Or a Tale of Two Towers: Art and Archetypes in Middle-Earth
Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is conspicuous in that it contains no places of worship.
Few fantasy authors resist the urge to have temples and gods (usually malevolent ones with slimy and unappetizing minions, against which the hero uses guile, good sense or solid biceps in contests of thinly-disguised allegory). Tolkien limits himself to places of portent or places of wonder – places where the gods or great personages of the past have touched the earth, but have never consecrated.
While Tolkien’s demiurges intervene in human and Elven affairs, they do so with the immediacy and sudden familiarity of the Greek gods. When Ulmo meets Tuor, he does not appear from some aperture in the clouds, complete with god-rays, he strides out of the surf of the Sea near Vinyamar, water dripping from his scaled armour. (It is painfully revealing of our Judeo-Christian heritage and largely inadequate imaginations that we always expect divine intervention to come from on high – deus ex machina suspended on cables and pulleys over our small world-stage – the gods that people pantheons can be anywhere: in a tree, under a stone, or before us on the road.) Nor does Tuor kneel humbly, his deference and his defiance are contained in the same gesture. They inhabit different worlds that touch on occasion, and cribbing for salvation is not part of the Tolkien mythos. Another opportunity to abandon classical modes of representation (and our pavlovian fall-back reflexes) and explore new ways of depicting the meetings of men and gods.
I have always been struck by the similarity between Babel and Barad-dï¿½r. Tall, easy to see from afar, Babel is a good landmark to start from. A good time? The 16th century.
That the Bible be the inspiration is incidental, the concern here is not the religious context, but the visual one, (despite the curiously truncated and illogical moral that is intended to guide the reader). Nor does the historical Babel, the Etemenanki, enter into consideration; the archaeological Babylon was as yet unexcavated, the allegorical Babylon, though, was very real. The vast and repetitive architecture of Babel prefigures the Industrial Age as clearly as the invention of the steam engine centuries later. The inhumanity implied by the monstrous construction, as well as the folly, are inherent in the moral.
A gallery of medieval and early Renaissance Towers of Babel
A. From the Nuremberg Chronicles, 1493. (Curiously reminiscent of Tolkien’s description of Cirith Ungol.)
B. Benozzo Gozzoli, 1484
C. From the Egerton Genesis, folio 5v, 14th century.
D. From the Maciejowski Bible, Paris, c. 1250.
E. From the BouquechardiÃ¨re manuscript, Northern France, c. 1470
F. The Tower of Babel, from the Bedford Hours, 1423. Illumination on parchment, 41 cm ï¿½ 28 cm. British Library, London.
G. Tower of Babel, the Meister der Weltenchronick, c. 1340
H. Woodcut, Lyon, 1522
I. Woodcut, Lyon, 1522
J. Anonymous German Master, 1590’s. A very modest Babel, despite the date, wholly medieval in spirit.
K. Woodcut, 1554. (One is tempted to exclaim “Now we’re getting there !”)
Medieval representations of the Tower of Babel are tame affairs, handy catalogues of stone-mason’s skills, complete with cranes and pulleys. The colours of the images are of a brighter hue, pathos is not part of the palette. With the Northern Renaissance and the Baroque, an entirely new tone is adopted. The new rÃ©gime of point-of-view perspective and the omniscient vanishing point is suddenly skewed to accommodate the gigantic structure. (Some of the later paintings convey a physical illusion of tri-dimensionality not unlike the work of Vasarely – both from a time when the absence of handy computer programs left such exploits in the imperfect – but human – hands of he artist.) The workers are ants, reduced to the status of ants, toiling endlessly towards a summit that has no precedent in painting. Only those depictions of the tower that leave it a silhouette in the far distance afford the viewer a comfortable spot to stand. All the other paintings, which grapple with the incommodious spiral ramp, or diagonal avenues of the construction site itself, seem unable – or unwilling – to tell the viewer exactly where he stands. Fixing the eye on a series of details yanks the viewpoint forward or shoves it back in a curious and discomforting fashion. This dichotomy of detail and ensemble is inherent in all of Tolkien’s descriptions of Barad-dï¿½r.
In many paintings, the vastness of Babel is obtained not by aggrandizement of the underlying structure and foundations, but by a multiplication of familiar elements, entirely reminiscent of early computer art, an entirely copy-paste approach – shortcut for Babel : *⌘-c, *⌘-v. Moreover, the elements themselves are of a familiar size, the dehumanization is made visible through a mechanical repetition suggestive of the possibility to approach infinity. (A truly immense structure emphasizes humanness through an appeal to the sublime; an infinite assemblage of familiar elements leaves the viewer with no place to stand, as the detail is familiar but the ensemble is beyond reason.) This is the industrial age : once the factory is set in motion, whether it produces one hundred or one hundred million elements is incidental. There is a hint of this in the worst of the neo-architectures, especially Neo-Gothic, where the repeating of a single element or section of elements is the norm, belying the supple creativity and spontaneous dissymmetry of detail of the original in order to achieve splendour through size alone. (A certain mistaking of rectilinearity for rectitude, no doubt.) This is Sauron’s failing; in sum, he does not create, he only copies, but on a grander scale.
Later Renaissance and Baroque Towers of Babel (Apologies for the irregular sizes and above all the spotty identification of many of the paintings; several may be misattributed.)
A. The collapse of the Tower of Babel, Cornelisz Anthonisz, 1547. Etching
B. Tower of Babel, Lucas Van Valckenborch (1530-1597)
C. Tower of Babel, Abel Grimmer (1573-1619)
D. The Building of the Tower of Babel
E. Tower of Babel, Calderan de la Barca, 1675.
F. Nimrod Ordering the Construction of the Tower of Babel, Hendrick van Cleve III (1525-1589)
G. Tower of Babel, Hendrick van Cleve (c. 1525-1589)
H. Tower of Babel, Abel Grimmer (1573-1619).
I. Tower of Babel, 16th century.
J. Building the Tower of Babel, Maerten Van Valckenborch, 1595.
K. Tower of Babel, Unknown Flemish master, late 16th century.
A. The Tower of Babel, Maerten van Valckenborch (1534-1612)
B. The Tower of Babel, Lucas van Valckenborch.
C. The Tower of Babel, Maerten van Valckenborch
D. The Building of the Tower of Babel, Maerten van Valckenborch
E. The Tower of Babel, Pieter Breugel the Elder, circa 1560.
F. The Tower of Babel, Pieter Breugel the Elder, 1563.
G. The Tower of Babel, Pieter Breugel the Elder, 1563.
H. The Construction of the Tower of Babel Hendrick III van Cleve
I. The Tower of Babel, 16th century ( ?)
J. The Tower of Babel, Lodewyk Toeput, circa 1583-1587.
When Frodo, wearing the Ring, sits in the Seeing Seat of Amï¿½n Hen, he is ejected from his place, perspective and distance are abolished, his sight is overwhelmed with a rapid-fire succession of details, impressions and dread. This abolishing of perspective, and consequently of the Renaissance-onwards centering of the world upon ourselves and our unique point of view not only reminds us of the inadequacy of that unique point of view, but recalls an earlier concept of image, where vanishing points and horizon lines were more than often subordinate to other considerations. (We find medieval images “stiff” and “quaint” because we no longer cultivate the skills we need to read them properly, any more than we can read Wace or Chaucer as we do the morning paper.) Pictorially, the paintings of Babel do exactly the same; this distorting of established “laws” carries a stronger message than one that could be conveyed by simpler tricks, such as placing the viewer at the base of the tower and requiring him to look up. The awe inspired would be very 5th-Avenue, but the sense of discomfort with the very undertaking of such a folly would be absent. In this sense, the dark Tower of Sauron relies on the same techniques of para-perspective as medieval art, but integrates the modern age. With smoke and turning wheels and all the trappings of progress.
Equally, the economy of Tolkien’s descriptions is a clear reference to a multitude of texts and cultures, blanks that are provided to be filled in. The reader is offered details and emotions provoked in characters’ minds, he is not offered an encyclopedia and a theodolite. The filling-in must come from other reading and other shared culture.
Tolkien’s description of Edoras is sparing, but his references, direct or disguised, are dense and demand extensive knowledge of art and history. (Who are the Rohirrim but Anglo-Saxons with horses; their very creation by Tolkien is a proposition for an alternative history of England: Hastings was won by the Normans because of their cavalry. Keith Roberts’ Pavane and a whole genre of fiction might be said to have taken their cue from Tolkien.) Minas Tirth takes on a special connotation when contemplating the ruins of the walls of Constantinople or the cathedral of Lucca. Tolkien is an invitation to travel – and to pay careful attention while doing so.
Tolkien is the pretext, not the goal. John Ruskin, when he launched his ambitious plan to teach factory workers to draw, had no desire to fill London’s parks with labourers toting sketchbooks and charcoal, his desire was to teach them to see. For their own sakes, not to make them better artists, but to have their vision constantly refreshed. Drawing, whether in nature or from some interior landscape, is a form of meditation, an effacing of self, a suspension of time and conscious thought. The local park or the banks of the Anduin: little difference, just a question of detail.
A gallery of later Towers of Babel
A. Turris Babel, Athanasias Kircher, 1679
B. Monsu Desiderio, 1630
C. The Confusion of Tongues, Gustave Dorï¿½, woodcut, 1865.
D. Orthographia Turris, 18th century. (A very boring and most uninspired Babel indeed.)
E. The Tower of Babel, from ï¿½ Patriarchs and Prophets, 1868.
F. Building the Tower of Babel, James J. Tissot (1836-1902)
G. A very different ï¿½ Babel ï¿½, Metropolis, Fritz Lang.
H. Tower of Babel, Colorado Canyon, Samuel Coleman (1832-1920). A full coming of the circle, from man-made mountain to simply mountian. There are dozens of peaks and pinnacles that have been christened Towers of Babel throughout the world.
I. The Tower of Babel, Lake Louise. Old postcard, photo by Byron Hill Harmon, 1876-1942.
J. Tower of Babel, Lake Banff National Park, Alberta. Photo by Younes Bounhar.
Balrogs owe as much to Milton as they do to the Book of Enoch. They constitute apocryphal intrusions into the story, certainly one of the reasons that the wings-or-not debate so aptly recalls theologians , angels, and heads of pins.
Personally, I find great delight is knowing that Lake Town, on the Long Lake in the Hobbit, is just a few miles from my home. When the Swiss archaeologists and pre-historians first uncovered the thousands of posts in the lake of NeuchÃ¢tel, at the site not only of emblematic La Tene, but all around the lake, (in the 1860’s, the three sister lakes NeuchÃ¢tel, Bienne and Morat were linked by canal, and the level of the Lake of Neuchï¿½tel dropped by nearly 3 meters) great enthusiasm (and much mud) was stirred up by what appeared to be a specifically Helvetian way of life. The whole notion of lake dwellers was born and enthusiastically embraced by a nation as eager for a specific historico-mythological past as all the other emerging nation-states of the time. Historical painters created beautiful renderings of placid villages on stilts, a “citÃ© lacustre” was constructed on the banks fo the Seine in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower for the Exposition Universelle and clever maquettes filled Swiss museums. (A historical film was even shot in the region of Zurich, and while the cineastes had no trouble finding stalwart Helvetes to fill the men’s roles, no Swiss women volunteered to play heir bare-breasted lacustrine companions. Prostitutes were brought in from Germany to sit demurely in animal skin skirts and pretend to weave and sew.)
A century on, we know now that there was no specific “lake-dweller” culture. The villages were indeed on posts, but on the shores of the lakes, not perched over the water. The level of the lakes, in Celtic times, was actually far lower than today. Houses on posts provided simply better safety from varying lake levels (even now, Swiss lakes, with all their sophisticated dams and spillways and such, still occasionally overflow) and pests. Lake towns are no longer in the history books, but Lake Town can endure. This intertwining of three threads – of history, of the history of history, and of fiction, can be fascinating to explore visually. (And even explore as a day trip – Rivendell is only a couple of hours from here, in Grindelwald.)
Heinrich Schliemann dug into the mound at Hisarlik with an energy uncommon amongst archaeologists. Well, of course. He was looking for for the Troy of the Illiad, not Troy VIIa. He was reading Homer, not strata. When Sir Arthur Evans began to uncover the ruins at Knossos, he hired a Swiss artist, Emile GilliÃ¨ron, to help him reconstruct the frescoes. Experts and art historians were enthused by the art of the Minoans, which was such a marked departure from the classical Greek canon, with pastel colours, wide surfaces and bold lines, it appeared to be very modern, very fin de siÃ¨cle. No wonder, Gilliï¿½ron was an Art Nouveau artist of great skill. Take Art. Add History. Mix thoroughly. Serve hot. (It’s not as good when it’s had time to cool.)
It is easy now to smile knowingly at Schliemann and Evans. Silly Victorians, caught up in make-believe and myth. But they of course have a duty to History, who judges harshly errors made, and as ferociously applies hindsight to events of last year as to last millennium. The long practice of visualizing myth, however, while usually conveniently labelled by specialists according to date, movement and country, possesses a sincerity and consistency of purpose that is wholly remarkable, serving not only the individualï¿½s endeavours to make sense of the ineffable, but in passing throwing an oblique and revealing light on the “users of enchantment”, whether it is the ill-defined urges of the neolithic, the merveilleux of the Romanesque, the imperialism of the “Age of Discovery”, the quixotic blinkers of Victoriana or the political movements of our own last century. In other words, you want different levels of lecture and a luxury of sub-texts ? You canï¿½t be better served.
There is something of the archaeological in illustrating Middle-Earth. means staking out a dig, working down through strata of meaning, explicit and implicit, layer upon layer of influence and culture. Nor is it a conservative, retrograde pursuit. It is, in a sense, digging in air, which has always been the business of artists.
The slow and painful progress of the hobbits from the Paradise Lost of the Shire to the post-industrial wasteland of Mordor is a clear warning, although Tolkien has always denied writing allegory, his allusions are instinctive and not intellectual. The relinquishing of the Ring – absolute power – is not unlike the admission that our notions of “progress”, inherited from the time before industry, are no longer necessarily valid. The Hobbits can throw the Ring into the fire. We, however, have an Orodruin of our own long making, and no Ring to throw into it.
Interestingly enough, Tolkien’s own artwork obeys the same urge as his writing. His drawings are drawn out of himself not from a desire to determine once and for all the visual details of his word, but to provide something tangible to satisfy an urge to see, however imperfectly, those places of the imagination that are so hard to describe in words, but are so well depicted by describing the emotions of the protagonists. Naturally, while this means facing mundane issues of draughtsmanship, perspective and colour, it provides opportunities to distil reality on another plane. (Tolkien’s own pictures are delightful, by the way; my favourite is his depiction of the Bilbo’s Front Hall, where Tolkien the illustrator unsuccessfully tackles the pesky problem of hanging picture frames on a concave wall.) A serious study of his artwork from a visual viewpoint has yet to be written.
While Tolkien occasionally gives hints as to the colour of Elves’ hair, his best descriptions come through the eyes of hobbits and notably Sam’s inability to describe them in terms he himself finds adequate. This ambiguity means any artist has to reach deeper into what constitutes “Elvish”, both personally and collectively; the former consciously, the latter unconsciously. Thus by holding back, whether intentionally or because he himself was reluctant to over-describe, Tolkien not only re-invents Elves (they have never been the same since The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien can be credited with single-handedly arresting their slow decline into folklore and elevating them once more to myth) but he perches with the reader on the topmost branches of the Elven family tree, tree whose roots mingle with those of Yggdrasil, the Ashvasta, the wacah chan or the ï¿½gig ï¿½rő fa. The place where the view is best.
If this isn’t the stuff of art history (capital A, capital H) then I’m not sure what is.
This universe of Tolkien’s then, is a Christian pagan world without religion but with myth at armï¿½s length. It is curiously and probably unintentionally parallel to our own world, with our smorgasbord syncretism and nevertheless pervasive sense of morality, inherited guilt and longing for eternity. (Seen in this light, the subtext of the Elves’ very existence is troublingly resonant.) Even Tolkien’s language and uses of its many forms send the attentive reader back to rub shoulders with every epoch of our literary heritage. Tom Bombadil speaks in verse (although for someone so old, he is very modern – no alliteration, and more often than not, feminine endings – it’s a shame most people skip Tolkien’s poems, a little familiarity with scansion would come to their aid). The dwarves might be paraphrasing the Volsungsaga or the Niebelunglied (actually, they sound like modern bankers, never saying what they mean), the Elves speak as if the ink of Chrestien de Troyes’ quill wasn’t yet dry. Men are outspoken and say things they later regret. Sound familiar ?
What Tolkien doesn’t say is as important as what he does; his language is isomorphic with reality. (Ruskin would likely have appreciated Tolkien’s words about landscape – one would love to see a Stones of Minas Tirith.) The more visible aspects of his work are the least revealing. Aptly, this combination of factual abstemiousness and cultural connotation, coupled with a refreshing proximity to nature, make Middle-Earth a place to explore that constantly sends the illustrator back to check his or her own knowledge and intuition. The real Middle-Earth is far, far beyond the boundaries of the book itself. All this can be explored and embodied in artwork. All of this can be the filigree underlying simple narrative. Drawing Middle-Earth is not so much about making pretty fantasy pictures, itï¿½s all about where you get to travel to in order to understand what you wish to do.
And there is an awful lot to see. Why are there no temples in Middle-Earth? Middle-Earth in its entirety its a sacred place, but not in any conventional sense. Rather, it is a reminder that the entire Earth deserves the same reverence and respect we would accord any sacred place. Depicting pure landscape and conferring to it a sense of portent, or a sense of wonder, the whole with an underpinning of archetype and an overlay of myth, goes far beyond simple escapist “fantasy”. Not only does it reach “back” through the looking glass of human experience, it pushes the mind forward to our own role on this Earth, both spiritual and physical, and what we mean to make of it, and what prefix we will attach to our own topos.
On a clear day, from the top of the Tower of Babel, you can see Barad-dï¿½r.
While I don’t know if this was really any help, it certainly felt good to get it off my chest.