European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

08 November 2021

Tove Jansson’s illustrations for Carroll and Tolkien

Naturally, we tend to focus on the Anglosphere legacies of English-language literary classics, but when it comes to fantasy fiction, like the works of Lewis Carroll and J. R. R. Tolkien, their international reception and illustrated editions are very much part of the phenomena. The worlds evoked transcend age- and language-barriers, with illustrations often inflected by specific geographical, cultural and historical contexts, given the genre’s endless capacity for reinterpretation.

Mosaic of covers of new acquisitions of works illustrated by Tove Jansson

Covers of new acquisitions of works illustrated by Tove Jansson

The Library has recently acquired a number of books illustrated by the genius that was Tove Jansson - the Finnish-Swedish creator of the Moomins, and also ‘novelist, short-story-writer, memoirist, painter, illustrator and cartoonist’, as the volume Tove Jansson Rediscovered importantly underlines. These acquisitions include translations of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, Alice in Wonderland, and Tolkien’s The Hobbit, as well as a 1946 issue of the short-lived journal Litteratur, Konst, Teater.

Image accompanying Roger Richard’s poem ‘The Sleeping Woman’

Image accompanying Roger Richard’s poem ‘The Sleeping Woman’ / Den sovande kvinnan in Litteratur, Konst, Teater 1946, RF.2021.a.10

Jansson’s work never departs from view for too long in the UK’s cultural events landscape, as evidenced by the recent exhibition and walking trail at Walthamstow Wetlands and The William Morris Gallery, or by the big-budget Moomins animation, or the 2017-18 Jansson retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery. This goes alongside the stream of reissues, biographies, edited scholarly volumes and translations, including Letters from Tove and Tove Jansson: life, art, words: the authorised biography, both translations published by Sort Of Books in the last decade. Unattributed quotations in this blog are taken from the latter.

Tove Jansson’s illustration for the cover of Solveig von Schoultz’s Nalleresan (Teddy Bears’ Journey)

Tove Jansson’s illustration for the cover of Solveig von Schoultz’s Nalleresan (Teddy Bears’ Journey), originally 1944, here the 2007 facsimile reprint, YF.2008.a.5876

While Jansson illustrated a dozen or so books early in her career, she would devote most of her illustrative output to her own iconic creation. That is, apart from when the opportunities to illustrate Carrol and later Tolkien were presented to her. Unable to resist collaborating with publisher and translator, Åke Runnquist, and co-translator, Lars Forsell, on a book of ‘pure modern nonsense verse’, Jansson accepted the commission for The Hunting of the Snark (Snarkjakten) in 1958 and it was published a year later.

Jansson’s illustration for ‘The Hunt’ (‘Jakten’) from Snarkjakten

Jansson’s illustration of ‘The Beaver’s Lesson’ (‘Bäverns läxa’) from Snarkjakten

Jansson’s illustrations for the sections, ‘The Hunt’ (‘Jakten’) and ‘The Beaver’s Lesson’ (‘Bäverns läxa’) from Snarkjakten, RF.2021.a.7

While it wasn’t reprinted, the publishers deemed the collaboration a success, with the illustrations considered of the ‘highest class’. Jansson had not seen the original illustrations by Henry Holiday and their respective styles could not be more different, evident in their interpretations of ‘The Landing’ (‘Landstigningen’), the first “fit”, or part of the poem (rendered frossbrytning in the Swedish, almost a fit of shivering, or chill).

Henry Holiday’s original illustration of ‘The Landing’

Tove Jansson’s illustration of ‘The Landing’

Henry Holiday’s original illustration (above) and Tove Jansson’s (below) of ‘The Landing’

Jansson depicted a cast of large-eyed, long-snouted moominesque figures in contrast to Holiday’s caricatured, large-headed humans, both bringing the absurd to life in their own ways.

The year after the publication of Snarkjakten, Jansson received a letter from the author of Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren, who aimed to entice her fellow author to illustrate a new Swedish translation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit (Bilbo: En Hobbits Åventyr, RF.2021.a.8). Much has been written on Jansson’s illustrations by Tolkien fans and much of it critical of her inventive departure from the author’s descriptions. For Jansson, it was a chance to move away from the Moomin figures, while building on affinities between her own world and Tolkien’s landscape, what she describes as ‘Forests of living horror, coal-black rivers, moonlit moors with fiery wolves – a whole world of catastrophe […]’.

Bilbo surveys the Misty Mountains

Bilbo surveys the Misty Mountains

Indeed, Tove’s hopes to capture the dark immensity of Tolkien’s world were slightly clipped by Lindgren and the publishers, as they wanted it to be situated firmly within children’s literature and for it to make Bilbo more prominent and therefore less awed by his environment. The world of catastrophe had to be seen as navigable to the book’s young readers.

Gollum according to Tove Jansson

Gollum according to Tove Jansson

One particular bone of contention for Tolkien fans is the depiction of Gollum, who is nothing like the later film’s rendering. Jansson shows us a friendlier, perhaps more human figure, twice the size of the Gollum we can all picture. All in all, as Westin puts it, many readers ‘saw Jansson, where they would have preferred Tolkien’. The book was no success by any objective measure and only one edition appeared.

Bear vignette from The Hobbit

Bear vignette from The Hobbit

Whatever superfans make of the fidelity of the illustrations, they are undoubtedly fine achievements, down to the small vignettes used to head chapters, figures which Jansson drew iteratively ’20, 40, 60 times till it looked fairly free’ and then glued them together, giving them a real dynamism.

Alice down the Rabbit-Hole

Alice down the Rabbit-Hole

The lack of reception for her Hobbit illustrations might have stunted the desire to collaborate on works that were not her own. Jansson was however drawn back to Carroll in 1965, this time Runnquist’s translation of Alice in Wonderland (Alice I Underlandet, RF.2021.a.9), Carroll’s original manuscript of which we hold here at the BL. Like what she found compelling in Tolkien, Jansson read Alice as a ‘horror’, telling Runnquist, ‘the story is terrifying and can in no way be seen as an idyll, but it causes shivers of pleasure’. The translator however could not agree and sought something altogether more pleasant.

Alice, cat and bats in the tall grass

Alice, cat and bats in the tall grass

The horror is still there in Jansson’s illustrations, in the uncanny, magnified or magnifying underworld, as the artist gives pictorial life to Carroll’s inherently uneasy and confounding fantasy. Jansson’s use of colour, often rendered quite light on the page, makes them almost dreamlike.

Alice encounters a blue caterpillar on a mushroom

Alice encounters a blue caterpillar on a mushroom

Runnquist hailed the work as a masterpiece. As Mikiko Chimiori writes, Jansson captures the ‘the transitional period between childhood and adolescence’, often proving ‘even more imaginative and fantastic than the original’. To understand that comment, we should bear in mind that the ‘original’ was illustrated by Carroll himself, with engravings by John Tenniel for the published first edition, illustrations which Jansson herself thought definitive.

The Mock-Turtle’s Story

The Mock-Turtle’s Story

Tove Jansson was a prolific and multitalented writer and artist rightly best known for her Moomins but quickly becoming so much more than that in our cultural landscape, such is the richness and continued relevance of her oeuvre.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections 

Further Reading:

Tove Jansson, Letters from Tove, edited by Boel Westin and Helen Svensson, translated by Sarah Death, 2019, ELD.DS.463620

Boel Westin, Tove Jansson: life, art, words: the authorised biography, translated by Silvester Mazzarella, 2018, YK.2018.a.7552

Wayne G. Hammond & Christina Scull, The art of the Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (London, 2011), LC.31.a.13046

Maria Popova, ‘Vintage Illustrations for Tolkien’s The Hobbit from Around the World’

Mikiko Chimori, ‘Tove Jansson’s Alice Illustrations’, in Tove Jansson Rediscovered, ed. by Kate McLoughlin and Malin Lindström Brock (Cambridge, 2007), m08/.23195

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