A chance conversation has led a University of Otago academic on a long and unexpected journey. Mike Houlahan reports.
With the forensic examination of all things J R R Tolkien inspired by Peter Jackson's films, you might imagine every corner of Middle Earth lore has been explored.
However, University of Otago senior English lecturer Paul Tankard lucked upon a rich vein of Tolkien-ana while on holiday in Australia. The long and winding road it took him down led to a Times Literary Supplement cover story, and brought to light the untold story of an artist whose vision of Middle Earth impressed its creator.
''I was visiting Castlemaine, Victoria, where my family lives and also where [artist] Mary Fairburn lives,'' Tankard said.
''I was introduced to a chap who works at another university, I think because they expected we would have professional interests in common. He found out Tolkien was one of my areas of expertise and said 'Oh, there's an old lady up the road who claims to have done some illustrations for Tolkien back in the 1960s'.
''It sparked my curiosity, I went around to see her, and she produced a folder with her letters from Tolkien in it. At that point I knew I was on to something.''
Tankard contacted the Tolkien estate, which approved Tankard's use of the author's letters. It also went the extra mile and unearthed Fairburn's letters to Tolkien - as well as an extra letter Tolkien sent to his secretary about Fairburn. Tankard then tracked down the people who bought Fairburn's pictures - and who still own the works.
''He was the owner of the first copy of The Lord Of The Rings that she borrowed and read,'' Tankard said.
''I had to get money from the university to have them professionally removed from their frames, professionally photographed and then re-framed.''
The key to Mary Fairburn's importance is that Tolkien had actively resisted attempts to illustrate his works, other than his own sketches in The Hobbit. Many artists submitted work to Tolkien, only to receive faint - if any - praise, and little encouragement. Tolkien not only requested Fairburn's painting of Galadriel's meeting with Frodo and Sam - still in possession of the Tolkien family - but in correspondence said the artist had ''caught in style and colouring something of my own feelings''.
''The only illustrations of Middle Earth that had ever been seen up to that point had been Tolkien's own, so her vision is very direct,'' Tankard said.
''It had a bit of a cult following because it was a hard book to get; it was only available in hardcover and it was expensive. People heard about it through word of mouth .th.th. Tolkien would often say something like 'I think these are very fine pictures, but I don't think they would illustrate my book': there were a number of artists he said that about.
''When he saw Mary Fairburn's pictures, he said they illustrated what he thought the book ought to look like, and they caused him to rethink whether theif Lord of the Ringsnf should be illustrated or not.''
Fairburn was a well-read, classically-trained artist, influenced by many of the same folk tales which helped form Tolkien's vision of Middle Earth. Hence, her pictures struck a chord with Tolkien, Tankard believed.
''He enjoyed, I think, that it wasn't a new vision of Middle Earth, rather one that coincided with his own ... she said that Tolkien told her the lamps (in the Prancing Pony inn) should have been on the rafters not the ceiling. He obviously had his own imagination of what these things looked liked, and compared her vision with his own.''
So far only two of the nine surviving images have been seen, accompanying an article Tankard wrote for the Times Literary Supplement about his find. All will be on show at a lecture by Tankard at Dunedin Public Library next week, but he has been protective of them thus far in the hope that Fairburn might profit from her work in some way.
''I'm hoping for her sake we can get all these illustrations out there in a way that benefits her. It's an interesting incident in literary history which up until now hasn't been known about. She has now become part of the history of the book and these images are now part of the history of the book.''
- © Fairfax NZ News
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