Why Maurice Sendak did not illustrate J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’

[Study of Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf] (c) Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library et al.
[Study of Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf] (c) Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library et al.

Social media have their most wonderful advantages and you may know that Twitter is probably the one I like most these days. It is rather obvious, though, that they all come with side effects most of us would not want to happen – like digging up stories, years old and wrong. This just happened with an illustrated edition of The Hobbit that was meant to celebrate its 30th year of publication and should have been illustrated by Maurice Sendak of Where the Wild Things are fame but never materialised. Tolkien has been faulted for this – but proof of that does not exist, quite to the contrary. Let’s go on a treasure hunt!

It all started with one of my favourite Twitter accounts, the Pulp Librarian. This tweet, sent on June 10, 2020, set the wheels in motion (again):

 

 

You might notice that the phrasing in this particular tweet suggests it was Tolkien’s “fault” that this most wonderful of artistic collaborations did not come to be. Now, I do try and take a breath not to come up with a knee-jerk-reaction to things my favourite author is ‘accused of’ and which do not sound quite credible but I had to say something. I know, it is not my task to defend a man who has been dead for almost fifty years but if people take advantage of that fact to say something which might not be quite right a number of people from all over the world usually raise a finger to ask: “Are you sure about that?”

 

The reason why I spoke up – among quite a few other things – is the fact Wayne Hammond had written about this many years ago and I had read his article on one of the must read blogs of any Tolkienist, Too Many Books and Never Enough. I shall now proceed to tell you a tale of unfortunate happenings, mild misunderstandings and myriads of mishaps – and I will have to correct myself, too!

The Chronology of the Why Maurice Sendak did not illustrate J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ media kerfuffle

1937. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien is published and becomes an instant classic.

1963. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is published and becomes an instant classic.

1964. In preparation for a 30th anniversary edition of The Hobbit (presumably) some very bright mind at Houghton Mifflin thinks: “Ooh, Tolkien was an instant classic, and Sendak was an instant classic. We should have Sendak illustrate Tolkien!”

1964. Feb 24. Chronology, Hammond & Scull:

Rayner Unwin forwards to Tolkien a letter from Houghton Mifflin. They are now considering Maurice Sendak to illustrate their proposed new edition of The Hobbit. Rayner will be in Oxford on 28 February, and asks if he may call on Tolkien at about 10.30 a.m.

1964. May 21. Chronology.

Joy Hill writes to Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin have asked to pay Allen & Unwin a lower royalty on the deluxe illustrated Hobbit so as to give a small royalty to the artist, Maurice Sendak.

1964. May 28. Chronology.

(…) [Tolkien] agrees to a reduced royalty on the Houghton Mifflin illustrated Hobbit subject to Allen & Unwin’s advice (…)

1965. October 25. Chronology.

(…) Rayner [Unwin] has heard that Maurice Sendak, whom Houghton Mifflin have proposed to illustrate the Hobbit, has called the Ballantine Lord of the Rings covers ‘atrocious’ (…)

1967, January 12. Chronology.

Austin Olney [editor with Houghton Mifflin] writes to Joy Hill, sending a sample sketch by Maurice Sendak for Houghton Mifflin’s proposed illustrated Hobbit.

1967, January 24. Chronology.

Rayner Unwin writes to Austin Olney. He will show Maurice Sendak’s sketch to Tolkien when the latter returns to Oxford early in February (…)

1967, February 16. Chronology.

Rayner [Unwin] shows Tolkien the sample illustration by Maurice Sendak for the proposed Houghton Mifflin illustrated Hobbit. Rayner will write to Austin Olney on 20 February that Tolkien was not ‘wildly happy about the proportions of the figures’ in the Sendak drawing (…)

Now, to summarise things so far: Sendak produced one sketch for an illustrated Hobbit in the course of three years and that book was meant to come out the year he sent that single sketch. No other work is mentioned. Tolkien wasn’t quite happy how the proportions worked with Gandalf and Bilbo as he would have to be considerably smaller than the tall wizard – and one might not see this in the Sendak’s illustration – but there was never a ‘veto’ by Tolkien.

Evil Tolkien Ruling His Empire Vetoing Sendak?

In their Reader’s Guide Hammond and Scull add a bit more information on this book (see G 561) but it is thanks to their reaction to a certain guest essay we get to know more about the situation:

Virgil Finlay. From The Annotated Hobbit by Douglas A. Anderson, published by Houghton Mifflin Company 2002. Introduction and annotations © 2002 by Douglas A. Anderson, All rights reserved.

Virgil Finlay. From The Annotated Hobbit by Douglas A. Anderson, published by Houghton Mifflin Company 2002. Introduction and annotations © 2002 by Douglas A. Anderson, All rights reserved.

Mr. DiTerlizzi says that Sendak was invited to illustrate The Hobbit ‘in the late 1960s’; in fact, Sendak signed a contract in 1964, and asked for a couple of years to do the work. The article implies that the only hurdle to Sendak’s involvement was Tolkien, who in 1967 ‘was still overseeing his Middle-earth empire’; in fact, Tolkien had already, in 1963, allowed Houghton Mifflin to get on with a deluxe ‘Hobbit’ to be illustrated by Virgil Finlay (who seems to have dropped out; Tolkien made some positive comments on his sample picture), and when Sendak was proposed he continued in the same manner. Far from ‘overseeing an empire’, by which we suppose Mr. DiTerlizzi means micromanaging, Tolkien tended to defer to his publishers on business matters. Sendak may have made sample drawings ‘begrudgingly’, but they seem to have been expected of him by all concerned, as from any artist, even one so distinguished.

In regard to the misidentification of the ‘wood-elves’ drawing, the correspondence between Houghton Mifflin and Allen & Unwin in January–February 1967 clearly refers to only one image sent by Austin Olney at Houghton Mifflin, received by Joy Hill at Allen & Unwin, and shown to Tolkien by Rayner Unwin: the picture of Gandalf and Bilbo. Tolkien saw it on 16 February 1967, and on 20 February Rayner wrote to Houghton Mifflin that Tolkien was not ‘wildly happy about the proportions of the figures’, Bilbo being too large relative to Gandalf. There is no indication that Tolkien saw a picture of dancing wood-elves, so any mislabelling ‘blunder’ was of no consequence. [The Sendak Hobbit.]

The infamous essay mentioned here was the one that prompted the Collider article of the same date and pushed an anti-Tolkien agenda even further – Tony DiTerlizzi published it on March 25, 2011, with HeroComplex. Read it for yourself, if you like, I will just add a number of quotes to show you the direction this text is taking:

I wanted to know more about the details of the relationship between two literary luminaries, so I spoke with fellow author Gregory Maguire (of “Wicked” fame), who interviewed Sendak in 2004. Though Tolkien was 75 in 1967, he was still overseeing his Middle-earth empire. He requested samples from Sendak in considering the artist’s involvement. Begrudgingly, Sendak obliged, creating two finished images — one of wood-elves dancing in the moonlight, and another of Bilbo relaxing outside his hobbit hole smoking his pipe beside Gandalf (…)

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 (…)

Gregory Maguire was a mentee of Maurice Sendak’s and a close friend. While writing this up I tried hard to find the interview mentioned in DiTerlizzi but was not successful. Sendak is well-known for giving millions of such interviews and you can see him talk about his work for hours on end and Maguire did end up writing Making Mischief: A Maurice Sendak Appreciation in 2009 so he would have known him well – but he was much younger and the story he will have passed on to DiTerlizzi must have been second hand at best. Hammond mentions that Sendak himself told this story at conferences even though the archival evidence contradicted him on this.

Now, keep in mind this was published March 25, 2011.

The source of it all

Bilbo at Bag End ©2020 DiTerlizzi Studio

Bilbo at Bag End ©2020 DiTerlizzi Studio

What most people don’t know or don’t remember anymore is that DiTerlizzi who is an accomplished artist himself and did paint Bilbo, among other things, at Bag End, wrote about this very story in his own blog on Jan 19, 2011. However, in this post the only mention of that Sendak story is:

Lastly, I found this wonderful sketch from a proposal by Maurice Sendak done back in 1967. As far as I can gather, he was to meet with Tolkien to discuss an illustrated edition, but suffered a heart attack(!) and the project never came to be…sigh.

This wording I tried to track down and I think I have found it in a July 2008 blog post on – surprise, surprise – illustrations for The Hobbit, just as DiTerlizzi’s post, who obviously found himself inspired by this:

Sendak drew some sketches for an illustrated edition of The Hobbit, and even met with Tolkien about it. Unfortunately, the book was never published (never finished?), apparently because Sendak suffered a heart attack.

This is the first time I can find this particular illustration on the web and 2008 wasn’t yet the time of tumblr, Facebook, Instagram etc. so it must have come from somewhere else. And I think I found the occasion where this Sendak sketch was first exhibited – at the Rosenbach, starting May 2008 and well into 2009 (it might even be hidden on the DVD, long since out of print, done for the exhibition but I do not have access to it.) It is also mentioned here:

From May 6, 2008, through May 3, 2009, the Rosenbach presented There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak. This major retrospective of over 130 pieces pulled from the museum’s vast Sendak collection featured original artwork, rare sketches, never-before-seen working materials, and exclusive interview footage (…)

Rare sketches for unpublished editions of stories such as Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and other illustrating projects (…)

So I am pretty sure the author of the blog post mentioned above read the museum’s exhibition text to the Hobbit sketch and that was basically the wording, short, neutral, informative, as they should be:

Maurice Sendak was asked to illustrate a new edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s the Hobbit and provided a sketch in 1967, depicting Gandalf and Bilbo in front of Bag End. Sendak had his first heart attack at the age of only 39 in May 1967 and due to his illness the project did not move forward. [My invention.]

Moving on a couple of decades you have people writing about Tolkien vetoing the illustration(s), accusing Sendak of not having “read the book closely” while still “overseeing his Middle-earth empire”, about non-existing illustrations, and misquoting Tolkien to prove their point. Di Terlizzi quoted Tolkien in his post as saying:

“I am not specially interested in children, and certainly not in writing for them.”

What he failed to mention is that Letter #251 is the rather ill-tempered answer Tolkien’s to a rather nonsensical interviewer from the New Statesman and is about quite a few different things – as well that he truncated the quote:

I am not specially interested in children, and certainly not in writing for them: i.e. in addressing directly and expressly those who cannot understand adult language.

I could possibly go on and on but seeing that the crappy Collider piece was the reason all of this had bubbled up I will link to it as well (you can visit it from the tweet at the beginning of this post, too). To give you an idea of this nonsense:

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.

Matt ‘I’m still writing for Collider and it hasn’t gotten any better’ Goldberg managed to add two illustrations, claiming them to be by Sendak when the second one is Bilbo at Bag End – by Tolkien. Ah, well.

While I was gathering material for this post and found the LotR Plaza original post by Hammond as well as mentions of the kerfuffle and RPG art on Rateliff’s blog, Jason Fisher adding a lovely anecdote in which George MacDonald played a huge part – a great source of inspiration to both Tolkien and Sendak – I also found this in Peter C. Kunze’s Conversations with Maurice Sendak:

(…) I’ve never been turned on by The Hobbit of the Ring or mythology. It’s just not to my taste. [Amazon.]

Yale University Library database entry for [Study of Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf]

Yale University Library database entry for [Study of Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf]

So, if you ask me Sendak never liked doing the illustrations for The Hobbit. He had become incredibly successful and popular when Where The Wild Things Are was published and probably no longer willing to just take on any old job to make the money – there was no need for it anymore. So he let it slip until the very last minute – the grand old freelancing artist strategy – and then sketched something in a couple of hours to send off to the publishers. No second picture, there was no need for it – and no proof of a second picture has ever been given.

In fact, one might argue that if you look at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale where both the sketch and the volume annotated by Sendak are held that there is no reason to believe that this sketch and the book could get there without any hiccups but gazillions of other sketches were lost.

And if you look closer at the “Pages annotated by Maurice Sendak” the only annotations of substance are on pages 12-13 – including a tumbling little Bilbo sketch – and that is it. So Sendak didn’t really read it, just took the first couple of pages, threw something on paper, and that was it. Enter the heart attack and he could easily get off this particular job due to health reasons.

The Hobbit in question was published only in 1973 – with Tolkien’s illustrations.

I found it hilarious that in a short review on the Rankin/ Bass Hobbit in 1977 there was the line:

The goblins could have stepped out of a Maurice Sendak book.

Well, maybe better not.

I need to make clear that my rather miffed take at Sendak’s approach to this particular project may not be quite the truth – there may have been a second sketch and it was lost in transit, with the publishers in the States… These things do happen. And there is one paragraph bracketed off in Sendak’s 1961 edition of The Hobbit where the Wood-Elves are described. However, if this sketch existed it never came to Tolkien and so he could not possibly have done all the nefarious crimes he has been accused of.

And in my tweet – mea culpa! – I simply took that mislabeled artwork argument as fact which it was not, as far as research can tell. Please accept my apologies.

Bibliography

Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull. The J.R.R. Tolkien companion and guide. Vol. 1, Chronology, p. 560 ff.; Vol. 2, Reader’s Guide, p. 561.

Tweet: https://twitter.com/The_Tolkienist/status/1270718944236630017

Blogs and other sites:

Too Many Books and Never Enough. The Sendak Hobbit.

Tony Di Terlizzi. There and Back again.

Tony Di Terlizzi. ‘The Hobbit’ illustrated by Maurice Sendak? The 1960s masterpiece that could have been.

Matt Goldberg. THE HOBBIT Was Almost Illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

Children’s Atheneum. Illustrator of the week.


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Marcel Aubron-Bülles

A Tolkien fan for twenty-five years (and more to come...) Founding chairman of the German Tolkien Society, Co-Founder of Ring*Con, Co-Founder of the ITF, host, presenter and fantasy expert