Open a copy of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, any copy, and begin reading. It won't be long before Tolkien's words are conjuring strong images in your head. You can see the Black Riders pursuing Frodo, you can witness Boromir heroically struggling to save Merry and Pippin from the Uruk Hai, you can watch as Samwise fights against the control of the One Ring during his brief tenure as Ringbearer.
In 1991, Alan Lee was given the task of illustrating the Centenary Edition of the beloved trilogy. Open that book and Lee's artwork brings into focus a shared vision, a shared sense of feeling, and a shared love and appreciation for the words of the author. That stunning marriage of Tolkien's words and Lee's artistry remains the single most outstanding edition available, and it inspired filmmaker Peter Jackson when he sought to visually conceive his theatrical version of the story.
It should come as no surprise that Lee would be invited to work as a conceptual artist for Peter Jackson's production. Simply mentioning THE LORD OF THE RINGS eventually leads to mentioning Lee and his artwork. For six years, he produced thousands of sketches and designs for the films and earned an Academy Award for his art direction on The Return of the King.
Now, with THE LORD OF THE RINGS SKETCHBOOK, Lee takes us inside the process of creating works of art to be used in both book and film. Yet this is no dry, dull art book. The text Lee provides is concise and informative. He explains why things are designed the way they are, what inspired certain decisions, and a little bit about the creative process.
Every page of this book is filled with art. These are not just minor thumbnail sketches but fully realized and beautiful pencil drawings. Much like his paintings, of which you can also find a representative sample inside, Lee's pencil work is no less detailed or evocative of the raw power Tolkien's words provide. In many respects, these pencil drawings are all the more attractive. There is a complexity within their simplicity, and they emerge as shadows onto the page, recalling the bygone age of Middle Earth as if they came from that time.
Art students will enjoy this book for the work and for the peek into the mind of the most preeminent of Tolkien artists. Lovers of Tolkien's work, either in book form or in the guise of film, will also be taken with this book because of the beauty of the art inside, how they share a passion with the artist, and how his interpretations heighten our appreciation and immerse us in Middle Earth.
With over 150 sketches contained within, this by no means scratches the surface of the vast wealth of product Alan Lee could provide. And yet, in reading and rereading and studying what he has chosen to give us, we do not feel cheated in the least. THE LORD OF THE RINGS SKETCHBOOK is an outstanding snapshot of creativity that leaves us hoping that there will be more to come in some not-too-distant future, and that for Alan Lee and his depictions of Middle Earth, his road will go ever on and on.
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on October 19, 2005