Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Childish Imaginings and the Tyranny of Art

I hadn't thought about this in years, but a comment on a recent post reminded me that when I first read The Lord of the Rings I imagined orcs as having crocodile heads. It is hard to believe there was a time when I had not seen a Warhammer, Fighting Fantasy, or D&D orc. But obviously there was, and in my childish imaginings that was what they looked like.

This would have been in around 1990, I think, when I was still in primary school - about 9 years old. I had read The Hobbit some years before that, and had heard of The Lord of the Rings but had a vague sense it might be "scary". But, while I am not sure I knew there was such a thing as a "fantasy genre", I knew that I was drawn to that kind of book and I suppose it was inevitable that sooner or later I'd move on to reading the Rings trilogy. I remember the immediate trigger vividly: a friend of mine had taken The Fellowship of the Ring out from the library and was showing it to me in school. I don't think either of us yet understood there was a concept of a trilogy, and we probably thought the Rings books were like the Narnia ones; there was notionally an order, but you could read them as stand-alone pieces. So that night I went and got out The Two Towers and started from there.

(Starting The Lord of the Rings half-way through is an interesting experience: beginning in media res, there's a lot to figure out, but the narrative isn't harmed at all, and to this day I still think of the main characters of the trilogy as really being Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Gandalf and Merry and Pippin. Frodo and Sam's journey still somehow feels like a sideshow, because I was already caught up in the other branch of the plot - Helm's Deep and all that - before I even knew who Frodo was.)

Illustrations and art can be wonderful things but they can also, perversely, be very restrictive of the imagination. When I read a book I tend, like most people I suppose, to built a picture of what is going on in my mind's eye, but it's very hard to do this when an artist's vision has been imposed on you. The crocodile-head orcs were vivid to me once, but now I've seen a thousand pictures of orcs or various kinds, it's hard for me to think of them that way. Not impossible, but it requires mental effort. This problem is made infinitely worse when you've seen a film or televised version of a book: who now can read The Fellowship of the Ring and not picture Gandalf as Ian McKellan, Aragorn as Viggo Mortensen, and Legolas as a petrified piece of cardboard masquerading as an actor? I must have had a picture in my mind of all of these characters as a child, when I hadn't seen an artistic representation of any of them, but they're largely lost to me now.

The tyranny of art is a benevolent and beautiful dictatorship, but it is a dictatorship all the same. The images it conjures in your mind are not your own - they are a piece of the artist's imagination, etched into your brain. Much is gained from this, but some things, like the crocodile-head orcs or the non-McKellan Gandalf, are lost. This is why, sometimes, I wonder whether when it comes to art in RPG books, less is really more.

18 comments:

  1. I do think this is where a plethora of images can help, though. For example, I've seen far too many Captain Americas for Chris Evans's version to ever dominate. Same for Ents and Orcs.

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    1. Yeah, you could be right about that. Although in my experience the image in your head tends to be the one you saw most recently.

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  2. I've thought about this quite a lot, though I hadn't come up with a snappy name like "the tyranny of art".

    What interests me, in particular, is when you get a clash between what the book says and what the popular media interpretation shows. Examples include Frankenstein's monster having bolts through his neck and being made from stitched-together corpses (neither present in Shelley's book); Dracula being a suave middle-aged fellow in evening dress (rather than a wolfish and moustachioed old man dressed all in black); and, more recently, the Uruk-hai of Isengard being as tall or taller than most Men. All of those media images have become much more dominant than the original, to the extent that even people who've read the books will swear blind that those details are in the texts (or not in them, in the case of Dracula's moustache!).

    I have a *very* long blog post about the Orcish aspects of this in particular, which I really must finish ...

    Incidentally, I wonder if your croc-orcs were possible only because you started with The Two Towers and thus missed the broad, flat face of the orc-chieftain in The Fellowship of the Ring. The other thing that occurs to me (I think I suggested it last time you mentioned the croc-orcs - possibly in the comments on my blog) is that you might have been exposed to the Brothers Hildebrandt's odd but influential orc interpretations, which are at least a little crocodilian:

    https://i.pinimg.com/originals/1c/91/2f/1c912fd4b006be57a08ac9c55b176ceb.jpg

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    1. I have never seen that picture before but I do love it.

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  3. Only tangentially related, but I dislike all the cookie-cutter illustrations of Gollum (copied by Peter Jackson's movies). My favorite is Tove Jansson's illustration of Gollum in the old Finnish-language edition of The Hobbit.

    As for Tolkien's orcs, take a look at those painted by the Brothers Hildebrandt.

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    1. Those Jansson illustrations are fantastic! I had no idea!

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  4. This can be especially bad if when you read a book and the faces in your mind's eye are more indistinct sketches than photo-realistic images.

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    1. True. I can't remember what Tyrion Lannister looked like to me before I saw the TV series. It's just gone, he will forever resemble Peter Dinklage. And that for a favorite character.

      The vagueness of book faces is actually part of the fun, especially when they change during reading as you get further into the story and discover new things about characters that change your idea on them.

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    2. Yeah, constantly have to yell at my brain "younger dammit" when reading the books since the show actors are so much older.

      Also my mind's eye for fantasy is often hazy watercolor (especially the people).

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    3. This is one of the reasons I won't watch that series.

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  5. maybe your 10 yr mind associated 'croc' with 'orc' in some way?

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  6. My parents read The Hobbit to me when I was four or five in the German edition illustrated by Klaus Ensinkat. So this was orcs looked to me when I grew up:
    http://img-fan.theonering.net/~rolozo/images/ensikat/battle.jpg
    And this is how trolls looked:
    http://img-fan.theonering.net/~rolozo/images/ensikat/trolls.jpg

    Somehow even WarCraft (Two if anyone cares), which I started only some years later, did not really change that

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    1. Those are terrific illustrations - and they don't contradict anything in The Hobbit.

      I wonder if those samurai-style goblins were an influence on Sutherland's hobgoblins in the Monster Manual? They're very similar - and especially the Great Goblin in one of the other illustrations. That edition of The Hobbit was out six years before the Monster Manual.

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    2. I doubt it. Ensinkat lived and worked in the GDR at the time, and why should Sutherland have read an just 4 year old German version of the Hobbit?
      I suspect making evil races look "oriental", was just a thing back than.

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    3. Fabulous pictures, anyway.

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