Rarely Seen Paintings by J.R.R. Tolkien Portray a Lush ‘Lord of the Rings’ Landscape

The Tolkien Estate recently published a trove of rare, unpublished art by the famed fantasy author on its website

Detail of drawing of Smaug
Detail from Tolkien's Conversation With Smaug, 1937 Courtesy of the Tolkien Estate / © The Tolkien Estate Limited

In his high-fantasy novels, British author J.R.R. Tolkien combined his academic training in languages and his love of storytelling to create Middle-earth, a fictional continent populated by wizards, elves, orcs, dragons, hobbits, talking trees and other mythical creatures.

But Middle-earth didn’t just live in Tolkien’s head: The Lord of the Rings author was also a skilled artist who sketched, painted and mapped the worlds that he was imagining as he wrote about them. Many of the original illustrations in the Hobbit were created by Tolkien himself.

Audiences can now view a selection of Tolkien’s rarely seen Lord of the Rings artworks for free via the Tolkien Estate’s newly updated website, reports Sarah Cascone for Artnet. The portal, which debuted last month, also allows viewers to explore documents, images and audio clips related to Tolkien’s personal life and his lesser-known pursuits as a mapmaker, calligrapher and artist.

A watery blue-green scene of a small hobbit clinging to a tree branch, floating down a gorgeous river
One of J.R.R. Tolkien's original illustrations for The HobbitBilbo comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves, July 1937 Courtesy of the Tolkien Estate / © The Tolkien Estate Limited

According to an emailed statement, the site features 12 previously unpublished items, including Tolkien’s paintings of flowers and exotic birds, a draft manuscript of The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son (1953), and photographs of the author and his family.

The website debuted on February 26—a date that might ring a bell with die-hard Lord of the Rings fans: February 26, 3019, was the “date in the Third Age when the Fellowship of the Ring was broken at Amon Hen and Frodo and Sam set out on their lonely and terrifying journey to Mordor,” per the statement.

Born John Ronald Reuel Tolkien in 1892, the writer was orphaned at a young age. He fought in the trenches during World War I after graduating from the University of Oxford. He later returned to Oxford as a professor, earning fame as a linguist and publishing a translation of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Elements of Beowulf, Tolkien’s closely held Roman Catholic faith and his friendship with other British writers such as C.S. Lewis have all been cited as major influences on the Lord of the Rings.

A reddish orange dragon curls around an enormous pile of treasure in a darkened hall
J.R.R. Tolkien, Conversation With Smaug, July 1937 Courtesy of the Tolkien Estate / © The Tolkien Estate Limited

Many of Tolkien’s books started as bedtime stories for his four children: John, Michael, Christopher and Priscilla. A devoted father, Tolkien drew elegant pictures for his children when they were young and wrote frequent letters to them as adults. (These drawings and letters can be viewed on the new website.)

Christopher created many of the maps for the Lord of the Rings based on his father’s detailed plans, notes Harriet Sherwood for the Guardian. He served as Tolkien’s literary executor until his death in 2020. (Tolkien, for his part, died in 1973 at age 81.) The author’s youngest child and only daughter, Priscilla, died just last month, on February 28, at the age of 92, according to a statement from the Tolkien Society, a charity and literary society that operates independently of the Tolkien Estate.

Tolkien began working on the manuscript that became the Hobbit in the early 1930s. That book was so successful upon its 1937 publication that Tolkien’s publishers encouraged him to write more stories about hobbits, whom he describes as short, gentle people who live in holes underground.

An aerial view of Hobbiton, a green pastoral scene of rolling hills with a mill, farms and small houses dotting the landscape
A black and white version of this illustration appeared in the original Hobbit; not long after, J.R.R. Tolkien revised the picture and published a color version in the first American edition of the book. The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the-Water, August 1937 Courtesy of the Tolkien Estate / © The Tolkien Estate Limited

These subsequent tales became the Lord of the Rings, which was published in three volumes between July 1954 and October 1955 and quickly became one of the most famous English-language fantasy series in modern history. More than 150 million copies of the trilogy, which has been translated into dozens of languages, have been sold to date.

Those interested in exploring more of Tolkien’s art can visit “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth,” an online version of the 2018 exhibition on the author’s art and life at Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries. More than 100 paintings and illustrations by Tolkien are also available to peruse in J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, a 1995 catalogue compiled by Tolkien researchers Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull.

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