J.R.R. Tolkien was by profession a philologist. From 1929 to 1945, he served as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and Fellow at Pembroke College, one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford. The title of professor in the United Kingdom (as in most European countries) is reserved for only those of the highest academic rank, unlike in the United States and Canada where it is donned much more freely. What most British professors of such stature did not do, however, was spend their spare time writing fantasy literature. To many of his fellow academics, this pursuit seemed absurd. Nevertheless, critical reception of his first major work, The Hobbit, came to a head on May 11, 1937 when George Allen & Unwin Ltd, Tolkien’s British publisher, wrote to him with news that they had interested “one of the major firms of American publishers.”
Houghton Mifflin Company, based out of Boston, Massachusetts, not only requested the right to publish the first American edition of The Hobbit, but suggested employing “good American artists” to add a number of color illustrations. On Tolkien’s behalf, Allen & Unwin affirmed this to be a good idea, as the initial impression of their first British edition, printed in 1937, had only Tolkien’s ten black-and-white line drawings and two maps. However, they thought it would be better “if all the illustrations were from [the author’s] hand.” Allen & Unwin thus began to serve as the middleman between the author and his soon-to-be American publisher, and Tolkien often confided in them by sharing quite personal and opinionated thoughts.
Two days after receiving the news of American interest from Houghton Mifflin, Tolkien responded positively to Allen & Unwin. He agreed on the need for all color pictures produced to be of the same hand, but noted that “I am divided between knowledge of my own inability and fear of what American artists (doubtless of admirable skill) might produce.” Tolkien went on to suggest that “it might be advisable, rather than lose the American interest, to let the Americans do what seems good to them – as long as it was possible (I should like to add) to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose work I have a heartfelt loathing).” He concluded his candid letter to his British publisher by asking how much time he had before he “must produce samples that might hope to satisfy Transatlantic juvenile taste (or its expert connoisseurs)?” Perhaps not realizing to the fullest extent Tolkien’s insulting tone, Allen & Unwin committed a tactical error: they sent the letter to Boston.
Upon learning of this action, Tolkien was outraged: “I was perturbed to learn that my letter had been sent across the water. It was not intended for American consumption unedited: I should have expressed myself rather differently.” Even so, Tolkien proceeded with Houghton Mifflin’s request to send them five or six paintings for their American edition. Tolkien astonishingly created four of the final five paintings within two weeks in mid-July 1937 while on a university vacation. Tolkien sent the fifth and final painting, a watercolor titled The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the Water (based off the frontispiece for the first British edition) to Boston in mid-August. Of these paintings, Tolkien iterated to Allen & Unwin that Houghton Mifflin was “at liberty to reject or use all or any of these five. But I would point out that they are specially selected so as to distribute illustration fairly evenly throughout the book (especially when taken in conjunction with the black-and-white drawings).” Although giving his American publishers permission to reject using any of the five, he never gave permission to alter any of the actual paintings—which is exactly what they did.
Houghton Mifflin Company used four of the five paintings for their first edition in 1938, all except Bilbo Comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves, and without exception, cropped or altered the paintings themselves. There is no epistolary evidence to suggest why Houghton Mifflin did so, but having felt slighted from Tolkien’s previous letter, this subversive meddling with his work may have provided them with a way to exert artistic control. It certainly prompted a negative reaction from the author. In a letter to Stanley Unwin dated March 4, 1938, Tolkien noted that “I cannot imagine why they have spoilt the Rivendell picture, by slicing the top and cutting out the ornament at the bottom.”
For the second British impression (printed in January 1938), Allen & Unwin also included four of the five paintings, this time excluding Bilbo Woke Up with the Early Sun in His Eyes. Tolkien, writing to C.A. Furth of Allen & Unwin, stated that “I am sorry that the Eagle picture (to face p. 118) is not included – merely because I should have liked to see it reproduced. I marvel that four can have been included without raising the price. Perhaps the Americans will use it? Odd folk . . .” In a later letter to Stanley Unwin, Tolkien explicitly mentions that “I am glad they [the Americans] have included the eagle picture.”
Why Houghton Mifflin Company decided to use the eagle painting Bilbo Woke Up instead of Raft-elves, a scene more integral to the plot, is unclear. There are two possible explanations. First, the two paintings differ on a stylistic level. Where Raft-elves features a very stylized tree canopy, Bilbo Woke Up features a naturalistic and proportionate golden eagle mirrored after a drawing by Alexander Thorburn for Lord Lilford’s Birds of the British Isles (1891). The decision to omit Raft-elves and include Bilbo Woke Up may further shed light on Houghton Mifflin’s decision to crop and alter the other paintings. American scene painting (or Regionalism), a naturalistic style of painting prominent from the 1920s through the 1950s, dominated the American artistic landscape. Catering to an American audience enveloped within this art movement, Houghton Mifflin sought to eliminate the paintings’ more stylized elements. The cropped or eliminated ornamental titles of Rivendell and Conversation with Smaug certainly fall under this stylized category.
The second possible explanation is Bilbo Woke Up’s subject: an eagle. Although the Continental Congress in 1782 chose the bald eagle as the national emblem, it was not until the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 that this species was protected. In 1962, Congress amended the act to include golden eagles, renaming it the Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle Protection Act. It became clear in the 1930s that the eagle was facing near-extinction from hunting, logging, development, and the increasing use of DDT. With the eagle the subject of a national dialogue, it made sense for Houghton Mifflin to emphasize this bird in an up-and-coming fantasy novel that gave the eagle deferential attention.
In 1965, twenty-seven years after Houghton Mifflin’s first publication of The Hobbit, Tolkien was still frustrated with his transatlantic counterparts. In a letter to Rayner Unwin, son of firm founder Stanley Unwin, Tolkien exclaimed, “I begin to feel that I am shut up in a madhouse. Perhaps with more experience you know of some way out of the lunatic labyrinth.” This statement referenced New York City’s Ballatine Books’s cover for their edition of The Hobbit, which featured a lion, two emus, and a tree with bulbous fruit. This cover being completely unrelated to the story’s plot, Tolkien was beside himself. Despite owing a great deal of his financial success to his American following, Tolkien never held anything but a lukewarm view towards the States. Stylistically impugning his artwork for The Hobbit exacerbated his brazen distaste for the American publishers’ handling of his work. Even though the two countries held a shared history and common language, stylistic differences in artwork were enough to alienate one of Britain’s most beloved twentieth-century authors from America.
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter [with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien], Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000, reprint.
Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000, reprint.
Ellen B. Ballou, The Building of the House: Houghton Mifflin’s Formative Years, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1970.
Lawrence P. Mellinger, “Symbolic Recovery: The Bald Eagle Soars Again,” in Natural Resources & Environment, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Spring 2008): 54-55.