The document below is a transcription of the interview with Alan Lee I hosted for the French national Library on 6 February 2020.
The interview was filmed and is available on YouTube here:
Two interpreters translated our talk live for the audience and I want to underline that they did a great job. Unfortunately for non-francophone viewers, their voices were kept in the audio of the video, so much of Alan Lee’s exact words are lost. I watched the video again and again in order to write down what I could hear of the artist’s answers to my questions. It left me with a disheartening amount of blank spaces, which I then filled in by listening to the video again for words I had missed, and by translating back what the interpreters said. The text you have here is thus part-transcription, part-reconstruction. I have kept the parts when I couldn’t hear Alan Lee between brackets [ ].
Here is Part 1, covering mostly questions about Alan Lee’s work for Tolkien. Part 2 is devoted to illustration in general, and Part 3 encompasses miscellaneous questions from the audience.
Good evening. Thank you for being here, and thank you to the BnF for organising this evening. Good evening Alan Lee, and thank you for coming tonight. To introduce you briefly to the people who may not know you, you are best known for your work as an illustrator and as an artistic director for the cinema, especially the two movie trilogies directed by Peter Jackson. You started your career far from Middle-earth, creating book covers and illustrations for magazines. Your first major work was a book about fairies, created with Brian Froud in 1978. You then turned to Welsh legends, illustrating a collection entitled The Mabinogion. This book was followed by Castles, an evocation of mythical dwellings from Great Britain and beyond. Your love of folklore, myths and legends seems to have irrigated all your work ever since, up until the past few years when you have illustrated the mythical past Tolkien created for Middle-earth. Apart from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the books you have illustrated would not have been published without the work of Christopher Tolkien.
Can you tell us more about your collaboration with him? He was quite admiring of your art, and praised it in his preface to The Fall of Gondolin.
Thank you. I think of the art of illustration as essentially one of collaboration. It’s a wonderful thing to work with a writer and to discuss ideas and make sure the writer is completely in harmony with and happy with the things I’ve added to the mix. Sometimes I’ve had the privilege of working very closely with [writers and it’s been a pleasure]. More often, I’m working with folklore and myth, in which I’m trying to somehow evoke the presence of the writer, trying to go back in time [and take part in this oral] tradition.
With Tolkien’s work, I was privileged to be able to work quite closely with Christopher Tolkien several times and it was a beautiful process, something that I will always value. I was never able to meet his father, but Christopher is the closest you can get [to Tolkien’s spirit], and we worked very closely, particularly on the three great tales: The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien and The Fall of Gondolin.
Did Christopher Tolkien comment on your sketches? Did he sometimes make a suggestion about a particular scene for instance?
Yes, he was quite particular about certain things he didn’t want to see, and obviously I respected that. His instinct was right. For example, he didn’t want me to illustrate Morgoth. He didn’t want me to show the presence of something that’s almost indescribable, [something beyond what you can do with a drawing. It was better to evoke him in the text rather than show him in a picture]. I was relieved not to have to worry about that.
And also to be able to concentrate more on the landscapes rather than getting too close up to the characters. This is one of the things that he brought up when I started illustrating The Lord of the Rings. He thought it would be better to [focus more] on the landscapes and the places, to create settings and not get too close up to the characters.
When you illustrate Tolkien, where do you stand as an artist? Do you fancy yourself in Middle-earth, among the landscapes described by the author, or as an external spectator, observing events from above?
As an illustrator, dealing with something like Middle-earth, which is such a [detailed and] precise creation, by this extraordinary author, you have to pay a lot of respect to what the author is doing, so pay very close attention to the text, and also to the pictures. He [Tolkien] was his own illustrator and it gives a clear idea of what he had in mind. That’s really helpful. But I think my approach to illustration, especially illustrations for Middle-earth, is that it’s just an image of our own world, in a way. When we’re in the midst of the story, we’re building our mental imagery from our own experience [our travels, the people we’ve met and the choices we’ve made]. So you’re reading about Mirkwood, but [the picture you’re creating in you mind comes from your own experience of] woodlands. So we’re kind of creating out of some form of reality, [not only a] fantastic world. And I’m doing the same thing, I’m essentially taking my experiences and I put them into this fictional world.
Has your perception of Tolkien and his stories evolved with the years and with the publication of these more recent texts, such as Beren and Lúthien ?
Yes, I started with The Lord of the Rings, and that was actually the first book that I read, when I was seventeen years old, [the first book by Tolkien]. So I had a long history with that book and the characters, which had sat in my imagination for dozens of years [when I started to try and illustrate the text]. I wasn’t as familiar with the early stories, the First Age. I think that when I came to the three great tales, The Children of Húrin [at first], [I found a very different quality to The Lord of the Rings, something close to tragedy] and I needed to reflect that sort of sombre style [in my illustration]. Beren and Lúthien is more of a fairy tale, romantic. And then The Fall of Gondolin is a kind of epic adventure quest. So they each have a different quality [which I tried to reflect in the choice of a colour palette or a composition].
The Fall of Gondolin is quite a dark tale, and yet your illustrations are quite colourful, compared to the ones you created for The Lord of the Rings or The Children of Húrin. Do you pick a specific colour palette before starting to paint a series of illustrations?
I don’t really think too much about that. [I don’t think much in terms of colours,] I’m much [more comfortable] with black and white. I do think in terms of atmosphere, [how to create a dynamic in the] story that you can reflect in [composition]. And I try to avoid actually thinking about colours [until I’m setting them in front of me] and experimenting [with various little colour thumbnails in watercolour]. That’s when I figure out what I’m going to do. [If I’ll stay simple of if I’ll introduce a wider] range of colours.
The BnF exhibition celebrates Tolkien as a writer, a scholar, and as an artist. How did you discover Tolkien’s illustrations, and how did they inspire you?
The first Tolkien illustrations I saw were the illustrations for The Hobbit, [which I loved. I thought they were brilliant]. And then, gradually, books were published, showing more complete examples of his work. That was fascinating, to see the amount of details [he could use: bits of embroidery, ornamentations, very complex things]. So I collected all those books as well [and they’ve always been a reference and a source of inspiration. I’ve used them a lot.] And to see the originals in the exhibition has been a revelation. Through the reproductions you don’t get the sense of their jewel-like quality [and of their delicacy]. Yes, so I’m a fan.
Some of your illustrations pay homage to Tolkien’s artworks, such as his famous watercolour of Rivendell that inspired you for one of the Lord of the Rings illustrations. Do you think it possible to envision Middle-earth in a different way than the one paved by Tolkien’s imagery?
I’m sure there are many ways of illustrating [his works]. I personally feel constrained by my own approach and what I’m comfortable with and what I’m good at. I work in watercolour, which is a very elusive medium. Watercolour or pencil and charcoal. I think I’m trying to keep things a little bit vague, [not to be too precise and say] ‘this is the way it looks, this is what it is’. I think watercolour has that [dynamic and evasive dimension that works well] with the readers in that they can look at the pictures and think ‘it’s pretty close to what I was seeing’, because I’m evading putting down too much detail. That allows more room for [the readers to finish the picture in their minds] and feel that it’s something they’ve conjured up.
When you illustrated The Hobbit, you had Tolkien’s illustrations to refer to. Did you look closely at them or did you focus mainly on the text?
The text is the main thing. So, no, it’s a matter of reading the text very very closely, going back and forth, making notes of the little details that you might forget. [It’s very easy to make a mistake, particularly with such a] huge and deeply detailed world. So, yes, [I] try to avoid making mistakes. Tolkien’s own drawings, I think, [are very useful in understanding the] general [topography, as well as the maps,] in being able to know precisely where you are [in the landscapes, which way you’re facing, is it West or South, are you seeing the sun or the moon]. So I do try to pay attention [to all these elements.] Even when you’re looking at pictures, you’re not really registering [all that], looking for [the possible mistakes, but when something hasn’t been] thought through, I think you just believe it a little bit less. It’s almost subliminal.
Do you often leave clues in your images for an attentive reader to follow and dive deeper into Middle-earth? For instance in your picture for Osgiliath [in The Lord of the Rings], you hinted at the story of Númenor with a sculpted decor on the wall showing ships on a stormy sea.
Yes, I’m always trying to [do that when I have the chance. There is always an opportunity because you have] time, materials and space. [So I always try to] put something else in there that [is not necessarily vital for the story] but which is just something that a viewer can find and see a little further back in time, perhaps. It’s especially true with the films, because we were trying to do visually what Tolkien [had done with words, with descriptions] and with the depth of history [he had imagined for each character, each scene.] We were trying to get this sense of history and time passing in the buildings, in the weapons, the armours, all the aspects of the design of the films. And so we kept on adding little bits of storytelling in the background to give this sense that, [even if you don’t realize it straightaway], it’s being designed [with a depth of field]. A picture in the background has got something else, [a storytelling to add].
Going back to your illustrations, by combining several themes into one picture, you create images that sometimes illustrate more than the text they are facing. Is there one scene from a story set in Middle-earth that you haven’t illustrated yet but would like to?
Well, yes! I think that might be telling too much actually because the work about Middle-earth [is not quite finished, but it’s true I haven’t illustrated The Silmarillion]. There is so much, but I tend not to want to concentrate on the big moments. This is where the author is putting all his efforts. [Everything comes together in those moments: there are] dramatic confrontations. My interest is really in the setting for those scenes. So if I’m thinking about things that [I haven’t illustrated yet, it’s more about places I haven’t drawn yet.] There’s still quite a few of those.
Where would you like to go next in your adventures?
Well, Númenor, for example. I’ve never been there.