Posts Tagged ‘J. R. R. Tolkien’

The Return of the King

August 6, 2015

By the end of the Return of the King, the quest of the Ring Bearer is completed. The One Ring is destroyed and the Realm of Sauron and all his works are destroyed. The King returns to the Reunited Kingdom of Arnor and Gondor and his rule is established throughout the West of Middle Earth. Good is victorious, yet the victory is bittersweet, for with the passing of Sauron, the end of the Third Age has come and the beginning of the Fourth Age and the dominion of Man. The Eldar, High Elves, have lost all interest in remaining in Middle Earth and will pass back into their home in the West. For a time the Hobbits will prosper in the Shire. The Dwarves will found a new colony in the caverns of Helm’s Deep and perhaps will reconquer their old home, Moria. The lesser wood Elves will remain in Mirkwood and Legolas will bring some of his people to the woods of Ithilien. But it will not last. The Hobbits and Dwarves will diminish in stature and numbers. The Elves will fade away to be forgotten to pass into the West. Even the works of Men may not last. While walking the streets of Minas Tirith, Legolas predicts that the works of men will outlast those of the Elves and Dwarves. To that, Gimli replies that they may come to nothing but might-have-beens. To that, according to Legolas, even the Elves know not the answer, and if the Elves do not know it, presumably no one does.

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The Return of the King, then, returns to the theme of loss, found in the first two volumes of the Lord of the Rings. Even in victory, the world will never return to what it was before the coming of Sauron and much that was fair and worthy in Middle Earth must forever pass away. Even the Hobbits are not unmarked by their experiences. Frodo is wounded and will not find healing in Middle Earth. The other Hobbits are not so unfortunate, but they have grown to become worthy of sitting with the mightiest heroes of Middle Earth. They are no longer the light-hearted, carefree Hobbits who set out with Frodo at the beginning of the quest.

Speaking of the Hobbits, once again, Tolkien shows that the small and the humble can do what the proud and the strong cannot. The armies of Rohan and Gondor can do no more than knock on the gates of Mordor while Frodo and Sam can creep through the defenses of Mordor undetected. The Dark Lord’s greatest captain, the Witch-King and Lord of the Nazgul cannot be defeated by the hand of man and even Gandalf feared encountering him, yet he was slain by a Hobbit and a woman who was little more than a girl. The proud Denethor and Saruman dare to look into the palantirs, knowing that Sauron dominates them with the palantir he has captured and Saruman is corrupted into serving Sauron while Denethor is driven mad with despair. Aragorn also dares to look into the palantir. As the heir of Elendil he has the right to use what belonged to Elendil, yet he acknowledges that he barely had the strength to wrest control from Sauron. Aragorn is among the powerful, yet he shows himself to be humble enough to understand his limits. The humble Faramir also understands his limits in a way his proud brother Boromir and his father Denethor do not. Faramir, at least, is not so proud that he imagines he can master the Ring and so he does not fall into the temptation that Boromir fell into.

Don't look into it!

Don’t look into it!

It is the weakest character of all that plays the pivotal role in the quest, through he could hardly be described as humble. He is Smeagol or Gollum. Smeagol is a pathetic figure throughout the Lord of the Rings. Sly, treacherous and murderous, he is completely dominated by the Ring. Smeagol is weak and wretched. He does not have a sword or any weapon but can only attack from behind and attempt to strangle his enemies. He cannot bear the light of the Sun or Moon or anything made by Elves. Yet without Smeagol’s guidance, the quest would have failed as soon as Frodo and Sam left the Fellowship. Smeagol guides them through the Dead Marshes to the Black Gate and then to Ithilen and Cirith Ungol. After he betrays Frodo and Sam, he makes his way through Mordor, following them without supplies. In the end, it is Smeagol who manages to destroy the Ring, albeit unintentionally and at the cost of his own life. In Smeagol, we see a character who intends evil, but ends up doing good.

The hero of the story

The hero of the story

In some ways, the Lord of the Rings is a pessimistic story because of the theme of loss found throughout the plot, especially towards the end. Yet it really isn’t. Certainly some things must be lost but the good is victorious in the end, even though a price must be paid for the victory. One of the greatest lessons of the Lord of the Rings is that we must not lose hope, even against odds that seem insurmountable. The Dark Lord’s victory seems inevitable and many of the men of Minas Tirith are certain that the fall of the city is at hand. For me, one of the most poignant scenes of the Return of the King is when Frodo and Sam are wandering about the fences of Mordor. While Frodo sleeps, Sam looks up into the sky and sees that through the smokes and clouds of Mordor, a single star can be seen. Sam realizes that no matter how powerful the Shadow might seem, in the end it is only small and passing thing. There is light and beauty forever beyond its reach. This is something to remember in our own dark days.

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The Two Towers

June 28, 2015

Although The Lord of the Rings is almost always referred to as a trilogy, that was not Tolkien’s intent. Tolkien meant for The Lord of the Rings to be a novel composed of a single volume divided into six books. The publisher’s decision to divide the The Lord of the Rings into three volumes, each comprising two of Tolkien’s books was dictated by the economics and shortages in post war Britain and once established, Tolkien’s work has remained a trilogy even when there is no particular why it shouldn’t be published as a single volume.

The trilogy concept works well enough for The Fellowship of the Ring and the The Return of the King. Books one and two are in strict chronological order and there is only slight overlap in books five and six. The Two Towers chronicle the adventures of the scattered members of the fellowship with book four focusing on Frodo and Sam while book three deals with the other hobbits and their companions. Placing two books covering the same period of time with no interaction between the main characters of the two sections gives the impression that The Two Towers is really two novels somewhat arbitrarily placed in one volume.

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This impression is mistaken, however. Books three and four actually complement one another. Book three begins small with just the hobbits Merry and Pippin led captive by orcs across the plain of Rohan with Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli following in a seemingly vain hope of catching up and rescuing them. Both the hobbits and their would be rescuers encounter other peoples and forces, the Ents and the Rohirrim, and get drawn into the larger world as part of the war against the traitor Saruman. In book four, the plots remains focused on Frodo and Sam. They take Gollum as their guide, they meet Faramir son of the Steward Denethor, and they see the Morgul army as it marches out to destroy Gondor, but throughout it is simply Frodo and Sam. The first part keeping growing into the wider world while the second part narrows to two hobbits.

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The Two Towers shares the themes found throughout the Lord of the Rings. Once again it is the small and the humble who get things moving. The two hobbits rouse Treebeard and the Ents into marching against Saruman. The seemingly insignificant Gandalf in a tattered gray cloak is revealed as the mighty Gandalf the White. And of course, Frodo and Sam accomplish the nearly impossible by traveling into Mordor.

The sense of loss found in the Fellowship of the Ring is even greater in the Two Towers. In this book, Men and Orcs are the actors. Except for Legolas and Gimli there is not an Elf or Dwarf to be seen. Their time is passing and Middle Earth will become a world of Men, whichever side wins. King Theoden is amazed to learn that Ents still exist but laments that much that is unknown to him will be ended by the war. Faramir admires the Elves but does not seek them out. Men and Elves have become estranged and each walks further down their separate path. His own people, the Dunedain, have declined over the centuries and are now hardly better than other Men. The Ents have lost the Entwives so no new Entings can be born. The old world is passing into a newer, and lesser world.

 

The Fellowship of the Ring

May 28, 2015

The tale grew in the telling, as Tolkien put it. The Lord of the Rings began as a sequel to Tolkien’s successful children’s book, The Hobbit. The early drafts of the story were written in the same lighthearted manner as the Hobbit in a style quite different from the stories of the Elves, posthumously published as the Silmarilion, that Tolkien considered his real life’s work. Very soon, however, the tale took on a darker and grander tone. Tolkien’s two worlds that briefly touched in the Hobbit, came together to produce the epic tale of the War of the Ring and the end of the Elder Days of the Eldar.

The Hobbit is a children’s book that adults can enjoy. The Lord of the Rings is the book for those children who enjoyed the Hobbit who are now grown up. The Elves no longer sit in trees and sing silly songs. They are the Firstborn, ancient beings of great ability and nobility who have their own sorrows. The Dwarves become the noble Khazad, the Naugrim with a fierce loyalty to kin and friends and ever willing to fight for their rights. Gandalf grows from being a cantankerous conjurer to a mighty enemy of Sauron. Bilbo’s ring of invisibility, which he used to avoid unpleasant callers, becomes the One Ring, whose wearer can obtain absolute power, at the cost of his soul. The Hobbits also grow in the course of the story. Bilbo Baggins began as little more than baggage at the beginning of The Hobbit., but emerged as a great hero by the end. Frodo and company are less helpless in the beginning of the Fellowship of the Ring, but they still need rescuing. The Hobbits are decidedly minor members of the Company of the Ring, at least until the end of the first book. . By the end of the story, they have grown great enough to stand with the wizards and warriors, yet their humbler perspective continues to be essential in bringing the story to the level of the reader. The Lord of the Rings told from the viewpoint of Gandalf or Aragorn would be a different, and more remote story.

Fellowship-cover

Tolkien always disavowed any connection between the events in the Lord of the Rings and the real life events that occurred during its writing. I am not sure that I believe him. Tolkien did not consciously model the War of the Ring on World War II and Sauron was not based on Hitler, but I cannot imagine that a writer’s life experiences wouldn’t have great influence on his writings. In Tolkien’s case, there seem to be certain themes in the Lord of the Rings that must have been based on Tolkien’s own experiences in in both World Wars.

One theme repeated several times in the Fellowship is that it is the small and humble who do the real work of saving the world while the great have their minds on other things. While the elves, wizards and warriors fight desperately to save Middle Earth, it is the insignificant Hobbits whose acts of heroism save the day. The Hobbits do not want to be kings or win glory in battle. They do not really want to be the ones to save the world. All the Hobbits want to do is their part for Middle Earth and then go back to the Shire. As Sam might put it, they have a job to do. Surely, Tolkien based his Hobbits on the common British enlisted men who served under him in World War I. The generals and statesmen made great plans for reordering the world, but it was the courage of the ordinary soldiers who won the war.

Hobbits on their

There is also a deep sense of loss that pervades the Lord of the Rings. This is not so apparent in the Fellowship of the Ring, except in the chapters dealing with the elves, especially in Lothlorien. This feeling of loss, that much that is good in Middle Earth must pass away even if Sauron is defeated becomes especially poignant in The Return of the King so perhaps I should discuss it more in a review of that part of the trilogy. This feeling of loss, even in victory, must come from Tolkien’s own experiences. In both world wars, Britain was victorious over German aggression, the good guys won, but after both wars Britain and the world was forever changed. In some ways, this change was for the better, yet much that was good about the prewar world was gone forever. By the time the Lord of the Rings was published in the 1950’s, Tolkien might well have felt like one of his Eldar, living in a world that was no longer his.

Elves leaving Middle Earth

Elves leaving Middle Earth

The Fellowship of the Ring, then, is more than simply a fantasy, but a serious, though fun, story dealing with serious themes of plot and characterization. I am convinced that the Lord of the Rings will be one of the few books from the twentieth century still read centuries from now.

Out of the Silent Planet

April 7, 2014

Sometime in the 1930s, C. S. Lewis and his friend J. R. R. Tolkien were complaining about the state of contemporary English fiction. “Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories”, Lewis said to Tolkien, “I am afraid we shall have to write some ourselves”. After some discussion on the subject, the two writers agreed that Tolkien would write a time travel story while Lewis would try his hand at a space travel story.

The results were typical of the very different styles and personalities of the two men. Tolkien was a perfectionist who was never satisfied with anything he wrote and his proposed story was never finished. Lewis was more energetic and managed to write the three novels that make up his “Space Trilogy” in less than a decade.
Out of the Silent Planet is the first book in the trilogy. The story begins when Elwin Ransom, a philologist who is spending his vacation walking around the English countryside, comes across two men, Weston and Devine, trying to force a retarded young man into some structure. Ransom rescues the young man, only to be taken himself on what turns out to be a space ship traveling to a planet called Malacandra, or Mars. Along the way, Ransom discovers that Weston and Devine intend to deliver him as a sort of human sacrifice to the Malacandrans and as soon as they land, he escapes.

Out of the Silent Planet

Out of the Silent Planet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ransom quickly encounters the Malacandrans and learns that they are not the savage, primitive monsters he had been led to believe they were. There are three species of Malacandrans; the seal like Hrossa, the tall, wise Sorns, and the handy Pfifltriggi. A fourth race, the invisible Eldili live in space and are more like spirits or angels. All three races are unfallen and thus lack the inclination to evil that the inhabitants of our Earth or Thulcandra, the Silent Planet. The only word in the Malacandran language that Ransom can find to express the concept of evil is “bent”, perhaps the most apt word to describe the problems or humanity that I have ever heard.

 

There is not much action in Out of the Silent Planet, and there are slow places, but the plot is far from dull. I think the depictions of the extraterrestrials are among the best I have read in science fiction. The science is badly dated, though Lewis made the best use of contemporary theories and knowledge about Mars available at the time. In the climax, Ransom is brought before the ruling eldil of Malacandra, the Oyarsa. He discovers that the Oyarsa of Earth is bent and confined to Earth’s immediate region in space. As a result, Earth is inaccessible to the Eldil and is named Thulcandra, the Silent Planet. Ransom answers the Oyarsa’s questions about life on Thulcandra and affirms things are very bent indeed. Weston and Devine are brought forward, but they insist on treating the Malacandrans like ignorant savages, even speaking in a ridiculous pidgin. This scene is a send up of modern man’s pretensions of superiority over “primitives”, and Ransom’s translation of Weston’s speech asserting Human superiority over the Malacandrans is priceless.

 
Out of the Silent Planet seems to be a promising beginning to the Space Trilogy and can stand on its own. I am not sure if it can really be classed as properly science fiction so much as a theological fantasy, or an up to date medieval romance, but however you might classify it, it is worth the effort of reading.

 

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The Hobbit

January 17, 2013

It is a shame that J. R. R. Tolkien’s great work, The Hobbit, has been overshadowed by his still greater work The Lord of the Rings. Nowadays, most people regard The Hobbit simply as the prequel to The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit, however, is a great story even standing on its own.

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The Hobbit is the story of the Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, a staid, unadventurous member of a staid, unadventurous race. One day, Bilbo is visited by the wizard Gandalf and thirteen homeless Dwarves and somehow becomes their burglar with the job of helping the Dwarves recover their lost gold and home, stolen by the dragon Smaug.

When they first set off on their adventure, Bilbo is not much use to the Dwarves and seems more a burden than a burglar. He can’t seem to do anything right. Over time, however he becomes more confident and takes more of a lead. By the end of the story, he has helped defeat the dragon and has saved the Dwarves lives more than once.

Tolkien shows great skill with the plot of the Hobbit, never allowing the pace to slacken but keeping the reader excited with Bilbo’s adventures.  Throughout the book, he shows the same keen ability to depict the natural world as he does in the Lord of the Rings, and so makes Middle Earth come to life in a way few authors of fantasy can. Bilbo’s growth as a leader and a person are convincingly shown and Tolkien, at times displays a wry wit, especially with the politics of Laketown and Bilbo’s conversations with the Dragon.

If there is one fault with the Hobbit, it is that at times Tolkien was too aware that he was writing a children’s book, and at times, his writing takes on a slightly condescending tone, the sort of tone that adults often use when talking to small children and which the children really don’t like much. Overall, however, the Hobbit is an enjoyable book to read whether on its own, or as the prequel to the Lord of the Rings.

 

The Silmarilion

December 31, 2012
Cover of "The Silmarillion"

Cover of The Silmarillion

 

There are no Hobbits in J. R. R.  Tolkien’s Silmarilion. This may appear to be a trivial observation but it is an observation worth considering when reading Tolkien’s works. Tolkien, it seems, wrote in two styles. He had a “low” style that he used in The Hobbit. This was a familiar, wryly humorous style, perhaps too deliberately written for children in places to be entirely successful as a children’s story. The other style is a grand, epic style, more suited for the affairs of kings, elves and great battles. The Lord of the Rings was a mixture of these two styles. It began in much the same style as The Hobbit, but as the story became more serious and the danger of the Ring and its pursuers more acute, the style became darker and more serious to match. By The Return of the King, with its tale of the great War of the Ring, the style became almost entirely, but not quite, the grand style. There were always the hobbits to return the story to a more down to earth level.

 

The Silmarilion is written entirely in the grand style. The stories are epic tales of gods, elves and men fighting against the first, and far mightier, dark lord Morgoth. There is little room for the sort of humble details of everyday life found in The Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings. The characters are all kings and heroes of ancient times, not humble gardeners. This is not to say that The Silmarilion is not a good book to read. It is an excellent book, and Tolkien is, in his way, comparable to the great composers of national epics like Homer or Vergil. That was indeed his intention when he began writing these stories of the Elder Days and to some extent he did succeed.

 

 

There are actually five parts to the Silmarilion. The first part is called the Ainulindale and tells of the creation of the world by Eru, the One, who the Elves call Illuvatar. Illuvatar first creates the angelic powers or Ainur, and teaches them to sing to a melody He has made. This song was a vision of the world and many of the Ainur longed to dwell in that world so Illuvatar created it and sent the Ainur, or Valar to complete the work of creating and ordering the world. This they did against the opposition of Melkor, the mightiest of the Valar, and one who sought to rule the world for himself.

 

The next section is called the Valaquenta, is simply a list of the chiefs of the Valar and their names, and attributes. There is not a narrative here, but it is useful to read it as a guide for later

 

The middle and longest section is the Quenta Silmarilion, or the Silmarion proper. This is the epic story of the Elves in the First Age of Middle Earth. The Silmarilion tells of the awakening of the Elves in the dark times when Melkor ruled Middle Earth. The Valar go to war against Melkor to save the Elves and he is defeated and imprisoned. TheValar then offer to take the Elves to their home, Valinor, far in the West. Many Elves agree to make the long journey and are named the Eldar. Many others prefer to stay in Middle East and call themselves the Avari.

 

The Eldar travel to Valinor and become mighty in lore and power. The most skilled of all the Elves is Feanor and his greatest work is the three jewels, the Silmarils in which he captured the light of the Two Trees of old. After a time Melkor feigns repentance and is released. He poisons the Two Trees, steals the Silmarils and flees to his stronghold in Middle Earth. Against the will of the Valar, Feanor leads his clan, the Noldor in pursuit of Melkor, who he has renamed Morgoth, the Black Enemy.  Feanor is slain but the Noldor and their allies among Elves and the new race of Men continue the war. They fight bravely against Morgoth and managed to confine him to his stronghold for many years, but in the end, their war is hopeless. Morgoth has hosts of Orcs, troll, Balrogs and dragons and is himself a Valar, one of the mightiest beings in the world. The Elves and their allies are utterly defeated only the intervention of the Valar prevents Morgoth from ruling forever. Morgoth is defeated and the Silmarils are lost.  Much of Middle Earth is damaged beyond repair and the Western lands where the Noldor fought and died is submerged beneath the sea.

Morgoth

Morgoth

 

The Akallabeth tells of the history of Numenor, the island that the Valar gave to the Men who fought on the side of the Elves. (Most Men sided with Morgoth).  The Numenoreans were given a life span beyond any of the Men of Middle Earth though they were not immortal and could not travel to Valinor. Over time, the Numenoreans grew increasingly jealous of the immortality of the Elves and since they could not make themselves immortal, they began to seek for wealth and dominion in Middle Earth. The last king of Numenor, Ar-Pharazon challenged Sauron, the servant of Morgoth, for the rule of Middle Earth, actually defeated him, and carried him back to Numenor as a hostage. Sauron quickly gained the confidence of Ar-Pharazon, and preying on the old king’s fear of death, induced him to assault the Valar and wrest immortality from them. This ended with the destruction of Numenor and the Numenoreans with the exception of a few refugees led by Elendil.

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The final part of the Silmarilion, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, relates the history of the dealings of Sauron and the Elves of Middle Earth. Sauron deceived the Elves into creating the rings of power and attempted to enslave them by forging his own One Ring in Mordor. There is a brief summary of the history told in the Lord of the Rings and a brief mention of the destruction of the ring by Frodo the Halfling and his servant Samwise. After this, the last remaining Eldar of Middle Earth, rendered powerless, leave for Valinor and the cycle is finished.

 

This is a rather grim cycle of tales, probably inspired by Tolkien’s love of the rather grim Nordic mythology.  Unlike the Norse tales, evil is defeated in the end, but the damage done can never wholly be undone.  Then evil arises again after an age. Oftentimes evil corrupts or misleads the good and sometimes the most damage is done by those who fight most valiantly against evil. Beren and Luthien wrest a Silmaril from Morgoth so that Beren can present it to Luthien’s father as bride price, but the Silmaril causes wars among Elves and Dwarves and the sons of Feanor and eventually causes the destruction of all the Elf-kingdoms. Turin son of Hurin spends his whole life fighting the servants of Morgoth, and is cursed because in the end all his valiant deeds only bring about Morgoth’s victory.  Even when Morgoth is defeated, the evil he does lives on to afflict later ages, as does his servant Sauron.

 

When Sauron is, in his turn defeated, and his Ring is destroyed, the Eldar also rendered powerless, no longer wish to live in Middle Earth and return at last to Valinor leaving a colder, grayer world for those of us who are doomed to stay behind.

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The Book of Lost Tales

September 16, 2012

 

Cover of "Book of Lost Tales: Pt. 1 (Hist...

Cover via Amazon

J. R. R. Tolkien was the beloved author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The publication of those two books made him rich and famous all over the world, but the work he was really interested in, his magnum opus, was his collection of the legends and history of the Elves titled the Silmarilion. Tolkien worked on these stories his entire life but when he died in 1973, they were still uncompleted. Fortunately his son and literary heir, Christopher Tolkien, took it upon himself to polish the stories and set them in order so the Silmarilion finally saw publication in 1977.

When I said that the Silmarilion was unfinished, I did not mean that the story breaks off abruptly or that the stories were undeveloped. Tolkien was a perfectionist and kept rewriting the legends over and over, never seeming to want to complete a final, definitive version. Christopher Tolkien’s main task was in deciding which details to use and maintaining some consistency throughout the published Silmarilion.

J. R. R. Tolkien also seems to have been a bit obsessive about keeping every scrap of paper he ever used to write down story outlines, experimental dialog, character sketches, etc. Christopher Tolkien was able to sort out and organize this vast compendium of material and publish it as a multi-volume work which he called The History of Middle Earth. The first two volumes included the earliest versions of the legends and were called The Book of Lost Tales. Later volumes presented later versions and early drafts of the Lord of the Rings, as well as Tolkien’s attempts at writing epic poetry and miscellaneous essays Tolkien wrote on various matters relating to Middle Earth.

These books, while they can be tedious in the amount of detail and commentary that Christopher Tolkien provides, are nevertheless quite interesting. You almost have the feeling that you are sitting right next to Tolkien as he writes out the latest revision of the Lord of the Rings. Often he makes significant changes as he writes. For example, the scene in which Frodo and his friend encounter a Black Rider for the first time, began as an encounter with a white rider who turned out to be Gandalf. Tolkien wrote about a paragraph of dialog and then scratched out white and wrote black instead. He rewrote the entire encounter, reusing as many of the details that still fit the new storyline. Tolkien was very conservative and often kept using the same details and descriptions, even when he changed the plot.

There must have been few authors whose writing process a researcher can study in such detail. I am afraid that there will be no more. Today, a writer who wants to make changes in his manuscript can simply delete and rewrite with a few clicks on the keyboard. I don’t imagine there would be any writers so vain as to save every single version of everything they have written for posterity to read. Tolkien wasn’t thinking about preserving his thoughts. He simply didn’t throw any of his papers away.

I am normally a great technophile, but in this case technology has caused us to lose something.

 

Illuminated Silmarilion

August 31, 2011

This is really, really cool, a hand-illuminated copy of Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

This German art student, Benjamin Harff, decided, for his exam at the Academy of Arts, to do something only slightly ambitious — to hand-illuminate and bind a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion. It took him six months of work. In very 21st century elvish-monk style, he hand-illuminated the text which had been printed on his home Canon inkjet printer. He worked with a binder to assemble the resulting book.

There is an interview with the artist linked to the article.


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