On tools to strengthen a child’s resourcefulness – An interview with Alan Lee

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This year sees the 60th anniversary of UK’s ‘Oscar’ for distinguished illustration in a book for children, the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal and as part of the celebrations, the 1994 winner, Black Ships Before Troy written by Rosemary Sutcliffe and illustrated by Alan Lee is being re-issued. Today (June 1) is publication day and I’m marking the occasion with a very special interview.

Alan Lee and his CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal winning book

As well as being held in high esteem by those passionate about brilliant books for children, Alan Lee is widely regarded as one of the best fantasy illustrators working today and his name is synonymous with illustrated editions of J. R. R. Tolkien’s work. It was Alan’s illustrated Tolkien centenary edition of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ which caught the eye of film director Peter Jackson ultimately leading to Alan winning an Academy Award (Best Art Direction) at the Oscars in 2004 for his role as one of the lead concept artists on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

In the run up to the re-issue of Black Ships Before Troy I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview Alan about his life, focussing on his book illustration work, and today I’m incredibly happy and honoured to share with you our extended conversation.

Alan Lee grew up on a council estate near Uxbridge in Middlesex (what is now the Western fringes of London). Although he had few books at home as he grew up, visits to local libraries (including a mobile library) were a regular, indeed an “essential” feature of his childhood and the books he discovered on his trips left imprints which have stayed with him all his life.

Here I met the Borrowers and discovered the Mary Norton’s Magic Bedknob and John Buchan’s Magic Walking Stick, along with retellings of The Arabian Nights and, most memorably, Bullfinches Mythology. This opened up a whole new world – several new worlds, as it contained all the major Greek myths, the Arthurian stories and those of Charlemagne and other medieval legendary and historical heroes. This led on to a search for similar stories, and I found the Oxford Myths and Legends series, by Barbara Leonie Picard, Gwyn Jones and others, and books by Roger Lancelyn Green on Arthur and Robin Hood.

Having the opportunity to make one’s own choices about books is hugely important in developing a lasting love of stories, but personal recommendation and encouragement can also play an powerful role in encouraging young readers. For Alan, one such person was a teacher in his primary school who, one day, invited Alan to look through a shelf of books and pick one.

I picked out a retelling of the Pilgrim’s Progress (I think it was part of the Highroads of Literature series.) To my surprise she told me I could keep it. I think the Christian allegory passed me by, but the potent words “Giant Despair”, “Doubting Castle” and “Valley of the Shadow of Death” satisfied an incipient Gothic strain in my imagination.

Other stories which Alan especially enjoyed as a child included ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ and ‘Moby Dick’ but the written word wasn’t the only source feeding Alan’s imagination; not surprisingly a good proportion of the books Alan loved as a child were illustrated and soon Alan began enjoying drawing, inspired at least partially by what he read.

Most of my drawings and paintings were on cardboard salvaged from packaging – the highest quality being the beautiful pieces of white card that separated layers of shredded wheat. Strangely, I don’t remember ever having asked for art materials, or even suggesting that my mother buy shredded wheat more often – I would just watch with heightened interest as she emptied her bags of shopping. My pocket money was spent on Saturday – Saturday morning pictures, a couple of toy soldiers – either knights or Vikings – and some pencils or crayons if I was running short. My father’s sister, aunt Eva, had an artistic flair and she gave me art materials for my birthdays and at Christmas. One year it was oil paints – two tubes, red and blue, which gave rise to my purple period. She also gave me some well chosen books. One of these – the New Encyclopaedia for the Younger Generation – made a big impact as it was so well illustrated. The drawings, done in wildly differing styles by a number of highly skilled artists, were aimed at stimulating the imagination rather than just being accurate, and they exposed me for the first time to the idea that a picture can be more than just one thing. It can tell a story, give you information, and be a pleasing arrangement of shapes and colours. A map of Australia is also an image of a rabbit about to eat a carrot; the organs of the human body are also a Heath-Robinsonish factory.

Reading, drawing and imaginative play all played a huge role in Alan’s childhood. In words which were music to my Playing-by-the-book ears, Alan recalls, “play was where the ideas and fantasies from the books I read extended into my imaginative life, and creative play also found expression in drawing. I played by myself quite a lot – creating vast landscapes in our back garden, digging underground camps, building castles out of cereal packets and cardboard tubes (held together with a paste made from flour by my mother) and artistic efforts were similarly improvised.

Alan’s play and exploration also took him out into the open space beyond his home and garden. He grew up right on the edge of the green belt, a short walk away from an area known as Little Britain, which was a labyrinth of rivers and canals,”a graveyard for old narrow boats and coal barges, which we would release from their moorings and punt up and down the canal“, flooded gravel pits, woods and orchards, “which would have been a paradise for any child if it were not for the counterbalancing presence of semi industrial areas, fenced off and guarded by ferocious Alsatians, pig farms and slaughterhouses, and gangs of youths from other villages. So my memories of it are as much about crawling through scrubland, with air rifle pellets whizzing over my head as they are about wandering through a beautiful, elemental landscape.“.

The love of myths, the delight in creating art and exploring wild landscapes all seemed to start young in Alan. Another thread laid down young that would continue through to Alan’s adult life was a sense of the magic films can create through another medium of storytelling.

When we got our first TV set there was a whole new visual world of Cowboys, crossbowmen and greenwood archery to be inspired by, but the most memorable moment was being allowed to stay up late and watch the Thief of Baghdad. I was completely enraptured by the exoticism, the Genies, living statues, giant spiders and magic carpets. All of this became a fantastic resource which has stayed with me my whole life.

Alan lived quite near to Pinewood studios and remembers “cycling down a quiet Buckinghamshire lane and seeing palm trees, an Egyptian obelisk and part of a temple on the other side of the hedge [probably part of the film set for Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor]. There were nearby woods that were also frequently used by film makers and all of these added to the sense of a landscape as a place where stories are generated.

I do wonder what that young Alan would have said if someone that day had told him he would one day win an Oscar for his work in films. He certainly never thought he would end up making a living based on his love of stories and creating art.

I relished any illustration that showed particularly strong draughtsmanship, but despite this, and my own love of drawing, the idea that I may have anything to do with art, or make a living as an illustrator just didn’t occur to me. I failed the 11 plus and went to a secondary modern school – Greenway – in Uxbridge, but at 13 I was handed a list of technical subjects that I could specialize in, and on that list was Art. This was a revelation; the idea that I could spend more than an hour a week drawing and painting, and which also meant transferring to another school was like unexpectedly being offered parole. (I was at a particularly tough school) There was another exam, which I must have passed, and then I moved to Manor Secondary Modern in Ruislip, where I was able to spend about a quarter of my time in the art room, with the very gentle and patient Mr Morgan. I made good progress, alongside a talented little cohort of fellow students, and passed my A-level in Art at 15, and then moved on to Ealing School of Art at 16.

This was a very different environment; two years before Alan’s arrival, a radical and influential experiment in art education had begun at Ealing Art College. Known as the “Groudcourse”, led by Roy Ascott with a team of artists including R B Kitaj and Anthony Benjamin, it was an attempt to revolutionize art education.

There was some drawing, sculpture and colour theory, but the thrust of the course was an examination of processes and feedback systems. The idea was to strip away everything that we thought we knew about art which, for me, wasn’t a lot as I felt I’d only just got started. I was still making narrative pictures and cartoons. But this was in my spare time, at home; anything resembling an illustration at college would have provoked scorn. It was a stimulating environment, and I enjoyed the new friendships and the atmosphere, but it wasn’t until I’d taken a year out and returned later to study Graphic Design that I felt really encouraged to throw myself into drawing and illustrating again.

A selection of book covers illustrated by Alan Lee

Book covers formed the bulk of Alan’s early book illustration career (click here for an illustrated round up) but in 1978, in collaboration with Brian Froud, Faeries became Alan’s first fully illustrated book to be published. The next 10 years saw the publication of ‘The Mabinogian’ (translated by Lady Charlotte Guest, 1982), ‘Castles’ (written by David Day, 1984) ‘The Mirrorstone’ (written by Michael Palin, artwork created in collaboration with Richard Seymour, 1986) ‘The Moon’s Revenge’ (written by Joan Aiken, 1987) and ‘Merlin Dreams’ (written by Peter Dickinson, 1988), which was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal for that year.

Alan Lee’s fully illustrated non-Tolkien books, in addition to Black Ships Before Troy, and including The Wandering of Odysseus (written by Rosemary Sutcliffe, 1995) and Shapeshifters (written by Adrian Mitchell, 2009)

Five years later Black Ships Before Troy was published to tremendous acclaim. The Times Educational Supplement said, “A magnificent achievement… if ever a book was unputdownable, whether by an adult or a child, it is this one… it bears the unmistakeable mark of a masterpiece of children’s literature” and indeed this wonderful book did go on to win one of the accolades that undeniably confirms a book as a masterpiece – it won the overall Kate Greenaway Medal for 1993.

Excerpt from Black Ships Before Troy, written by Rosemary Sutcliffe and illustrated by Alan Lee

Judges at the time described this work as “strong but sensitive… We were impressed and often very moved by the pale haunting colours, the dynamism and immediacy and the dignified depiction of carnage.”

What had it been like to illustrate stories which Alan had so long been in love with, and how did he make his choices about how to illustrate them?

I had always loved the Odyssey and the Iliad and am a huge admirer of Rosemary Sutcliff, so it wasn’t a difficult choice when I was offered the chance to illustrate her texts. Years before, I had contributed to a book called Once Upon a Time, which was a collection of fairytale and fantasy illustrations by a newer generation of illustrators. At that stage I hadn’t much appropriate work in my portfolio, so I contributed five illustrations for potential books, rather than books I had already done. These included the Mabinogion, Norse mythology and the Odyssey.

As to choices about the illustration, as much as I like the simple format of the full page colour plate opposite a page of text, I really relish the challenge of creating an interplay of text and image, so that the experience of reading becomes enhanced by the immediate juxtaposition of these complimentary elements. Creating a frieze for the first spread in each chapter helped to ground it in a tradition, while the varying sizes and approaches in the pictures around the text was one of my ways of playing with the varying dynamics of the story.

Excerpt from Black Ships Before Troy, written by Rosemary Sutcliffe and illustrated by Alan Lee

In Alan’s acceptance speech for the Kate Greenaway Medal he spoke powerfully about what he believes myths like those in Black Ships Before Troy offer their readers, especially younger readers:

I believe that children who become familiar with myth will be better protected against … tyrannies and distortions… We should be happy to see the need for fantasy and magic satisfied, because [myths] can act as tools to strengthen a child’s resourcefulness. While in fairytale the choices presented to the protagonists are conceived in very simple terms.. in myth the shading is much more subtle and the dilemmas presented closer to those we will have to face ourselves.

In the story of the Trojan war there are no out-and-out villains. Both sides have their share of the brave, the wise, the vain and the foolish… This stands in powerful contrast to so much that we offer children today through film and television, which encourages them to think that being on the wrong side wipes out your value as a human being, and the being right is a licence to kill.

This photo originally appeared in Library Association Record (LAR), 1994 August, p 434 (No photographer credited). By courtesy of CILIP.

It saddens me immensely that a generation later, Alan’s observation on how good and evil are portrayed in the media is still all too relevant, as if nothing has been learned. What buoys me, however, is this idea that stories, and myths in particular, are tools we can offer ourselves and especially our children, to find nourishment, to navigate their lives by, to bolster their (our) resourcefulness and resilience through tough times. This belief is certainly at the heart of what drives our own family’s playing by the book; like Leo Leonni’s Frederic, we store away good and interesting stories – in words and images – to nourish and nurture us, and Alan’s illustrations are most certainly part of our treasure trove we draw upon.

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For several years following the original publication of Black Ships Before Troy work on films dominated Alan’s life, but he now spends much more time illustrating books once again. He’s recently finished illustrating Beren and Lúthien, restored from Tolkien’s manuscripts and presented for the first time as a continuous and standalone story, edited by Christopher Tolkien.

What are Alan’s working days like now after several years in the hurly-burly of working on one of the film events of the century?

An average working day will usually start with a walk – these days a short steep one, rather than a long amble – before breakfast, which is egg on toast in front of my laptop, then, in summer, out to my studio, which is a converted barn at the back of the house. It’s hard to keep it warm in the winter and I also have a study/ studio upstairs in the house where I have a drawing board and my desktop computer. I’ll break up the day with little excursions into the village or for another walk, but otherwise I’ll keep working into the evening. I listen to radio 4 or 3 most of the time, supplemented with selections from my collection of Argentinian tango music. I did listen to a lot of Jazz at one time – Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday, and folk ballads by June Tabor, but found after a while that it was all so emotionally charged that I wasn’t able to keep my attention on my work. I find that I need silence to make a decision, or to work out out some complex element, and then something quietly engaging to reduce the tension and allow the more routine part of the work to flow, and those gentle and amusing radio 4 voices are perfect for that.

I’m curious if Alan’s methods and preferred media have changed over the course of his career.

My analogue work is [still] all watercolour, pencil or charcoal; the quality of the watercolour paper is very important, and my best work is done on handmade papers which are no longer made, though I still have a small supply of papers that date from the nineteen sixties, seventies and eighties, and some from the 1890’s. I began working on computers, in photoshop, when working in new Zealand on the Lord of the Rings films. It was the best environment in which to learn the process, as I had some very skilled digital artists to turn to when I couldn’t figure something out. It is now a very useful tool, and especially so for enabling me to extend my work further into the design and production part of putting a book together.

There are some amazingly gifted illustrators working at the moment, in a huge variety of techniques and aesthetic approaches, and the internet and social media bring all of that to our attention every day. What I find exciting now is that sense of an easing of the rigid distinctions between illustration and fine art, and that it is possible for a creative person to flow between different disciplines. A great example of this is in the work of David McKean, who moves between creating graphic novels, films, illustration and music. The label matters much less now than the gift you bring into the world. I would like to be more experimental than I have been, and to draw and paint at a larger scale helps to break some of the habits which make for a lack of variety., but it is often the project, or the text, which sets the parameters. Perhaps I’m too reverential at times. I like sculpting, and printmaking, and I hope to be able to do more of this, alongside trying to get more varied book illustration projects going.

Alan Lee. Photo by Ishka Michocka

So I have to ask, what is Alan working on now?

There are more Tolkien projects planned, and a limited edition book of Anglo saxon poetry for the folio society, and I have been working on some of my own stories over the past few years. I need to have a concentrated push on those – to at least get them to the point where I can show people and get some feedback.

I’m very intrigued by the prospect of reading Alan’s own stories but use this as an opportunity, with his 70th birthday just around the corner, to ask Alan about the books that made him, the books which have served as waymarkers in his journey to where he is now. It’s perhaps a question which is as delicious as it is difficult to answer for someone who’s life revolves so much around stories.

Alan’s quick to choose ‘The Mabinogion’ as one of his books of a lifetime. “I first read it (The Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones version) when I was 18. I was completely enchanted by the oddness of these ancient Welsh stories, the beautiful and incantatory prose, the sadness, terror and joy, the strange honour codes. I would also list Alan Garner’s “The Owl Service”, which is a brilliant up-dating of one of those stories; that of the woman of flowers, Bloduewedd…

Musing on Bloduewedd brings to mind another brilliant rendering of celtic mythology (albeit Irish this time) that Alan is particularly fond of – Marie Heaney’s ‘Over Nine Waves’ and that then leads to ‘The God beneath the Sea’ by Edward Blishen and Leon Garfield, with wonderful illustrations by Charles Keeping. This, says Alan, “is a perfect book“, and a great introduction to the Greek myths.

We digress briefly to talk once again about the value of myths and why Alan sees them as such essential reading. “They are lessons in metaphor…the accumulations of folklore and myth, give a sense that there are a huge variety of points of view, of meanings and interpretations, and that this multiplicity enriches our lives, while a diet based on just one story, or received truth, leaves limited room for the imagination to develop. When we look at the world’s creation myths, at their variety and their similarities we gain a profound insight into the human societies that gave rise to them, as well as often finding beautiful ways of expressing scientific ideas.

And then from retellings of ancient myths, we move to two mythical books in every sense other than the fact they were written in the 20th century and not hundreds let alone thousands of years ago. “A constant source of inspiration. delight and awe” is how Alan sums up ‘The Gormenghast Trilogy’ by Mervyn Peake, one of two key works that he has had a lifelong relationship with, the other – of course – being ‘The Lord of the Rings’ by JRR Tolkien.

Now Alan is on a roll. “There are so many wonderful writers who have inspired me, Rosemary Sutcliff, Mary Renault, Robert Holdstock, Marina Warner, but if this list of books is confined to eight I would add Angela Carter’s amazing collection of re-imagined fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, and Jorge Luis Borges’ “Fictions”. Most of my reading of more contemporary authors is through short stories, and these are just brilliant brief immersions into extraordinary and original minds – and I would be bereft without them.

And what’s by his bedside at the moment? “The book which I’m reading at the moment is Britain Begins, by the archaeologist Barry Cunliffe. It gives a detailed account of the natural and human forces that have shaped our landscapes -up to 1000 AD. My knowledge of the prehistory of these Islands has always been a bit sketchy, and I want to be able to look at landscapes with a bit more knowledge and to be able to supplement the misty-eyed sentimentalism with some hard facts. I want to spend more time painting and drawing in nature, and to become at least as familiar with the country I live in as I am with Middle-earth!

As it is when you near the end of a book you know will still with you forever, drawing this interview to a close is, for me, as challenging as it has been enjoyable and thrilling. I want to go on talking, I want to look again and again at Alan’s breathtaking landscapes, soaking up their humbling sense of permanence and natural grace. I’m left with many more questions, new eyes and a sense of disbelief that I’ve been able to spend so long talking with someone who may not quite be a Greek god, but is definitely one of my heroes.

I’ll end with one last quote from Alan’s Kate Greenaway Medal acceptance speech:

The eternal battle is not between good and evil, but between imagination and stupidity.

With this in mind, I urge you to find one (and more!) of Alan’s books and feed your imagination and resourcefulness, your sense of wonder, beauty and awe.

9 Responses

  1. Oh, I love this! Thank you so much! I just so happen to have bought a 2nd hand copy of Black Ships before Troy recently 😎 What a fascinating and insightful interview. Thank you!

    • It’s been such a pleasure interviewing Alan, I’m glad you enjoyed it too!

  2. Maria Cristina Thomson

    Superb interview, Zoe! Many thanks for this present, surely to be savoured time and again…

    • thank you Maria Cristina, I do hope it is something that people will return to or find again later. I know it is awfully long (but you should see how much I cut!) – it’s hard when you are enthusiastic and want to share everything!

  3. Thank you for this wonderful interview. How lovely to get a little window into what inspires the magical works of Alan Lee, one of my all time favourite illustrators.

    • It’s a pleasure, Karen, I’m glad you enjoyed the interview.

  4. Heather Kilgour

    Very prescient thank you both!

  5. Lori L Mitchell

    I was so happy to see that you did an interview. I love my books that you have illustrated. You are truly a master. Thank you for this interview. ❤️

  6. David Stoupakis

    What a great interview. Very inspiring. Thank you very much

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