A love of books and stories is a precious thing which, once sparked, lasts a lifetime. For most of us, this love started out as a childhood infatuation, with that one tale that you read so passionately that it felt like actually living the adventure, wide-eyed and with heart thumping. The memory of such fantastic journeys stays with us, as we discovered worlds within ourselves for the first time, and found our own courage and fears reflected in the deeds of our heroes and the perils they faced. For entire generations, it was the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien that embodies that first love. Following Bilbo Baggins on his dangerous quest for the Lonely Mountain to defeat the terrible dragon, The Hobbit really has sent readers there and back again. Now, more than seventy-five years after its initial release, the world is treated to a new fully illustrated edition, providing a fresh perspective on a treasured story. To start the year with a special treat, Edinburgh Book Review heads down to the Shire to enjoy a magical conversation with the delightful Jemima Catlin, to hear how she came to share in this adventure.
If you would ask her what her particular idea of a perfect Hobbit moment would be, she would tell you that she would imagine herself sitting on a bench outside her own Hobbit hole on a warm summer’s evening, looking out over the Shire. She fondly remembers the very first time she read The Hobbit at age twelve, and the impression it made on her:
Jemima Catlin: It’s such a wonderful story and I felt very close to Bilbo throughout his adventures. You discover his bravery with him, and witness so many exciting moments through his eyes. I read it several more times before I was asked to illustrate it, and know it pretty well now!
Revisiting a work of literature which is so well-known and well-loved, and which has been through so many different visual interpretations over the better part of a century, it was a daunting prospect to create new and compelling artwork to accompany the story. For Catlin, what started out as a project during her studies soon took on a life of its own:
Jemima Catlin: I chose to illustrate a book by J.R.R. Tolkien called Roverandom for my project at university, and showed my finished work to HarperCollins who sent it to the Tolkien Estate. A year later, in November 2010, I was approached about illustrating The Hobbit, it was just an idea at this time and not a guaranteed project yet. When I got that first email from HarperCollins I was overwhelmed with excitement, I began drawing straight away and got 10 drawings done for my first meeting with them a few days later. I flicked through the book picking out my favourite moments, and the ones I could see best visually. I had a meeting with HarperCollins every few months to show them my new drawings and discuss the characters. It was June 2012 when I knew that I was officially illustrating The Hobbit, by which time I had done around 60 final illustrations.
The end result is a beautiful edition of the book, enlivened by Catlin’s charming drawings, which have a quirky style to them which sits very well with Tolkien’s story book narration. Together they create a very different effect than that achieved by renowned artist Alan Lee, whose illustrations of the earlier editions as well as his continued involvement with Peter Jackson in making the movies have become intimately connected to Tolkien’s mythology, and have set a high standard. I asked her how she found the creative space in the story for her own imagination, and whether she felt inspired or restricted by Lee’s vision. Catlin responds:
Jemima Catlin: This edition needed to appeal to children, but The Hobbit is loved by all ages so I tried to illustrate it in a way that both audiences would enjoy it. My main influence were Tolkien’s own drawings, I really loved his illustrations and wanted to stay true to how he wanted the characters/landscapes to look. I adore Alan Lee’s work, his style is so detailed and photo-realistic, but so different from my own that I didn’t find it influenced me. I love the films and have seen The Lord of The Rings trilogy numerous times. My depiction of The Hobbit was just how I saw it in my imagination and it happened to be quite different to Peter Jackson’s vision. Tolkien had done lots of illustrations for The Hobbit and these were my inspiration – I really wanted to bring The Hobbit back to its original roots.
In a way, this back-to-basics approach has made The Hobbit come full circle, returning to the book’s more light-hearted and whimsical side, while still honouring its adventurous spirit and suspenseful scenes. The balance that Catlin has struck speaks of a tangible dedication to the author’s words and vision which will indeed appeal to readers of all ages – to long-time Tolkien fans as well as those not yet initiated. Being someone who feels so close to the novel herself, I asked her what she liked best about working on the project, and if the process of reading the story as an illustrator has lead her to new discoveries:
Jemima Catlin: The thing I liked best was drawing the full page scenes. One of my favourites to draw was the banquet in Beorn’s Hall, you don’t often see this one illustrated but I found it too good an opportunity to miss! I loved that there were animals serving the food; it’s such a quirky idea. Rereading The Hobbit as an illustrator was different because I read sections of chapters over and over, but not always in the order of the story. I found myself focussing on the descriptions even more, because it was very important to me that I got the characters correct to how Tolkien intended. I had not long graduated when I started illustrating The Hobbit, so I discovered lots of new techniques and refined my style more during the project.
Moving on from The Hobbit, the illustrator has since then released a special book simply called Trees:
Jemima Catlin: Trees is a limited edition book (50 copies only) of ink drawings of trees around my home town Dorchester in Dorset – each drawing includes a grid reference of the trees location, so people can find the original tree if they want to! I find trees very inspiring, they are all so different and works of art in themselves. I drew the trees using a dip-pen that I whittled out of the end of an old wooden paintbrush using a penknife.
In time, Jemima Catlin sees herself doing this sort of thing more often, as she enthusiastically confides her next plans:
Jemima Catlin: I hope to create more limited edition books, my next one will be based on mythical creatures – a subject that has always fascinated me!
Whether she will one day return to the world of Middle-Earth is yet unknown. Still, it seems certain that Jemima Catlin has a bright and promising future ahead of her, and we would do well to keep an eye out for her and her work.
For more information on the new illustrated edition of The Hobbit, visit tolkien.co.uk. To learn more about Jemima Catlin, visit her site. Also, be sure to check out our review of The Hobbit that was published in December.