I spent Saturday with a lot of very passionate people. During the day I attended an event held at University College London entitled ‘Beyond Imagination’, celebrating ‘The World of Science Fiction and fantasy Art’.
I was there to interview Alan Lee while he showed a selection of the literally thousands of inspirational and concept illustrations that he made while working on the film trilogy, ‘The Lord of the Rings’. What is it that impresses me most about Alan’s work? Is it the assurance with which he wields a pencil, creating delicate - yet often intricately detailed - graphite dream-images? Yes, but more than that, it is his quietly intense passion for what he does.
An artist - like all creative people - craves an audience, but for the Tolkien film project, Alan parked his ego (and it’s one of the most microscopic egos I’ve ever encountered!) in order to become Jackson’s amanuensis - responding to the director’s visions and then helping to bring to reality on the drawing board.
It was fascinating to see examples of the most exquisite work created on the off-chance that it might be seen in the films - such as Saruman’s book, which contained not only the Blakeian vision of a Balrog which is featured in one shot in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, but also many other pages of natural history drawings and such esoteric topics as a study of the colour spectrum (Saruman the White in Tolkien’s text - but not in Jackson's script - had become Saruman of Many Colours) just in case, as Christopher Lee turned the pages of the book, any of the images were picked up by the camera.
Alan also showed designs made when Peter Jackson was briefly toying with a flashback for ‘The Return of the King’ that would show the five Istari or ‘wizards’ (sorry, Tolkien aficionados, I know that’s a rank simplification!) referred to in the book. The film trilogy features Gandalf and Saruman but not the other three: Radagast the Brown and two mysterious 'Blue Wizards'. Before this sequence was abandoned, Alan drew multiple designs for the five wizards’ costumes and their various magic staffs. The Istari artwork was, of course, just the tip of an iceberg of usused material, now drifting somewhere in the Sundering Seas!
It is this passionate commitment to his craft - completing the task whether seen or unseen - that came across in Alan’s reminiscences of six years of toiling in Middle-earth and it was clearly shared by the other legendary fantasy artists - among them Jim Burns, Chris Moore and Fred Gambino - who took part in the event.
From ‘Beyond Imagination’ I dashed across town to Ealing where my partner (and fellow Magic Circle member) David Weeks and I were guests at the Diamond Jubilee dinner of the Zodiac Club. After several hours of looking at images of life in Lothlórien or on the moons of Jupiter, it was a curious journey filled with such harsh and disorientating irritations of the ‘real world’ as a suspended service on the Northern Line and no Piccadilly Line trains between Green Park and Ealing Common!
But the struggle was worth the stress, since we were privileged to be seated on the table of the club’s president, Jean Purdy, along with other guests The Magic Circle’s President Alan Shaxon and Honorary Life Vice-President, Ali Bongo… Yes, gentle reader, mortal magicians, have a hierarchy that is as rigidly precise as Tolkien’s celestial Istari!
The Zodiac Club is undoubtedly one of the friendliest and most welcoming of London’s magical societies and it was a memorable evening spent in the convivial company of yet more passionate people whose creativity, skill and dexterity - like that of those fantasy artists who transport us to other worlds - allow us to suspend our disbelief and accept, if only briefly, that wonders lie all around us (and within us) if we will only open our eyes - and our imaginations…