What would make The Hobbit a better novel? Aside from an editing of Tolkien’s long-winded description of every single thing, illustrations by Where the Wild Things Are creator Maurice Sendak would have been incredible. Hero Complex has the story how this possibly brilliant collaboration fell apart.
To celebrate The Hobbit‘s 30th anniversary, the book’s American publisher commissioned Sendak to provide illustrations. However, Tolkien still retained control over his material and asked Sendak to provide a couple of sample illustrations. Sendak begrudgingly obliged and provide two illustrations: “one of wood-elves dancing in the moonlight, and another of Bilbo relaxing outside his hobbit hole smoking his pipe beside Gandalf.” Hit the jump to see these illustrations and to find out why Tolkien was unhappy with them.
According to author and illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi (The Spiderwick Chronicles) writing for Hero Complex:
As Sendak noted passages for possible illustration and sketched in the margins of his copy of the book, the publisher prepared the art samples for Tolkien’s approval. The editor mislabeled the samples, however, identifying the wood-elves as “hobbits,” as Sendak recalled to Maguire. This blunder nettled Tolkien. His reply was that Sendak had not read the book closely and did not know what a hobbit was. Consequently, Tolkien did not approve the drawings. Sendak was furious.
In hopes that all could be smoothed over between the two, the publisher arranged for a meeting in Oxford while Sendak was in England touring for the U.K. release of “Wild Things.” The day before their meeting, Sendak suffered his first major heart attack. He was 39. Sendak spent several weeks recovering in a hospital in Birmingham. He never met with Tolkien, and the project was abandoned.
So an oversight by an editor coupled with a heart-attack killed off the project. It’s not a particularly dramatic end to the story so if you were expecting the conclusion to be, “Tolkien punched Sendak in the face and called his mother a bitch,” you will be sorely disappointed. However, these illustrations show that it’s a shame that Sendak never got approved to illustrate The Hobbit: