Interview with Brian Sibley to celebrate The Fall of Númenor

It was a sunny, early September Sunday at Oxonmoot when Brian, David and I sat in the quadrangle of St Anne’s college in Oxford and had a little chat about the upcoming Fall of Númenor. I had been intrigued, during Brian’s talk the previous day, by some hints he told the rapt audience about his own work and Alan Lee’s illustrations for this volume. He only agreed to tell me more with a threat of the woeful fate I would meet if I let a word of our chat slip before the publication of the book, so I held my tongue and am now very happy to share with you the meat of our discussion.

A selection of watercolours and drawings are visible here.

  • You mentioned during your Oxonmoot talk that the place of the illustrations changed and there were changes about Alan Lee’s work. Could you tell me a bit more about that?

Initially and now, the book is arranged chronologically, the way I described based on the Tale of Years and the line of Elros. But we, my editor Chris Smith and I, thought that it needed a way to hang some of these much fragmentary pieces together because some years there’s a date and it tells you one thing in the Tale of Years, but you can work out that all these other things were happening. So that year, or date, may have pages and pages of material out there and ready to use. Sometimes there would be a great chunk of narrative happening in one year then another lot taking place across another couple of years. But there are other occasions where you have only one or two extracts to play with, or even nothing at all. The establishment of Pelargir and Umbar, for instance. There’s hardly anything written about it. So we thought, what we’ll do is we’ll group them under thematic chapters, so you might call a chapter for example “A Shadow Falls on Númenor”. And that would cover quite a few years of the Númenóreans’s change of attitude towards things – they become more obsessed with death, and more jealous of the immortality of the Elves and so on. So it might cover several dates in the Tale of Years.

But we later revised our think on that so that it was clear that the extracts followed Tolkien’s chronology. Arranging it so that every new date started on a new page, meant that sometimes there were, putting it bluntly, acres of white space. And that’s where Alan really, for me, transformed the book, by seizing those opportunities to add a drawing of something –a glimpse of landscape, a flight of birds, a ship, or some artefact – so that the book looked like it had been intentionally created in that way.

  • So, at the beginning, was it planned that there would be drawings?

Yes, it was planned that there would be chapter heads for these chapters, of which there probably would have been two dozens or something along those lines.

  • Plus watercolours.

Plus the watercolour plates, they were always to be there. There were to be 10 plates, and the cover. That was the design. But then when the shape, the way the shape was presented, changed, there then became this opportunity for Alan to do more, and he just seized that opportunity. He said “I’d like to do more”, and HarperCollins said “That’s fine”, and he did some more, and they said “That’s lovely” and he said “No, I’ve still got some others I want to do”. Right up to the point when it was going off to the printers, he was still saying “Yes, but I want to put one in there, for that”.

Alan really wanted to be able to explore areas that he hadn’t had the opportunity to explore before. For example, to be able to show Khazad-dûm in its glory. It is a most remarkable image: Galadriel and the Elves making their progress through Khazad-dûm and meeting with the Dwarves.

Then there is Alan’s interpretation of the Forging of the Rings,… it’s a scene often depicted as taking place inside: a tower, perhaps or a cavern.  Alan has chosen to show the forging taking place in the open air with Moria behind. And one of the last pencil pictures Alan made sprang out of a brief comment in one of the passages that spoke of eagles roosting on one of the towers in Armenelos; Alan’s response? To create a beautifully elaborate eagle-sized version of a dovecot.

There’s lots of really imaginative art here. He just invested so much of himself in it. That was a joy, really, every time he’d say “I thought of this” and “I think I’ll add that in”. It meant that Alan was now able to do drawings of some of the people and places he had never had the opportunity to draw before.

  • It’s special because he’s been part of the previous adaptations and this time he’s not but he’s still giving us representations.

Yes, absolutely. And somebody in the Tolkien Society said: “You do realize that it might well be among the books nominated as Best Book next year,” and I said “Well, if anybody does do that, for goodness sake, make it a joint nomination, because Alan’s contribution to it is absolutely huge.

  • We wouldn’t have his illustrations without the work you did.

That’s true, but I mean, for example, on the page simply headed “Appendices” Alan has made a drawing of the Ring dropping into the water with bubbles coming up around it as it slips from Isildur’s finger.

  • That sounds a bit like the endpapers for the Folio Society deluxe edition.

I haven’t seen that.

  • There’s a watercolour of the Ring on the riverbed. So maybe they’re similar. They have good reproductions of some of the pictures online. You have a nice picture of the endpapers and even some new illustrations. There are a couple of new ones, there are two illustrations that Alan re-did. One of them is “The Scouring of the Shire”. He added one afterwards so that the book would not end on the Scouring. He added a picture of the Grey Havens. I think he redid one at the beginning with a mountain. It’s gorgeous.

Looking to the future, I really hope that Tove Jansson’s Hobbit can be published in Britain and America in addition to the Swedish / Finnish version, because I have discovered that there were several variant illustrations to those already published.  It would be really interesting to be able to show the original concepts – the original book illustrations as published, but also add an appendix at the back with the half-a-dozen or so pictures that she did which are variants. For example, when the trolls turn to stone, she did a picture of the three trolls looming in the forest as it were half-mountain, half-troll. But there’s an alternative version with Gandalf standing in front of them, casting his spell.

  • Yes, there was a talk in 2019 or 2018 about that, really interesting.

Although Christopher hated the drawing of the Gollum creature, as a great, looming creature with enormous eyes. So I think, from her perspective, she was illustrating the translation she was working from. That would be interesting, but that’s not what you were asking about.

I always think of Alan’s work as being essentially pastoral, for the most part, you know, there’s a delicacy. That doesn’t mean that he can’t do hugely dramatic scenes, which he does, and some of the images he’s done for this volume, like the Elves crossing the mountains in the snow, for example, or the cover, are so dramatic, so powerful. His idea, always, from the beginning, wasn’t just to see a wave coming over, but to see everything tippling and toppling. I think it looks great. I’m so glad they decided to make it an endpaper because it’s fine on the cover, but there’s the title and credits obscuring the image, and with the endpaper you can just look at it and go “Wow!” And a lot of people hadn’t noticed there was Sauron, “Oh my! There’s Sauron!”. So I’m hopeful that the art will appease those people who feel “Oh god, do we really need another book?”.

  • I think with the series it’s the perfect time.

I think it is. Charles Noad called it “A tie-in that isn’t a tie-in!” and that’s pretty accurate, I guess. I gather Amazon are happy about the book because from their point of view it’s hardly in competition and if anything it promotes the series as well. But I know there are people out there who say “Look, I’ve got these twelve volumes, I don’t need it, it’s all there”. But the hard thing, as we were talking about… Just in respect of the book, the big difficult decisions were “what do you do about all that material that Tolkien was experimenting with:  the Lost Road, and The Notion Club Papers. I had to make some decisions to put to the editors and they agreed with me, but they might not have done. I felt very strongly that there were elements of The Lost Road that Christopher marked as being what he called “The Númenórean chapters”, the two chapters in which the characters – although they have different names, are debating whether to go to Valinor to ask for help in the face of the king’s determination to assail Valinor. That somehow had to be there, but you couldn’t include it chronologically because the names and the whole sensibility are quite different. So it’s there as an appendix. But The Notion Club Papers is a time-warp story, it’s got all these modern resonances about finding the manuscripts in 2012 which felt a stretch too far. But it was important to me that in the introduction it is mentioned and there are references to where it can be read.

  • That’s so helpful, because in the previous books by Christopher, sometimes I have a hard time finding out what part came from where.

Yes, I know, exactly. Everything here is noted. The only exception in specific detail is where I combine the text of ‘A Description of Númenor’ from Unfinished Tales and material that Carl [Hostetter] added in The Nature of Middle-earth. In that instance, there would have been way too many footnotes, but elsewhere everything is end-noted. But essentially I wanted everybody to be able to just read the story as a story, but if anyone wants to go and check the whole thing as it was originally published then they can find out how to do that.

David: Sometimes there are two versions of the same thing.

BS: Yes, sometimes there were variants, slight variations, and I had to decide which one I’d choose.

David: But then it’s noted in the notes.

BS: There’s often a note where I say: “There’s an alternative version here”. The most obvious one is ‘The disaster of the Gladden Fields’, which I initially wanted to include because it is very dramatic and has a lot of dialogue – I love dialogue – as opposed to narrative. But it felt like it was too long. The rationale in the end was the fact that the Second Age truly ends, with the death of Sauron and the taking of the Ring. That is the end of the Second Age. So ‘The disaster of the Gladden Fields’, although it’s only a few months later, is actually a Third Age event. I’ve quite clearly led people to the piece that’s in Unfinished Tales. I was thinking last night of the panel discussion about The Rings of Power. It struck me that, if you wanted a way of ending that show, you could feature Isildur’s servant to whom he entrusts Narsil journeying to Rivendell to report of the deaths of Isildur and his sons and hand over Narsil into Elrond’s safekeeping, which is where will stay, until Aragorn comes and it’s reforged and the next part of the story begins. That would be a cool ending!

David: Is this going to be another ‘Tom Bombadil’ issue?

BS: I think it may well be!

  • Your argument is strong, it’s in the Third Age.

And I took stuff from the Tale of Years about the Exiles arriving in Middle-earth …

David: There are references in the Third Age to the Second Age.

BS: There are, yes. And they’re in the book as well. Or many of them are. So Elrond talking about being there, on the day when the Ring was cut from Sauron’s finger and his having begged Isildur to surrender the Ring to be disposed of it, as opposed to retaining it as his weregild. Those things are in the book, because I felt they were really important. The other thing is when Gandalf, also at the Council of Elrond, talks about having gone to Minas Tirith and finding there the description that Isildur had written about the Ring and how it was hot when he first put it on, how, after that, it was perfectly comfortable, but how hard he found it was to take it off… He quotes this manuscript that he found. And it seemed to me that it should be included as it is Isildur’s own account of what he felt about the Ring shortly after the end of the Second Age. Plus there are reference to Gil-Galad, to Eärendil, Gimli’s description of the greatness of Khazad-dûm before its ruination. Those kind of things are interwoven into the Second Age texts along with extracts from some of Tolkien’s letters as well. The only thing I kick myself for omitting is the letter in which Tolkien talks about returning from a visit to Italy, saying “I’ve just come back from Númenor – sorry I mean Venice.” As a lover of Venice I really appreciate that comment and it should have been included. Never mind. Maybe if there’s another edition I can slip it in!

  • Well, thank you so much, it’s been very helpful.

My pleasure.


OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Marie Bretagnolle (14 novembre 2022). Interview with Brian Sibley to celebrate The Fall of Númenor. Tolkien & illustration. Consulté le 13 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/v8va


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