The Only Drawing from Maurice Sendak’s Short-Lived Attempt to Illustrate The Hobbit


I envy nobody the clear­ly tor­tur­ous task of inter­pret­ing the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, from Peter Jack­son on down. With his three Lord of the Rings films in the ear­ly 2000s, New Zealand’s cin­e­mat­ic native son actu­al­ly did an admirable job of deflect­ing much of the inevitable wrath of Tolkien’s enor­mous, high­ly detail-ori­ent­ed, eas­i­ly angered inter­na­tion­al fan base. One sens­es, how­ev­er, that he stands on slight­ly less firm ground with his new­er adap­ta­tion, and indeed expan­sion, of The Hob­bit. The nov­el, which Tolkien wrote for chil­dren in 1937 and whose suc­cess led him to go the full dis­tance with the Lord of the Rings books, now finds itself turn­ing into its own trio of film spec­ta­cles, each install­ment of which gets the strongest pos­si­ble mar­ket­ing push (up to and includ­ing Mid­dle-Earth-themed dish­es at Den­ny’s) upon its the­atri­cal release. It can seem an awful­ly grand treat­ment for a hum­ble (if endur­ing­ly adven­tur­ous) book. To grant The Hob­bit a sep­a­rate visu­al dimen­sion, then, would­n’t we want a tal­ent which, though for­mi­da­ble, tend­ed toward sub­tle­ty and under­state­ment — and, lest we for­get the nov­el­’s tar­get audi­ence, one who under­stands chil­dren?


We near­ly had one in Mau­rice Sendak, he of Where the Wild Things Are, who in the mid-1960s cre­at­ed sam­ple art­work for The Hob­bit’s pro­posed 30th-anniver­sary deluxe illus­trat­ed edi­tion. For a vari­ety of rea­sons, from Sendak’s reluc­tance to Tolkien’s crank­i­ness to a label­ing sna­fu by the pub­lish­er to a heart attack that took Sendak out of com­mis­sion for a while, the promis­ing con­cept nev­er came to fruition. Specifics of the accounts con­flict, though you can find one from Tony DiTer­l­izzi at the Los Ange­les Times and anoth­er, propos­ing cor­rec­tions to the for­mer, at Too Many Books and Nev­er Enough. What­ev­er the ulti­mate obsta­cle, Sendak com­plet­ed just two draw­ings for the book; the only one that sur­vives appears at the top of this post, show­ing us how he envi­sioned the hob­bit hero Bil­bo Bag­gins and the wiz­ard Gan­dalf.  Just above, we have Tolkien’s own draw­ing of Bil­bo at home, prov­ing him none too shab­by an illus­tra­tor in his own right, and one who by def­i­n­i­tion gets the details right. Still, I grieve for nev­er hav­ing seen the direc­tions in which Sendak could have tak­en this bit of mate­r­i­al from the beloved Tolkien canon — and, bet­ter yet, what minor here­sies the irrev­er­ent artist could have sly­ly inflict­ed upon it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Christ­mas Fable by Mau­rice Sendak (1977)

The Mind & Art of Mau­rice Sendak: A Video Sketch

Watch the Ani­ma­tion of Mau­rice Sendak’s Sur­re­al and Con­tro­ver­sial Sto­ry, In the Night Kitchen

Down­load Eight Free Lec­tures on The Hob­bit by “The Tolkien Pro­fes­sor,” Corey Olsen

Lis­ten to J.R.R. Tolkien Read a Lengthy Excerpt from The Hob­bit (1952)

Dis­cov­er J.R.R. Tolkien’s Per­son­al Book Cov­er Designs for The Lord of the Rings Tril­o­gy

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (5) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (5)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.