Jemima Catlin's Hobbit edition 2013

Extollager

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An interlibrary loan copy of The Hobbit illustrated by Jemima Catlin (Houghton Mifflin 2013) arrived. Her work is a success, and probably would come across all the better if I were reading the text. It is tasteful and in general the artist seems to me to have thought along with Tolkien.

Catlin gives us The Hobbit as a children’s book. To my not well-informed eye, it has seemed that, since the 1980s or so, publishers have sometimes released lavishly illustrated books, including children’s books, as much or more for the adult market as for the enjoyment of children. That massive, heavy Earthsea omnibus with Charles Vess’s fancy, decorative art is a specimen. Well, it might not be hard to think of (other) books “for young readers” actually aimed at adults, with detailed paintings and decorations. In any event – Catlin’s book, though adults might well like it, is aimed at young readers.

The artwork isn’t fancy. It never overwhelms the text. Most of the drawings are small. And nearly all of them focus on figures and their facial expressions – Bilbo and his companions especially, of course, and the stone giants, trolls, goblins, Elves, Laketown folk, & Beorn. Catlin sticks close to Tolkien’s descriptions – so Gandalf’s eyebrows really stick out, but she manages this in a way that doesn’t look silly.

I didn’t expect that the Laketown men would wear clothes that look like Englishmen’s vests, jackets, pants of the earlier half of the 20th century or perhaps even 19th (Edwardian?), but this isn’t objectionable. For that matter, her Dwarves don’t look medieval. She has completely avoided the approach that renders the Dwarves as Disneyfied versions of Grimm. I’m not greatly taken with her Elves, slender figures with long straight hair. Smaug is a satisfactory red-gold dragon. He doesn’t look too dinosaurish. Bilbo is a complete success except that his hairline seems to recede a bit.

The drawings appear on many of the pages, right in among the words. This works well. They have the right amount of detail. Again, they are not overly cartoonish, unlike far too much Hobbit art that I’ve seen especially in samples from foreign editions – ugh! It’s very nice not to see the artist obviously imitating Rackham or some other obvious influence. One doesn’t think: ah, here the artist is picking up Art Nouveau swirls, or here the artist is imitating N. C. Wyeth.

I thought I would have liked to see Catlin provide more landscapes, but I’m not sure about that. She might, in fact, be giving just sufficient hints for the child. Her version of the Lonely Mountain is steep and simple, perhaps deferring to Tolkien’s own design. I’m going to stick with my impression, though, and say a bit more help for the children with landscapes could have been a good thing. One doesn’t get as much sense of distances as Tolkien wanted to convey. Still, if the child is a sensitive reader, he or she may get that from the text. You see I’m being wishy-washy.

One picture that was a letdown for me was the one in which Bilbo has climbed to the top of a tall tree in Mirkwood and looks out across the endless vista of trees, but feels the breeze on his face, so refreshing. But I am not sure but that her simple drawing of Bilbo at treetop is better after all for the purpose.

The Eagles are imagined as bald eagles, which doesn’t suit me, but might be all right for the young readers. But – hmm, I want them to look like European eagles. The raven and the thrush are good, and drawn at a small size rather than with an inappropriate close-up manner.

The full-page picture of Bilbo defending himself from the huge grey spider – I wondered if the spider wasn’t too realistic, and perhaps indebted to the Jackson movie’s Shelob. I could see the spiders as troubling young readers, but so long as it’s not a matter of nightmares, perhaps that’s not a bad thing. But I have doubts about that one. Gollum is creepy enough but Catlin’s not trying to freak out the youngsters.

The artwork doesn’t look overly “finished.” The coloring is much to my liking, earth tones well suited for this journey in Middle-earth.

So this is probably not a book I would buy for myself, but it’s certainly one I could consider as a gift. It was well made, with pages in sewn signatures.
 
@Extollager Thank you for sharing. @M. Robert Gibson Thank you for providing a link to the art.

The facts that I am no longer a child and that Catlin does not picture the characters as I do leads me to disliking this. The one drawing I liked was Gandalf and Bilbo at his front door. The other drawings would not have fired my imagination when I was nine or ten years old. You know I think I went through this before with Jackson's films. I became so emotionally invested in Middle-earth that I possess a definitive vision for it.... that no one can satisfy the pictures in my head. Also, I compare the art to that of my favorite children's books.... the Chronicles of Narnia, Danny the Champion of the World, James and the Giant Peach, the Willy Wonka books, and even Richard Scary's stuff.
 
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