The Hobbit – A Surprising Journey From Middle-earth, the Middle East to the Canadian West!
On December 17th, 2014 the final installment of the film epic fantasy adventure based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel, The Hobbit, will open world-wide with The Battle of the Five Armies, directed by Peter Jackson. I interviewed Vancouver-born conceptual artist John Howe by SKYPE from New Zealand just before he packed up to move back to Switzerland after 10 years of working on all The Lord of the Ringsand The Hobbit trilogies. Howe is responsible for the creation of hundreds of iconic Tolkien characters including Gollum, Gandalf, Smaugand Orcs as well as their mythical landscapes and battle armour.
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There is a fascinating Israeli link to the publication of The Hobbit originally reported by the Jerusalem Post. To maintain their sanity during imprisonment in Egypt’s Abaseyar prison between 1970 and 1973 during the War of Attrition, 6 Israeli fighter pilots and 3 navigators whose planes had been shot down, translated J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit into Hebrew on school exercise books. It was published commercially in 1977 and until 2012, was considered the definitive Hebrew version of the book.
When American-born POW, Yitzhak Pe’er received a package from his family in the U.S. of Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Ringsbooks, pilot, Rami Harpaz divided the men into two groups: translators and writers. They finished translating The Hobbit after four months. There were many arguments and shouting matches around how the book should be translated especially idioms and songs. For example, they had difficulty deciding how to translate “troll,” or what should be the plural of “Hobbit” and “troll.” They finally decided it could not possibly be translated as ‘Hobbitim’ or ‘Trollim’, so they agreed to add the Hebrew ‘ha’ and made them “HaHobbit” and “HaTroll.” The prisoners were eventually released during a prisoner swap brokered at the start of the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
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In the depths of The Lonely Mountain of Erebor, a sea of treasure suddenly erupts into a tsunami of glittering coins; ancient reptilian scales fill the movie screen, opening to reveal a nictitating golden eye of J.R.R. Tolkien’s malevolent dragon, Smaug. The creature is just one of hundreds of iconic Tolkien characters and mythic landscapes brought to life by visionary illustrator and conceptual artist, John Howe.
“I can’t remember not drawing,” reminisces Howe 57, admittedly tired after almost 10 years sequestered in New Zealand (with breaks between films to return to Neuchatel, Switzerland where he has called home for over 30 years.) He collaborated on all the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies for director Peter Jackson.
Born in Vancouver and growing up on a farm in Keremeos, B.C. with his parents and older brother, Howe, by his own admission, was always painfully shy and often a loner. He plunged himself into the world of drawing heroic fantasy by digging around musty second-hand bookstores, reading drugstore comic books, and of course, all the Tolkien tomes far beyond the comprehension of his classmates. “I did do a booming business making drawings for kids in biology class, charging 50 cents each,” he laughs, but really all I wanted to do was leave Canada. Not much culture to inspire me then.”
Perfection became an obsession with Howe, often destroying his drawings of castles, gargoyles, dragons, skulls and knights in shining armor when they didn’t meet his critical eye. Isolation, the battle between good and evil and dark, anthropomorphic landscapes germinated early, continues to pervade his illustrations today.
A scholarship to study illustration at Ecole des Arts Decoratifs de Strasbourg, was his escape ticket. “I was always fascinated with medieval history and architecture and drew extravagant landscapes – everything I had been reading about as a kid suddenly came alive in Europe. “
Private commissions and illustrations for children’s books preceded his big breakthrough when publisher, HarperCollins wanted numerous Tolkien book covers illustrated by Howe. Tolkien calendars, maps, posters, pop-up and adult colouring books ensued. Later his autobiographical Myth & Magic: The Art of John Howe, would be published, all feeding the insatiable fantasy genre machine. Barely the tip of the iceberg, as Howe was about to find out.
And then the phone call in 1998.
“It was the middle of the night in Switzerland and someone named Peter Jackson called from New Zealand to say he was bringing Tolkien’s classics to the screen, says Howe. “ I didn’t even know who he was then. My wife Fataneh and son Dana and I packed up so fast (including Howe’s extensive collection of 15th –Century Italian armour and swords) and when I arrived at Peter’s studio, 3 Foot 6 in Wellington, I saw all my previous Tolkien illustrations tacked up on his wall!”
Howe would meet his collaborator, fellow illustrator Alan Lee, on the plane. When work began, they seemed to naturally divvy up the thousands of pencil sketches, watercolour illustrations and Photoshop renderings vital to capturing the essence of Tolkien’s complicated books.“ I seemed to lean to all the baddies like Gollum, The Black Riders, Orcs, Smaug etc.,” admits the erudite and witty Howe. An exception was Howe’s painting of wizard, Gandalf the Grey, that so inspired actor, Sir Ian McKellan who vividly portrayed the film character, that he had it propped up on his make-up mirror and would not leave the chair until he looked exactly like him.
“When I roam through the naturally mythological landscape in New Zealand – always with sketchbook in hand – I realize this is the Middle-earth that Tolkien envisioned,” says Howe. “I also realize how much it reminds me of the wildness of hiking in B.C. and that I took a suitcase full of West Coast with me when I left so many years ago.”
Howe’s illustrations appear in a new book, Smaug – Unleashing The Dragon, by Daniel Falconer published by HarperCollins 2014.