The History of Virgil Finlay's drawing for J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The Hobbit'

Taken from
Virgil Finlay's illustration for J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit , 1963[4].

J.R.R. Tolkien was a distinctive philologist, but is remembered foremost by many people as the author of a number of wonderful books [1], among which the notoriously famous The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.

Being a talented artist [2] himself, Tolkien was very conscious about the drawings that accompanied his stories. The many editions that have appeared of his books are often illustrated by famous artists, but capturing the spirit of Middle-earth is evidently a challenging task.

In January 1963 Tolkien's American publisher, Houghton Mifflin, wanted to publish an edition of The Hobbit with illustrations by an artist other than Tolkien himself [2]. Although Tolkien and his English Publisher, Allen & Unwin, agreed with Houghton Mifflin in principle, all parties found it hard to choose an artist.

A sample picture for an American edition of The Hobbit was obtained from Virgil Finlay. Tolkien seemed to have approved the picture. In a letter to Joy Hill (11 October 1963) [3] he wrote about the picture by Finlay.

Tolkien thought that Bilbo's rather rotund and babyish and anxious face was in keeping with his character to that point in the story.Tolkien however also found the general treatment rather heavier and more violent and airless than he liked.

Although Tolkien did not reject Virgil Finlay, and even favoured Finlay's illustration after seeing some of the illustrations used in translations of The Hobbit, Finlay apparently did not make any more drawings or sketches. Instead, Maurice Sendak was to illustrate the edition of The Hobbit, which in the end never happened [3].

The illustration has been published in (amongst others):

It may be noted that the Eagle on the right shows great resemblance to an eagle in an illustration by Finlay for 'Silence is Deadly' by Lloyd Biggle Jr, 1957, first published in 'If' October 1957. The most likely source of the illustration is 'Staked Out In The Desert' by Mort Künstler, used as a cover for 'True Adventures', March 1957. This is also supported by the choice of the other bird, which resembles a vulture.

In 1964, Tolkien had the oppurtunity to see more art by Virgil Finlay in the book Swords and Sorcery. The book was a presentation copy given to J.R.R. Tolkien by L. Sprague de Camp in July 1964.


  1. H. Carpenter, Tolkien, a biography, George Allen & Unwin, 1977.
  2. W.G. Hammond and C. Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator, HarperCollinsPublishers,1995.
  3. W.G. Hammond and D.A. Anderson, J.R.R. Tolkien - A Descriptive Bibliography, St Paul's Bibliographies, 1993.
  5. The Tolkien Society