Starting February 2014 this blog will be out of action.

But DO NOT DESPAIR. We've just moved, and you can still find the same riveting and informative posts that you have come to expect on our new blog:

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

The Battle of Five Armies.
 This is for me the quintessential battle of fantasy literature. While it lacks the apocalyptic quality of the battles that take place later in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it has within in it a truly wonderful classical feel blended with just enough fantasy to keep it both captivating and believable within the framework of the world. As a child, and even now when I read the Hobbit, I find myself wanting to see this moment happen when I get to this point in the story. Tolkien hints at it just enough that you find yourself imagining what it would be like to be in a battle between dwarves and goblins. And just when all these things have come together in your mind Tolkien presents this perfect scenario. The perfect fantastic battle. Wolves, Goblins, Goblins riding Wolves, Dwarves, Elves, Bats, Eagles, Men, a mountain of treasure and a gigantic, furious bear.

Tolkien does this same thing later in the Lord of the Rings, when the fellowship crosses through the Mines of Moria. He suggests the long-standing feud between the dwarves and the goblins. He lets the reader wonder on their own for pages, imagining that goblins are going to come out of any door at any moment. He lets the reader imagine the terror of the situation. Of being trapped underground, in the dark, with creatures that want to kill you. But he also lets you imagine the strategems that might have existed and that the dwarves might have used to defend themselves from the Goblins. The gatehouses, the bridges, the deep chasms. And then he even gives you a brief glimpse into the final moments of the last stand of the dwarves of Moria. And then, when your imagination has already run away with the idea of hordes of angry goblins storming the tunnels and things fouler than orcs in the deep places, he delivers that very thing we have been waiting for. The drums sound in the deep, and the Fellowship has to fight their way out of the same aweful place the Dwarves of Moria were killed in.
Moria is one of my favorite moments in Tolkien's writing and much of that is because it has such a wonderful build up leading up to it.

The Battle of Five Armies is very similar for me. By the time it happens, it has become everything you could hope for. Tolkien is also brilliant for how much of it he leaves to the readers imagination. How much restraint he uses. He sets it up, and then takes Bilbo, our narrator, out of it rather early on. The rest of the events we learn second-hand, and after the event, delivered by Gandalf, who tells it in a straightforward, wholly-understated, British manner. It reads like a Naval report from the Battle of the Nile. Or a battle scene from Le 'Morte d'Artur. By taking out the narrator early on, and then only telling the most necessary moments of the battle, he lets the reader to fill in the gaps with their imagination. He gives you just enough to go on so that you can imagine the rest of the world on your own.

I would venture that the lack of this sort of restraint was one of the chief reasons the new Star Wars were disappointing to many. In the first trilogy the worlds were only hinted at, and the viewer had to use their imagination for the rest of it. The viewer was given more of an opportunity to take part in the story. The space between the teller and the receiver was bigger and more interesting because more was left to the imagination. But in the new ones, it was more heavily weighted on teller, and less on the receiver, so the space between, the space where imagination is demanded, was diminished. I suspect that this was because in the new ones they could finally fully realize everything. They had the technology, the budget and the ability to show you everything. Now, as opposed to talking in ominous tones about the spice mines of Kessel and letting you imagine the horrors there, they would actually show you. I think that the restraint that the old films had by necessity actually made them more charming and is why they struck such a wonderful chord with everyones imagination in a way that the new ones, visually stunning as they are, don't quite seem to do.

It is mostly because of Tolkien's expert handling of the Battle of Five Armies, that it leaves me with all kinds of moments that I want to depict in this scene. He uses a great deal of restraint in his telling, and I think that makes for better art. But it will be difficult for me to do likewise. My temptation is to do what Lucas did, and to try and fully realize everything without leaving enough to the viewer's imagination. There are so many moments in this part that I want to depict. There are soo many great possibilities. It will be very difficult to pick which moments to include and which ones to leave out.


  1. I think if you can show the charge of beorn, give a sense of the peril and courage of Thorin and his honor guard, and then just have a sense of the other armies and the landscape in the background, it will be more than enough. I'm excited to see it develop!

  2. What I find really interesting is how, visually at least, you've really hinged on Beorn-- which isn't the hook my imagination hangs on at first-- I like to think of it from above, the different armies advancing like different coloured ants.

  3. You are so right about the storytelling of Tolkien. Moria is also a favorite passage of mine just because he always hints of this grand old dwarven city and culture. And by following the fellowship we also follow the rise and fall of Khazad Dum. Brilliant.

    I like stories that really can depict the small moments before the climax. The dialog and interaction before the grand moment. Building up visions and expectations in the reader/viewers mind. Then there is actually no need to show the battle or the great speach. I must say that Aaron Sorkin does this very well in West Wing.

    In the case of your artwork for the Battle of the Five Armies. Choosing moments or characters can be hard, the first thing I saw in my head was the same as mordicai, a scene from above, an eagle in the foreground, battle clashing down below, segmented armies, and thumbnails in the corners of the piece depicting different moments, Beorn, Thorin, Wargs and so on. Kind of a poster or collage.

    Another great scene would be the moment the great stone wall falls and Thorin and his soldiers charges out in the battle. The eye should be behind Thorin looking down on the fight with somekind of highlight on the Great Goblin.

    Ooooor, the moment the Eagles appear. Looking down from the mountain with Bilbo in the foreground shouting "the Eagles are coming!". Goblins climbing up the mountain side. Falling down.

    Are you going to do one or more images from the Battle?

  4. For now I am only going to do one shot from the Battle. There is certainly a wealth of great illustration opportunities here, and I will probably end up doing stuff inspired by this later on again, but for now I am just going to stick to this one scene. (Though you are right that the scene where Thorin bursts from the gate would be awesome, and so would Beorne throwing down Bolg.)

    Another scene that I have always been drawn to in this passage is the scene where Thorin tells Bilbo that he would take back the things he said and did to Bilbo at the gate and would have them part as friends before he dies. That has always been a great moment, and I am tempted to do that one some day as well.

  5. Would it be wrong to suggest a triptych? Ooh, my legs go all wobbly at the thought.

  6. I think you are right on. Good insight on Star Wars as well.
    This is random, but would it be possible for you to explain in more detail your "secret mask" technique from your illustration 2008 brushes demo video. I've watched it a few times over, but I guess I'm too dense to understand what exactly you are doing and how you set it all up...
    Thanks in advance.
    I'm loving all the Hobbit work you are posting!

  7. Very profound comments on Tolkein's storytelling. When I first read the Battle of Five Armies in the Hobbit, I pictured the armies practically clinging to the rocks and fighting for their lives. And if you see it from Bilbo's perspective, it seems almost hazy and surreal, yet laced with terror. I mean, Hobbits aren't really cut out to be warriors anyway, are they?
    I can't wait to see what happens with this piece, and I really like the way you're centering it around Beorn.
    Keep it up!

  8. Well said Justin.
    I agree completely. Before the LOTR movies came out I read the trilogy every year for years and the Moria bit was always one of my favourite parts.
    Following Tolkien's example and leaving room in the art for the viewers participation will be challenging.

  9. Justin, isn't it Beorn that rescues Thorin from the battle? That's why I suggested putting him in.

  10. You draw far too much attention to yourself "Mister Underhill." Actually Underhill, a triptych is very tempting. I hadn't thought of that for this one...