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No other imagined world has generated as much illustration as The Lord of the Rings. Considering the sheer amount of artistic material to draw from, however, even before the live action adaptations came out in 2001, we already had a consensus “look” for Middle Earth in John Howe and Alan Lee’s paintings. Why the collective consensus for what Middle Earth should look like coalesced around these two has a host of factors, one being how prolific they were, how often they appeared on book covers and ancillary material, and the last being their obvious skill. Most later-day Tolkien artwork tends to follow their template. But there are multiple ways to interpret the text and it’s always a pleasure to move out from the soft edges and predominate greens of Lee and Howe to see alternative visions for the world.

Probably the best place to find these is A Tolkien Bestiary (1979). Quibble all you want with the content from David Day, who often gets criticized for poor research and making stuff up, but the bestiary is his finest work and is lavishly illustrated by artists who are not really known for their work representing Tolkien. The wildly differing styles manage to complement each other because they are so carefully-chosen to match their subject matter: meticulous stippling for the Riders of Rohan, jagged baroque ink for the landscapes of Mordor, flowing loose lines for the elves. This is a gorgeous showcase of very personal artistic takes on Middle Earth and I would love to see more like it – it left a huge impression on me as a teenager and remains my go-to example for impeccable art direction. The text is largely a secondary thing – there’s more colour to the descriptions than the thematically similar (and more accurate and exhaustive) Complete Tolkien Companion, but its real edge over other books of this type lies in layout and design.

The Tolkien Bestiary’s prime place in David Day’s career is evident from just how many times it’s been released under different titles (at least 8 from my last count) or repackaged through abridged editions that shuffle around the content and add maps or make formatting changes (An Atlas of Tolkien, The Heroes of Tolkien etc.). None manage to quite match the production excellence and beauty of the 1979 and 1984 editions.

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