In 1967, the year after Gene Deitch's heavilly-condensed (and wildly re-envisioned) film version of Tolkien's tale of Mr Baggins and his journey 'there and back again', America's greatest contemporary illustrator, Maurice Sendak – the man who took us to Where the Wild Things Are – was invited by Tolkien's American publisher to produce new illustrations for the upcoming 30th anniversary edition of the book.
would not have endeared him to Professor Tolkien!
Tolkien, who was 75, asked to see some sample illustrations from the 39-year-old Sendak, who grudgingly produced two pieces of art: one showing wood-elves dancing in the moonlight; the other depicting Bilbo sitting outside Bag End, smoking his pipe, as Gandalf arrives to disrupt his morning.
Writing of this latter (and only surviving Sendak Hobbit drawing) Tony DiTerlizzi wrote in the Los Angeles Times last year:
Here is a real passion and understanding of content and audience in these spec pieces. Sendak rendered these in a detailed pen-and-ink style similar to that of the illustrations for Higglety Pigglety Pop! and Little Bear. It hearkens back to epic pastoral imagery seen in etchings by the likes of Rembrandt and Samuel Palmer. If you look closely, you will discover a master at work in the art of subtlety: Notice the heavy crosshatching used to weigh down a world-weary Gandalf contrasted with the open, airy line work that renders the jovial Bilbo. These depictions speak in an artistic conversation that has been ongoing for centuries, yet they are immediate and approachable by the child of today.
Art samples were prepared for Tolkien’s consideration but, unfortunately, due to an error in labelling, the dancing wood-elves were erroneously identified as hobbits. Tolkien, apparently not best-pleased at what he supposed to be the artist's failure to pay adequate attention to the text, refused to approve the commission.Desperately hoping to resolve the misunderstanding, the publisher arranged a meeting in Oxford between author and artist while Sendak was in the UK for the British publication of Where the Wild Things Are.
But, alas, it was not to be: on the day prior to the planned meeting, Sendak suffered a major heart attack and spent several weeks in a hospital in Birmingham. The meeting was never rescheduled and Sendak never illustrated The Hobbit.
One can only regret that this wonderful illustrator was denied the opportunity to depict the wild things of Middle-earth...
Images: © Maurice Sendak