Interview with Jef Murray on Black & White Ogre Country, the lost tales of Hilary Tolkien (14.01.09 by Pieter Collier) - Comments

This month appears the Lost Tales of Hilary Tolkien, an 88 page ilustrated hardcover book that consists of several short tales written by Hilary Tolkien, Tolkien's brother.

The tales were written down in a notebook that was re-discovered by a grand-child of Hilary Tolkien and thought it a good idea to have it published.

It was my pleasure to have helped out on transcribing the text and checking some facts.

The book is illustrated by Jef Murray, who kindly answered several questions about the book.
Black & White Ogre Country


The book will be released soon and will be available as a hardback and a limited signed edition. These are being sold through abebooks.

Black & White Ogre Country,
the lost tales of Hilary Tolkien


Publication Date:
26/01/20089 (UK)
Price: £9.99 (UK)
Binding: Hardcover

ISBN-10: 0955190010
ISBN-13: 978-0-95-19001-8
Extent: 88 pages

Publisher: ADC Publications Ltd

Hey Jef, it is a long time ago since I last spoke you. How have you been doing since our last talk?

JM: I’ve been fine, but busy! Seems there’s never much breathing room from one project to the next!

The new book called “Black & White Ogre Country: the Lost Tales of Hilary Tolkien”, is illustrated by you. What is the book all about?


JM: The book was based on a notebook kept by Hilary Tolkien over many years, and it included fanciful tales that were likely invented by Hilary and J.R.R. during their adventures together as young boys. These were in the form of short stories about ogres, witches, and the curious folk whom the Tolkien brothers encountered in their childhood. But the short tales go on from there to include reminiscences about World War I and the changes that Hilary saw in the English countryside over the decades. The notebook contents somewhat defy description…having elements that both demonstrate a lively imagination on Hilary’s part, in addition to a deep sense of the “living mythology” of the Tolkien brothers’ lives and the England they so loved.

How did this book come to be? Hilary Tolkien is not famous like his brother and he has not been among us for a very long time.

JM: The notebook was found among letters by and to Hilary that had been kept by his grandson, Chris Tolkien. Chris showed these materials to Andy Compton and Angie Gardner, and he asked whether they would publish them. Angie felt that there was so much material, that it would be best appreciated separated into two volumes. The first is based on the notebook, and the second will include the letters, photos, etc. This first book is by way of the first chapter of the bigger Biography.

The texts in the book are from Tolkien’s brother, who does not have the same writer skills as his brother. Do you, however, feel that there is a connection to Middle-earth in it?


JM:
Very much so! “Black and White Ogre Country” was based on a real place…the countryside around Birmingham in which the Tolkien brothers played. And the characters they encountered were embroidered by Hilary into ogres, witches and other memorable characters. Likewise, many of the same areas were almost certainly the inspiration for J.R.R.’s tales. “Seeing” these same places as remembered by Hilary helps us to better see the nature of the magical world that ultimately gave us Middle-earth. And what strikes one as an adult reading Hilary’s notebook was the deep mythopoeic sense…the sense of the mystical…that permeated his memories. It’s this sense of history as myth and vice versa that shines in J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings as well as in this new book.

So far I have seen your art as magazine covers, art next to articles, logo’s for events... This is illustration! How different is this for you? Or did you do illustrations before?


JM:
I come down on the side of Maxfield Parrish and other artists who chuckle at the arbitrary distinction made between “illustration” and “fine art”. They are not different in kind, only different in approach. All of art is communication, and whether an image is based on a story I created or one that someone else created seems to me less important than that the image really speaks to the viewer…really wakes them up and makes them pay attention. I certainly don’t always achieve that, but that’s always my goal.

The book is a children’s book, did that affect your style and approach in any way?


JM: Well, first, I’m not at all sure I’d call it a children’s book. Certainly there are elements that might appeal to children, but just as with any deeply felt story (e.g., virtually all of the classic Fairy Tales), the tales and memories in this notebook resonate with adults as well.

But, regarding the style and approach I took with this work, yes, it had to change from my “normal” style in order to do it justice. I largely abandoned oil painting in favour of sketches for the book. This was partly for time reasons and partly because of the nature of the book itself. I needed more freedom than would have been possible with a strictly realistic approach. And since children’s tales often involved caricature, I found myself having a lot of fun “playing” with the figures in the book (e.g., Black Ogre, Mr. Church). It’s tougher to “play” in paint, as one has much more invested in the process. But sketching allows for a lot more freedom and experimentation; at least, I find it so.

Your illustrations I must say are absolutely gorgeous and at certain moments they remind me even of Beatrix Potter. Did you use other illustrators as an inspiration or reference?

JM: That’s very kind of you! I’m very fond of Beatrix Potter! But, in the course of working on the book, I dug through an awful lot of illustrators’ work to try to help me decide how to approach different images. I reviewed illustrations by Pauline Baynes (especially her earlier illustrations, as for C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books), Arthur Rackham, Margaret Tarrant, and Angela Barrett in addition to Beatrix Potter. But I also found myself looking over fairy tale-like images by Dore, the Wyeths, and Maxfield Parrish. And one “character” even had its origins in a painting by Rubens(!). So, I “flooded” myself with a lot of different examples and approaches along the way, hoping to use what made the most sense with each illustration.


The newly made illustrations are completely different from the art we generally know as ‘Jef Murray colorful paintings’; is this a new style you will now use more often?

JM: Actually, this style is one I’ve used regularly for years, albeit not quite on the scale of this project. My first medium has always been pencil, and I “think” through all of my paintings by starting out with pencil sketches. But for this project, I took the process much farther and incorporated some techniques that I’d only used sparingly in the past. I think all artists should feel obliged to stretch and try new tools and techniques; otherwise their art grows stale. And, should I find myself once again illustrating imaginative stories such as these, I certainly expect I’d lean on what I learned with “Black & White Ogre Country.”

What I always wonder about is, when looking at illustrations, how big the originals are compared to the illustrations.

JM: Every artist is different, but I tend to work fairly small. There are no images that are larger than 9”x12” for the simple reason that that was the size of the sketchbook I used for producing them. But, many of the originals are only a couple of inches on a side.

Did you have to use any computer enhancements or are the originals exactly as we see them published in the book?

JM: All of the illustrations began as sketches, but few of the finished illustrations are without any additional modifications past the final sketch. For one thing, all colour was added digitally. But even beyond that, some of the illustrations were composites of multiple sketches, and some made use of shading and other manipulations that would have been difficult if not impossible to do using any medium other than digital.

How long did it take you to complete the illustrations for the Black & White Ogre Country?

JM: I began work early in September of 2008, and completed the last illustration in mid-December. The book contains nearly 50 separate images, so that period was a very, very busy time.

What is your favorite illustration in the book and why?

JM: Hmmm. I have a couple. I very much like the sycamore tree, because it was a special tree that the Tolkiens loved to climb and the image I finally developed made me very happy. I also am fond of the cover image of Black Ogre surveying a captured shoe, and the back cover image of the two boys returning home. Neither of these is spectacular from an artistic perspective, but the one makes me laugh and the other almost makes me cry.
Black & White Ogre Country

Now we know your favorite, can you tell us which one was the most difficult to make?

JM: The one which probably was the most work, all ‘round, was the one of the White Witch in her Sweet Shop. This was because we were after a matronly figure, but one that had a certain “sparkle” to her. If the tale had been written by an older Hilary, she might have been young and seductive; but as it was, she needed to be more motherly and comforting. Lovely, but not stunningly beautiful; An air of faerie, but also an earthiness. By my description of what we were after, you can see how tough all of these requirements were to try to reconcile. You can judge for yourself how well you think I did with this.
Black & White Ogre Country

Was it difficult to pick the images for the cover? I can see some clear references to Tolkien there, was this done deliberately or did someone else decide what needed to be put on the cover.

JM: The main cover image almost had to be of one (or both!) of the Ogres, simply because of the title of the book. Since the Black Ogre image seemed to be everyone’s favorite, we went with that. The back cover image was created specifically to end the book with. We wanted to show the two brothers walking home after a day of derring-do.

The only specific Middle-earth reference is likely the willow tree on the back cover, although the image of the boys walking home without shoes evokes, perhaps, the thought of hobbits. Nevertheless, the “shoeless” aspect came directly from Hilary’s remembrance of “Black Ogre”; it’s just a happy fact that this “works” as a Middle-earth reference as well. Black & White Ogre Country

The story starts off rather happy (and even in a childlike naivety), but ends rather dark... Do you think children will not be pulled back because of that?

JM: Again, I’m not sure that the sole audience for these works will _be_ children, although I know that many of the tales should delight younger folk. I personally experienced a deep, almost mystical connection with the tales as I read them. I even asked myself more than once whether Hilary wasn’t communicating, however subtly, some deeper philosophy of his own in his choice of characters and reminiscences. And I was reminded, oddly, of Fellini’s film “Amarcord”, which mythologizes the director’s own childhood in ways similar to this work by Hilary.

But, getting back to the question of children as readers, like J.R.R. Tolkien (see his essay “On Fairy Stories”) I’ve never quite understood the modern notion that dark fairy tales are not appropriate for them. Most of the really great fairy tales are quite dark indeed (at least at times), and I for one always relished them. Children seem to know, understand, and accept sorrow as part of life perhaps better than adults. In this way, it might seem, we adults are living in a fantasy world perhaps more than our own children!

So, no, I don’t think children will be put off by any sadness that occurs in the stories. I think they’ll see in Hilary’s sadness at the loss of the “magic” of “Black & White Ogre Country” over the years something profound and important and understandable. I hope we adults can likewise view these tales in such a child-like manner….

Do you believe this book will be appreciated by Tolkien fans or do you mainly see it as a nice children’s book, with a Tolkien link?

I’d like to think that the book will appeal to a very broad group of folk: Tolkien fans, historians, those who love mythopoeic tales of all stripes…all in addition to children! I know many Tolkien fans will be fascinated with the book simply because it takes us into the very world that Hilary and J.R.R. experienced together when they were young. But the tales are also filled with wonderful vignettes that speak of those times in general…of the early 20th century in rural England, of what it means to live in a house that was inhabited by ghosts, of the trials of farming and of coping with the privations of wartime. Like so many small treasured books I have, this one should serve to speak to readers on many, many levels, and I trust that it will!

Will you be selling any of the artwork done for the book?

Yes, many of the original sketches used for the book will be exhibited in Moreton-in-Marsh this April. The show in which they’ll be featured will be Tolkien-themed and will also include additional original artwork by myself and several other artists. And I’ll be there with Angie Gardner and Chris Tolkien to sign copies of “Black & White Ogre Country”.

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