolkien calendar for 2015.
Terms and abbreviations used in our descriptions.