THE HOBBIT Was Almost Illustrated by Maurice Sendak

     March 25, 2011


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:



  • Dildo Daggins

    Err, well after meeting Alan Lee, one of the main guys that DID illustrate the Hobbit, I’m glad they stuck with him instead. Maurice’s work pales into cartoonish doodles compared to Alan Lee’s stunning artwork. Google it if you don’t believe me.

  • Carlo

    Errrrr, the second illustration is not from Sendak, but it’s a sketch from the J. R. R. Tolkien’s book “The Hobbit.” as appears in UK edition of the book

  • Merlin

    Sendak’s illustration stink! Big Time. Alan Lee or Ted Nasmith would be the ones to go too. This is the dumbest article I’ve read in a really long time!

  • Christopher

    Let’s be honest here: while Maurice’s illustrations would be interesting and a fun addition to the pantheon of artists inspired by Tolkien’s work, in no way would he make the novel better. Sendak doesn’t deserve to lick Tolkien’s shoes and had he any respect at all he would have continued with private illustrations to hopefully be released sometime in the future.
    As for the child writing this article, I suggest giving up books entirely and just play video games where an attention-span is neither required nor appreciated.

  • Josh

    Yeah, Carlo is right. The second illustration is by Tolkien himself, not Sendak.

    And I agree with Christopher. The charm of the book is primarily in its text. The Hobbit is not long-winded. That could be a valid criticism of LOTR, perhaps, but not the Hobbit. It’s a book that was *meant* to be read aloud.

  • James

    Considering in his description he clearly states that the second Sendak illustration is of “wood-elves dancing in the moonlight”, the second illustration is clearly meant as a juxtaposition illustrating how shitty Tolkien’s illustrative capabilities are in comparison with Sendak.

    • Josh

      James, you are giving the author of this lackluster blog post more credit than he deserves.

      The author says:

      “Sendak begrudgingly obliged and provide (sic) two illustrations … Hit the jump to see these illustrations …”

      And the text that immediately precedes the Sendak and Tolkien images:

      “However, these illustrations show that it’s a shame that Sendak never got approved to illustrate The Hobbit:”

      It’s clear the author mistakenly though the Tolkien illustration was by Sendak.

  • d.a. garabedian

    Have to agree with several of the other posters here. What was with the unnecessary dig on Tolkien’s beautiful writing? I don’t even consider it a valid criticism of The Lord of the Rings – though perhaps an accurate description – let alone the simplistic charm of The Hobbit. Lame.

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