J.R.R. Tolkien’s visual art, though little known, is a substantial component of his creative work, especially of his legendarium.  He sketched fictional worlds such as landscapes and maps of Middle-earth, Númenórean heraldic devices, and calligraphy in Elvish verse, often alongside the text of his handwritten manuscripts.  The Hobbit remains Tolkien’s most illustrated publication with a total of 13 published illustrations and his self-designed dust jacket cover art.

However, Tolkien apparently undermines the importance of such visual images just one year following The Hobbit’s initial publication in his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories” (hereafter referred to as “OFS”), a defense of the fantasy genre, in which he repeatedly claims “illustrations do little good to fairy-stories.”  Unlike literature, which “works from mind to mind,” a rendered image “imposes one visible form.”  Tolkien deems illustration, like allegory, too restrictive for the reader’s imaginative interpretation.  As he explains in his critical essay and in his letters, visual art, including illustration, denies the true form and function of a fairy-story.

Yet in the same essay, Tolkien uses inherently visual language to describe the key components of the fairy-story, interchanging “imagination” for “image-making” and describing the enchantment of a fairy-story as the “regaining of a clear view” or “Recovery” of vision, a Chestertonian idea that humbles our perception of the ordinary as extraordinary.  The thesis of “OFS” is that fairy-stories, when created and interpreted following Tolkien’s artistic model of “sub-creation,” are the highest form of art.  Unlike other fiction, the fairy-story requires heightened imaginative creation by the “designer” (or author), and by the “spectator” (or reader).  Using the materials of the “Primary World,” or real world, each must envision and so co-create the reality of the story’s “Secondary World.”  In other words, designer and spectator “glimpse” a reality beyond the story.  For Tolkien, the imaginative faculties of the glimpse are not limited to the kingdom of “Faërie.”  Rather, the fairy-story enables one to glimpse the “Other-world” of the divine, of the kingdom of Heaven.

In his essay, Tolkien calls this “glimpse of Joy” the “Eucatastrophe”: the narrative climax that is notably visual.  Tolkien states:  “In such stories when the sudden ‘turn’ comes we get a piercing glimpse of Joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.”  Tolkien further states, “the eucatastrophe of a fairy-story looks forward to the Great Eucatastrophe,” the Paschal Mystery of the Gospel: Christ’s death and Resurrection.

The underlying reason for Tolkien’s literary terminology and philosophy is Catholicism.  His theory of sub-creation parallels the medieval model of divine creation: the imitation of God’s Creation.  Tolkien’s statements against allegory attack its creatively inhibiting form.  Allegory does not necessitate a spectator’s free will and reason to interpret its meaning, two key components of Catholic faith.  In his letters, Tolkien emphatically denies that his fiction, including The Hobbit, is allegory, which deny the spectator the means to co-create and thus lack a Catholic sense of the divine (which is freely desired through faith and reason, and is multi-dimensional in its sacramental nature).  The spectator must freely invest his intellect with his heart’s desire to joyfully “glimpse the underlying reality or truth” of the fairy-story.

How can we reconcile Tolkien’s critique of illustration with the facts that Tolkien was a prolific illustrator and that he depends on visual language to define the fairy-story?  While some critics cite a biographical explanation due to Tolkien’s embarrassment of his artistic skills, I turn to the illustrations in The Hobbit and suggest they are manifestations of Tolkien’s creative process and crucial to the reader’s experience of his fairy-story.

Like Tolkien’s landscape illustrations, handcrafted maps play a central role in both Tolkien’s creative process of The Hobbit as well as the plot of the narrative itself.  Thror’s Map and the famous line, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” are considered the two seminal pieces of The Hobbit, and the first draft of Thror’s Map exists alongside the earliest extant manuscript, circa 1930-2.  Tolkien developed two more drafts of the map between 1932-5, and created the final published version at the request of his publishers by 1937.  In a letter, Tolkien wrote that he “wisely started with a map, and made the story fit.”

Alongside the characters, the reader is invited to contemplate the sparsely drawn, emblematic map.  The narrator in The Hobbit even instructs the spectator to “Look at the map on page 50 and you will see there the runes.”  The runes, a mysterious visual language, play a central role in the spectator’s co-creative deciphering alongside the dwarves and hobbit.  In the final, published version of Thror’s Map, the eye weaves in and out of the map’s different levels of discursive emblems to find the riddle accompanying the ominous hand in the outer border.  From Anglo Saxon, they translate, “Five feet high the door and three may walk abreast,” but do not reveal the hidden door’s exact location or how to access it.

The door’s revelation, much like eucatastrophe, requires a particular way of seeing involving childish faith and active participation.  I suggest that, in order to actively involve the spectator in this Recovery of sight, Tolkien crafted an earlier map with the moon-letters printed backwards on the verso (seen circled on the lower right-hand side, marked in ink by his publishers).  Tolkien intended the spectator to turn to page 50 and hold up the page to light in order to correctly discern the runes.  Though Tolkien collaborated with his publishers on these formal elements, concerns over the excessive printing costs forced Tolkien to eliminate this highly interactive feature.  With the original map in his hands, the spectator could literally experience the vision of the moon-letter’s revelation as the dwarves do in the moon-light.  Experiencing a fantastic thing of Faerie in the Primary World prepares us to believe our eyes when we see the unexpected in reality, when we glimpse the divine.

In addition to the spectator’s perception of the map, the way that the fictional characters view the map is critical to achieving the end of their journey.  The final glimpse of the door is the climax of viewership, the moment of eucatastrophe for Bilbo.  The way Bilbo discovers the door and Tolkien’s description of the moment characterize how a spectator glimpses the divine through art.  Bilbo desires not necessarily the treasure, but the map itself, as the narrator states: “He loved maps, as I have told you before; and he also liked runes and letters and cunning hand-writing.”  Unlike the impatiently “gloomy” dwarves, Bilbo engages in its mystery and “would often borrow Thorin’s map and gaze at it, pondering over the runes and the message of the moon-letters Elrond had read.”

He does not aimlessly scour the rock in blind excitement, as do the dwarves who “were too eager to trouble about the runes or the moon-letters.”  Though Bilbo too begins to despair, he sets his gaze away west through the opening, over the cliff, over the wide lands to the black wall of Mirkwood, and to the distances beyond, in which he sometimes thought he could catch glimpses of the Misty Mountains small and far … he was not thinking much of the job, but of what lay beyond the blue distance, the quiet Western Land and the Hill and his hobbit-hole under it.

Tolkien expands Bilbo’s vision to reflect on the desires of his heart, to obtain a glimpse of his home—analogous to the home that the dwarves long to recover and to Tolkien’s Christian Heaven.

After a thorough characterization of Bilbo’s inner eye as humble, reflective, and desirous of home, Bilbo—and no one else—finally discovers the door through a visionary revelation.  The revelation is strikingly similar to Tolkien’s description of eucatastrophe.  Bilbo despairs that he is abandoned and a failure, which authenticates his pain as well as his saving grace.  Unlike a deus-ex-machina ending without reasonable justification, the eucatastrophe, as Tolkien writes in “OFS,” does “not deny the possibility of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance.”  Yet in The Hobbit “[Bilbo] had a queer feeling that he was waiting for something,” a glimmer of hope, however vague, amidst the gloom.  Then, with a heightened visual sensitivity to his surroundings, Bilbo begins to understand how the door will be revealed:

“If he lifted his head he could see a glimpse of the distant forest.  As the sun turned west there was a gleam of yellow upon its far roof, as if the light caught the last pale leaves.  Soon he saw the orange ball of the sun sinking towards the level of his eyes.  He went to the opening and there pale and faint was a thin new moon above the rim of Earth … At that very moment he heard a sharp crack behind him … Suddenly Bilbo understood.”

It is as if Bilbo catches a glimpse of Heaven, and Providence comes to meet him, at eye-level.

Bilbo’s Other-worldly perception allows his intellect to recognize the gift of the door’s opening: “Then suddenly when their hope was lowest a red ray of the sun escaped like a finger through a rent in the cloud.  A gleam of light came straight through the opening into the bay and fell on the smooth rock-face,” and the key-hole appears for a fleeting moment.  This description strikingly resembles the moment of eucatastrophe: “when the sudden ‘turn’ comes, [the spectator] get[s] a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through,” as Tolkien writes in “OFS.”  The “red ray… like a finger” recalls the map’s image of the pointing hand.  The image that symbolically pointed towards the door now “rends” the physical world from the heavenly world: it is the image of Tolkien’s eucatastrophe, the joyful ending of the fairy-story that mirrors the poignant joy in the Gospel story.  It is found, by both Bilbo and the spectator, by perceiving the map with Recovered vision.

In conclusion, the map acts as a visual artifact for the designer, spectator, and characters to catch glimpses of the Other-world—the Secondary World of Middle-earth, and, as seen in the celestial, outreaching touch from the gleam of eucatastrophe, Heaven.  As a visual object conveying symbolic meaning, the map offers a glimpse of the story’s geographical narrative and demands careful interpretation of its visual language.  As a visual and physical object existing in the Primary World, the map prompts the spectator to physically and imaginatively interact with its fairy properties and encourages the spectator to experience the wonder of Recovery.  In sum, Tolkien’s maps demonstrate how the spectator may approach the fairy-story with a critical eye to discovering the true end of its journey: through wonder, reason, and faith, we glimpse the transcendent reality of Heaven.


Madeline Roe Flores graduated from ND in 2013 with a BA in Art History and English, and this article is a modified excerpt of her honors thesis as presented at the 2015 Edith Stein Conference.   She was layout and managing editor of the Rover, and will enter law school this fall.  Contact her mroe2@alumni.nd.edu.