Would you like to see an edition of The Hobbit illustrated by artist Maurice Sendak of Where the Wild Things Are fame ? Well, you can’t. It almost happened, but didn’t, and all because that notorious curmudgeon J.R.R. Tolkien got his nose out of joint, putting the kibosh to what could have been a very cool edition of The Hobbit .
In 1967, Sendak was asked by Tolkien’s U.S. publisher to illustrate the book’s 30th anniversary edition, but before Tolkien, would okay the project, he asked Sendak to send a few sample sketches. This reasonable request annoyed the artist, but he went ahead anyway and created two drawings, one of them of Bilbo and Gandalf.
When the US publisher forwarded the “samples”, the second of which pictured wood-elves in the moonlight, for Tolkien’s review, a huge boo-boo occurred. The editor mislabeled the drawings, identifying the wood-elves as hobbits. This faux pas angered Tolkien so much that he refused to see any more sketches from Sendak.
Today, the only place to see “samples” of the collaboration that never happened is at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale.
I have been a psychologist for nearly 30 years (and a Tolkien fan for almost 50 years) and I completely understand what Tolkien was doing–Sendak has the skill but certainly NOT the aptitude or attitude, read emotional content, i.e., simply look and any, or all, Sendak’s illustrations… None of them are smiling. I do not mean that their mouths are not curled up, many of them are, but what I am referring to is the eyes of his characters. Zero smiles.
To clarify slightly (otherwise I’d need a semester of abnormal psych to explain to you), a genuine smile has BOTH mouth and eyes curved upward whereas a half-smile (where either eyes or mother are NOT curved upward) is always associated with subterfuge, i.e., a trick “a” is playing on “b” or a scheme or plan that only “b” understands and has kept to himself, or where the person, creature, whatever is dissatisfied, unhappy or morose. Meaning Not Happy.
This emotional content Sendak displays is definitely not consistent with the complete innocence about which Tolkien wrote and with which Tolkien populated HIS world. Sendak attitudes I would imagine would be more consistent with the mores and attitudes common in his native NY, NY, a “style” completely and distinctly dissimilar from Tolkien’s England or Tolkien’s Middle Earth.