“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” So begins one of the greatest literary works of the twentieth century. Born of J.R.R. Tolkien’s desire to give England a genuine mythology of its own, the world of Middle Earth has grown to become something far greater. The wizard Gandalf, the dwarves, the elves, the creature Gollum and the dragon Smaug – all timeless characters and images that have become part of a modern world mythology, loved and cherished by millions, and ingrained into the consciousness of many more.
Now these are exciting times for fans of Mr. Bilbo Baggins’ adventures. Most conspicuously, they have the world-wide release of the second part of Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptation to enjoy – bringing new layers of depth and detail to their favourite story.
Yet, returning to Tolkien’s original vision in the brand-new illustrated edition of The Hobbit, it is striking to realise how his own words create a very different experience and mood for even faithful readers. To come back to Bilbo’s tales of There And Back Again is actually quite refreshing, and entails a rather unexpected journey indeed. Compared to the adrenaline rush of the movies – and to the novel’s darker, grander sequel, The Lord Of The Rings – The Hobbit has always remained a children’s book. Its imagery is pastoral, its humour is silly, its characters – even its villains – are innocent, and the narrative’s tone is almost fatherly – lovingly intended as a rather elaborate bed-time story. Reading it again, it is simply the most epic and thrilling bed-time story ever.
What’s more, for this luxurious edition, we get the chance to rediscover this Middle-Earth through the wonderful imagery created by illustrator Jemima Catlin. Her unique style of drawing seems to be a deliberate and successful attempt to recapture the light-hearted spirit of Tolkien’s original. While remaining dedicatedly faithful to the professor’s verbose descriptions, as well as moving within the bounds set by her predecessor Alan Lee, Catlin’s daring re-imagination of The Hobbit draws close to the heart of the tale. Her illustrations convey a lightness of touch and a friendly elegance that fits seamlessly with the original’s story book atmosphere.
While Alan Lee’s inimitable sense for the grandiose – with his flowing designs and sweeping vistas – cannot be replaced, Catlin’s artwork provides a welcome alternative, highlighting a very different aspect than which has been so masterfully explored through Jackson’s high profile, action-packed retelling. Her vision has a fresh, sweet and simple quality to it that makes it instantly relatable – in a sense no less iconic. As with all myths, they are open to interpretation, and will mean new things to new generations. To create new images for such a well-known and well-loved story, and still finding new and compelling ways of expressing it, is a tall order. Jemima Catlin has accomplished just that. Charming, pretty and quaint, in a way her drawings restore this sense of old worldly Englishness to The Hobbit – which I dare think Tolkien himself would have liked.
And so the road goes on. Indeed, the release of the new illustrated edition of The Hobbit is perfectly timed to fill a current need in Tolkien’s ever-growing audience to discover his amazing fantasies anew – or for the very first time. Its timeless, boundless mythology is something to be treasured, and Jemima Catlin has played her part in honouring Tolkien’s legacy with grace. I can hardly think of a better gift this Christmas than to give a loved one the chance to explore this immersive and incredible story for themselves. I am sure that Catlin’s illustrations will serve as an excellent companion, and that they too will live on in the hearts of a new generation.