Most people on the LotR Fanatics Plaza will automatically recognize John Howe as the conceptual artist along with Alan Lee for the Lord of the Rings films trilogy. He has been highly acclaimed for his work on JRR Tolkien’s books and associated merchandise over the past two decades. John’s work can frequently be seen in exhibitions throughout Europe, recently appearing at the prestigious Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris. He has written and illustrated numerous books, with the latest being: Forging Dragons: Inspirations, Approaches and Techniques for Drawing and Painting Dragons, forwarded by Guillermo del Toro, director of The Hobbit. It is now available for order on Amazon and at other on-line and local book shops worldwide. At a chance meeting with Mr. Howe in the Scottish History section of a bookshop at the Edinburgh International Book Festival I timidly asked if he might be willing to write something for the Fanatics Plaza. He gave me his contact information and we took it from there. His one stipulation was that he could not discuss The Hobbit film. I mentioned a subject on which I personally would like to hear him elaborate – his accounts of some of his various experiences with meeting (often crazed) Tolkien fans. I think that must have struck a chord with him because he wrote something and sent it to me within a day or two of the request, and then he added a few more paragraphs over time. The result is the piece below, which I hope that everyone finds as entertaining as I did. Enjoy!
MR. JOHN HOWE
Gifted Painter, Illustrator, Writer
~ Finduilas Faelivrin
Or the Ins and Outs of Tolkien Fandom
John Howe, October 2008
Meeting Tolkien fans is invariably an engaging experience - occasionally delightful, sometimes moving, often a little scary - but never ordinary.
It’s not that they form an always identifiable body, like Trekkies - who I find a little frightening - I mean, to lavish such attention on costumes that look like something Yves Saint-Laurent binned as a bad idea in the 70’s is beyond me, and do we REALLY need more than one Mr. Spock ? - or the exuberant kaleidoscope of Star Wars fans. Tolkien fans come in many shapes, sizes and disguises, from über-serious comma-counters to elegant and flighty Elves.(I’ve just learned that there is debate amongst Star Trek fans as to the correct denomination; “Trekkers” being apparently preferred by those “Trekkies” who “have a life”. Why do I find this deeply perturbing?)
Some encounters with fans are quite striking. I was sitting once in a tiny wee book fair in deepest rural France, my mind absorbed with wondering what I was doing there and doing a complicated sketch in a book to pass the time, when, in the top corner of my vision, two enormous, Kong-like sets of hairy knuckles lowered themselves down on the table in front of me. I raised my eyes, which travelled up two chain-mail (!) clad forearms the size of my thighs, over a mantle of fur, to a hirsute face set off by quite startling eyes (or at least the glints I could make put under the beetling brows). “Sir Howe, I am Boern,” it rumbled. I nearly jumped out of my skin (until I remembered Beorn only ate honey.)
Or they will address you in Elvish or Black Speech, and be mildly dismayed when you return a look of studied blankness. “You don’t speak Quenya?”
“I can barely master English,” I usually reply, grimly aware that I have just qualified as the low point in their day.
“How many times do you read the books? Per year.” I no longer dare confess I’ve only really read them twice in my entire life (once in the wrong order and once out loud to my son when he was 6 or 7). Now I try to change the subject or cowardly mumble something like “I don’t, uh... really keep count.”
Actually, one of the most frequent questions I get is “Excuse me, Mr. Alan Lee?” For this I have a variety of options: I can pretend I AM Alan, and say something truly obnoxious or make a genuinely atrocious sketch in a treasured book. (I don’t actually do that. Even I wouldn’t do that.) Or I reply “I’m sorry, he couldn’t make it,” or more creatively: “I think I saw him heading out the door a couple of minutes ago.” Usually, though, I mumble contritely “I’m the other guy.” or something equally witty and go off and sulk.
Tolkien fans are often a categorical lot. They know good and well what things in Middle-Earth look like. Or rather, what they DON’T look like. Many times I have been told “Gandalf isn’t like that.”
“Oka-ay,” I reply, usually quite carefully, using that voice one uses when in the presence of the potentially deranged, “Ummm... and what is he really like?”
“I don’t know, but he’s not like that!” Visual certitude in Middle-Earth is often more a process of elimination than creation.
Of course wings and Balrogs is a big button-pusher, and I am quite proud to be the starting bell for many a serious bout of verbal pugilism. (I think I’ll have to draw the thing with no wings at some point, just to keep the adrenalin pumping.) Some comments can be quite surprising. My son overheard one spectator commenting to her husband, who was looking at Bilbo’s Front Hall: “All he did was copy the movie, see? It’s exactly the same! I’m surprised they let him get away with that.” Errabundi Saepe, Semper Certi.
One fan followed me about an event for a whole evening saying how much she really preferred Alan’s or Ted’s work. I finally managed to ditch her by scaling a sheer 20-foot wall and leaping over an 8-lane freeway. (Okay, I’m making up the bit about the freeway, but I was sure ready to do the wall.) I met one fan who had seen the films (all three, and NOT the short theatre versions) more than one hundred and fifty times. More than one hundred and fifty times Legolas skateboarding down the steps of the Deeping Wall. The mind boggles.
Others are in a state of mental decomposition, they are so nervous even stuttering seems an accomplishment. "I c-can't b-b-believe I'm actually t-t-t-t-talking to you." they wail. "It's not THAT much of a disappointment is it?" I reply, "Please stop twisting your hair into a knot, your fingers will get stuck. Breathe. Please." Or they will whimper how much they like the work, staring fixedly at their own shoelaces. Sometimes I'm hard-pressed to catch a word. My natural urge is to put my arm around their shoulders and lead them off in search of a glass of water. But I refrain. I'm afraid they might become suddenly incontinent or faint.
Dedication to Tolkien is often more than just skin-deep (metaphorically that is - and indelibly too, I might add). One fan actually had tattoos done of the actors’ signatures on her back and shoulders. Some of the signatures were blurred and awful scrawls, the kind actors do with leaky felt pens when hurrying along a red carpet, or on being presented with an umpteenth poster; I at least tried to trace a tidy one. One fellow somewhere was getting his whole back done based on my work from the Silmarillion (he'll be popular at the spa). Another was planning on having Orcs tattooed on her bum. (Her back was already full.) One ambitious gentleman had a movie poster so crammed with signatures that the New Zealand census department could have used it for an accurate population count. I have even been told the story of one fan that had surgery to make her ears pointier. It may be urban legend, of course, but I wouldn’t really be surprised.
Tolkien fans have been around long enough to have grown-up kids named Arwen and Meriadoc. (In this they have a distinct literary and cultural advantage over Trekkies and folks who call their unfortunate offspring Anakin or Padmé.) Actually, come to think of it, there are even Meriadocs and Arwens in their mid-forties (born on pot farms in Oregon or Wales), with teenage kids of their own, usually with very ordinary first names, like Jim or Susan.
Tolkien fans are quite a crowd.
They also comprise a healthy portion of most signature session queues. Every now and then one will have something of mine that I have never seen. “Where ever did you get this?” I enquire, examining a pirate paperback in Serbo-Croat or Ukrainian, a bootleg binder from Holland or a most surprising CD from Finland or Italy. (Lord of the Rings-inspired music, by the way, comes in two basic categories: romantically-troubled-troubadour-in-forest-clearing or Mordor metal with lead singers who sound (and often look) like Orcs and female chorus best described as Pale Mirkwood Elven.)
Usually signature seekers are reasonable in their requests, though there is always someone at a marathon signing session that will hang back until I’m so tired my whole arm is numb and come up and ask for a detailed rendering of Galadriel’s family tree or a cutaway cross-section of Minas Tirith. I usually try on my world-weariest smile and say “How about just a signature instead, or perhaps a very scrawny and diminutive Orc seen from a great distance? Behind a hill?” Or they just wish for a signature only "I haven't decided who it's for yet." "Shall I write For eBay, then?" I usually ask. Speaking of dedications, the next person who, when I enquire “And this is for...?” brightly replies “It’s for me!” will get just that. For Me, with best wishes, John.
Or, endearingly, they will bring gifts. Over the years, I have accumulated a large collection of lovely drawings, trinkets, carvings and jewellery. Most of these are made by hand, and some are very beautiful. I have also consumed several kilos of lembas.
My most treasured items, though are the ones that prove Middle-Earth borders firmly on the Kingdom of Kitsch (one of the vast but uncharted lands on the very edge of Tolkien's maps, hinted at, but only fully ever explored by the Eager Merchants of Tat). One of my favourites (apart from the Fell Beast pewter and etched glass wine goblet matched set - I mean, honestly...) is a little rubbery Dark Tower, with a lite-up Eye looking rather like a poached egg strung up between the two points of the summit. It also emits (there is a little toggle on the back) an unqualifiedly unattractive howling noise, a cross between Wookie with a sore throat and Fell Beast with tummy trouble. Curiously, I tired of the novelty after a surprisingly short time (or rather my family tired of the novelty in a short time), and tucked it away on a back shelf in the spare room. A year or so ago we had friends staying over, and my Tacky Little Tower of Sauron, due to plastic fatigue or a hidden structural defect, suddenly began to emit its distinctive and strident signature serenade in the small hours of the night, Poached Eye evilly ablaze. Funny, our friends haven't stayed overnight since. (Come to think of it, nobody has stayed overnight since.)
Fans often write to request sketches, which I try to do (although admittedly I have literally a year or two of backlog.) Usually it’s just for a little drawing, however... one gentleman wrote to ask if I could do a sketch so I dashed off an acceptable Gandalf on a sheet of paper and posted it. And got a reply saying it was a bit of a disappointment; what he really wanted was a battle scene with Gandalf, Gimli, Legolas, Aragorn and the Rohirrim and Gondorians fighting a horde of Orcs, with Nazgul flying about and the Witch king in front. (Please, and thanks.) I’m not sure if I wrote back.
Or they will write to ask if I am willing to sign a book (“or two”) and one day the postman shows up bent double under the weight of a monstrous box containing an entire library, with a post-it in each volume requesting a different and specific subject. (There are also enterprising souls who reply “Oh, just a signature please” when asked who the dedication is for. I’m tempted to write “For eBay, best wishes, John.”) School kids are the most fun. “Dear Mr. How, my techer says I have to write a nessay on the Hobit. Can you send me a resume of the story? I don’t have time to read it all. Thanx.” On the other hand, some amateurs are incredibly erudite, and have delved so deep into the most arcane knowledge of Middle Earth that they make classical scholars look like amiable and bumbling amateurs and will animatedly debate whether “Uglúk u bagronk sha pushdug Saruman-glob búbhosh skai!” REALLY means "Uglúk to the cesspool, sha! the dungfilth; the great Saruman-fool, skai!" or "Uglúk to the dung-pit with stinking Saruman-filth, pig-guts, gah!" (Clearly, these are issues of considerable import; why do I find this deeply perturbing?) Some fans even appear relatively normal. (I’m wary of those ones; they must be up to something.)
Of course, it’s not all fun and games. There is a serious and often deeply moving side to Tolkien admirers and their involvement with the books. A couple wrote to ask if they could use a reproduction of Gandalf the Grey on their son’s memorial; one of his wishes before passing away. Another asked for a drawing of a white ship sailing from the Grey Havens, also for a departed son. Each time I agree to a use or do a careful sketch with a lump in my throat, conscious of the honour bestowed on me by such a request.
All in all, Tolkien fans are as varied, remarkable and marvelous as the books and the worlds that they share. They make me feel a little like a Hobbit who glimpses colourful strangers passing but has never left the Shire.
This text was originally written for the LOTRPlaza and will also be posted on John Howe’s website.
http://www.john-howe.com/ Visit the website if you’d like to read Guillermo del Toro’s forward to Forging Dragons as well as many of Mr. Howe’s paintings and sketches not seen elsewhere.