As always, dear readers, welcome.
I’ve never polled anyone on this, but I’m willing to bet that most people are visually-oriented. Certainly, in my experience, students always learn better when they have lots of images to go on and I know that this is true for me, as well. It’s one thing, for example, to read Jonathan Harker’s description in Dracula of what he observed below him:
“What I saw was the Count’s head coming out from the window. I did not see the face, but I knew the man by the neck and the movement of his back and arms. In any case I could not mistake the hands which I had had so many opportunities of studying. I was at first interested and somewhat amused, for it is wonderful how small a matter will interest and amuse a man when he is a prisoner. But my very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow; but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.” (Dracula, Chapter III)
It’s another to see it visualized in this Marvel Classics comic book—
or, even better done, I think, by Fritz Schwimbeck (1889-1972) in this early-20th century depiction.
(If you don’t have a copy of Dracula, Project Gutenberg has one of the original 1897 American edition at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/345/345-h/345-h.htm . If you would like to see more of Schwimbeck’s definitely odd work, the wonderfully-named Monster Brains has a selection: https://monsterbrains.blogspot.com/2021/02/fritz-schwimbeck-1889-1972.html )
Illustrations of Tolkien’s work interest me in particular. There’s a huge amount of it—rather like fan fiction—with everything on-line from amateur drawings inspired by the Jackson films, some very skillfully done, to professional art. Using last week’s posting, where I talked about two possible influences from earlier literary works on the scene between Eowyn and the chief Nazgul, as a basis, I thought that I would examine a few such depictions, thinking out loud about the artists’ choices of focus and elements to include in their presentation.
We should begin, as those artists did, with the scene as painted by the author. There’s a lot to take in, so I’ll try to stick to the most important points, as I see them, from the standpoint of illustration. So that I don’t need to repeat the references, with the exception of the depiction of the original lighting (from the end of The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 5, “The Ride of the Rohirrim”), all the rest of the detail is from Chapter 6, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”.
First, there’s the general setting:
“Theoden…had reached the road from the Gate to the River, and he turned towards the City that was now less than a mile distant…Ahead nearer the walls Elfhelm’s men were among the siege-engines…”
So, as a backdrop, there, potentially, are the walls of Minas Tirith. What about the lighting? Initially, it was this:
“For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed…”
“The new morning was blotted from the sky.”
This is the arrival of the chief of the Nazgul, who kills Snowmane, Theoden’s horse, and Theoden is pinned underneath him. That chief is riding a very peculiar mount:
“…it was a winged creature: if bird, then greater than all other birds, and it was naked, and neither quill nor feather did it bear, and its vast pinions were as webs of hide between horned fingers…Down, down it came…and settled upon the body of Snowmane, digging in its claws, stooping its long naked neck.”
Its rider is all menace:
“Upon it sat a shape, black-mantled, huge and threatening. A crown of steel he bore, but between rim and robe naught was there to see, save only a deadly gleam of eyes…A great black mace he wielded.”
At first, we might think that Theoden is alone, trapped under his horse:
“The knights of his house lay slain about him, or else mastered by the madness of their steeds were borne far away.”
But there is one survivor: “Yet one stood there still: Dernhelm…”
And there is another:
“Right through the charge Merry had been borne unharmed behind him, until the Shadow came; and then Windfola had thrown them in his terror, and now ran wild upon the plain. Merry crawled on all fours like a dazed beast…”
Now the scene is set for the action to come:
“There some paces from him sat the great beast, and all seemed dark about it, and above it loomed the Nazgul Lord…A little to the left facing them stood she whom he had called Dernhelm. But the helm of her secrecy had fallen from her, and her bright hair, released from its bonds, gleamed with pale gold upon her shoulders…A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy’s eyes.”
Merry isn’t long at center stage: “Slowly, slowly he began to crawl aside…”
There is a brief pause, then:
“Suddenly the great beast beat its hideous wings…Again it leaped into the air, and then swiftly fell down upon Eowyn, shrieking, striking with beak and claw.”
This turns out to be an ill-judged move as:
“A swift stroke she dealt, skilled and deadly. The outstretched neck she clover asunder, and the hewn head fell like a stone. Backward she sprang as the huge shape crashed to ruin, vast wings outspread, crumpled on the earth, and with its fall the shadow passed away. A light fell about her, and her hair shone in the sunrise.”
“Out of the wreck rose the Black Rider, tall and threatening, towering above her. With a cry of hatred…he let fall his mace. Her shield was shivered in many pieces, and her arm was broken; she stumbled to her knees. He bent over her like a cloud, and his eyes glittered; he raised his mace to kill.”
And reenter the unnoticed Merry:
“But suddenly he too stumbled forward with a cry of bitter pain, and his stroke went wide, driving into the ground. Merry’s sword had stabbed him from behind, shearing through the black mantle, and passing up beneath the hauberk had pierced the sinew behind his mighty knee.”
When Eowyn completes his downfall:
“Then tottering, struggling up, with her last strength she drove her sword between crown and mantle, as the great shoulders bowed before her. The sword broke sparkling into many shards. The crown rolled away with a clang. Eowyn fell forward upon her fallen foe. But lo! The mantle and hauberk were empty. Shapeless they lay now on the ground, torn and tumbled…”
This is obviously too much to incorporate in one picture (it takes two minutes and twenty-three seconds in the Jackson film version), but here could be the major elements of such an image:
1. the mile-away city as a backdrop
2. Theoden under his horse
3. the Nazgul on his beast
4. Eowyn standing in front of him
5. Merry lurking to one side
What choices, then, will a selection of artists make and which part of the action will they portray?
There are, in fact, heaps of illustrations to choose from, but, in the interests of space—and maybe sanity—I’ve narrowed it down to about a half-dozen, which I’ve selected as a mixture of mostly early and later depictions and all but one of which I believe to be among the most convincing. As is my usual policy, rather than criticize (there is much too much of that on the internet, so much of it uninformed ranting), I just want to observe and comment.
Let’s begin with this, which I’d guess is the oldest, by the Hildebrandts.
As you can see, it’s the moment when Eowyn is about to remove the flying beast from the scene. In terms of the setting, it’s missing Theoden under Snowmane, as well as the city in the distance, and Merry isn’t visible, everything being focused upon the bravery of Eowyn—but you’ll notice that the light has already reappeared, when the text specifically says that it only did after the beheading of the beast.
Our second image, and probably the second oldest, is by Frank Frazetta, known now mainly for his depictions of very lush women. I almost didn’t add this, fearing that some of my readers might think it a bit over the top, but, as I was determined to employ a number of professional artists, it seemed important to include it.
This seems to me one of the most basic depictions, focusing entirely on only two figures, Eowyn and the Nazgul, who has had his crown replaced with a helmet, and leaving out any background, Theoden under Snowmane, the beast, and Merry. Eowyn is dressed in very impractical armor and is still wearing her (equally impractical) helmet. In contrast to the Hildebrants’ heroic view, this appears to show a defeated Eowyn, which, to me, misses the main point of the scene as the author presented it.
A third early illustration is by Angus McBride, who was primarily a military artist with a strong interest in ancient and medieval wars and armies. Here’s his depiction of a Celtic chieftain in his chariot, for example.
And here’s his version of our scene.
If we count up the elements—Theoden under Snowmane, the Nazgul on his beast, a helmetless Eowyn (with the most convincing armor and shield—a proper mail hauberk and the white horse of Rohan on that shield), and Merry crawling in the foreground—not to mention Eowyn’s defiant pose—this strikes me as one of the images which is most faithful to the text.
We are lucky to have not one, but two illustrations by Ted Nasmith.
It’s always the case with Nasmith’s work that he is a very careful reader of Tolkien and both of these illustrations show the care with which he approaches a scene. Although Theoden isn’t visible in the first, or the city, you’ll see both in the second and in both the Nazgul with beast, alive or dead, a defiant Eowyn, and Merry, sword in hand, in the foreground, just in sight.
As I’ve said, there are numerous versions of this scene, but I’ll include two more. The first is by Donato Giancola and fits very nicely into the same careful approach as those of McBride and Nasmith.
Here we see the walls, Theoden and Snowmane, the Nazgul and dead beast, the helmetless Eowyn, and a small Merry poised to deliver his deadly blow.
The last is by the prolific Russian illustrator, Denis Gordeev.
No Minas Tirith, no Theoden and Snowmane, but definitely the Nazgul and part of the beast, Merry slipping up behind and what I suspect was, for the artist, the point of his depiction: the defiant, helmetless Eowyn.
So, dear readers, which of these is—or are—most memorable for you?
Thanks, as ever, for reading,
Strike skilled and deadly strokes,
And know that, as always, there’s