Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Mr. Baggins in Russian

I do not read Russian; I do not speak Russian. So why would I buy (at a rather steep price, at that) a book almost completely in Russian? Why, because it's an edition of The Hobbit with original illustrations, both painted and sketched, of course!

I first discovered the existence of this volume on a site called Babel Hobbits (fortuitous name!), a place dedicated to foreign editions of Tolkien. Here I found out not only the date of publication (2005) and the name of the illustrator (D. Gordeev), but also reproductions (via photographs, not scans) of all the color illustrations. These were detailed enough and obscure enough, due to the book not laying completely flat, to excite my admiration. I could see that here were pictures that were definitely Tolkienian, but untouched by most Western conceptions: a vision characteristically Russian. I conceived the compulsion to own this book.

First, I had to make sure I got the right Russian Hobbit. There have been at least several different editions over the years, and some have been re-released in the last decade or so. Apparently there are Tolkien enthusiasts over there as rabid as any in the world. I finally tracked down what I made sure was the correct one on eBay; the seller was actually in Russia, and the shipping was almost half again the cost of the book. Fortunately I was flush at the time with my tax return, so I dropped almost ninety dollars on a book that not only had I read many times before, but at the same time couldn't read at all. And I sat down to wait.

It takes a long damn time for a package to come from Russia. I waited almost three months. During that time I constantly fretted; after the second month I checked the mailbox obsessively, and even began to wonder if maybe I had been suckered. What the heck could I do if someone half a world away had simply taken my money and ran? I had almost decided to contact the seller (there was no tracking on the package) if only to comfort myself, when at last a wrinkled, exotic looking bundle finally turned up on the porch. My Russian Hobbit had arrived.

It is a beautiful book, and a revelation in person. Not only are there the paintings displayed at Babel Hobbits, there are little pencil sketches on every page to illustrate small elements of the story, if only a pipe or a plant or a sword or a bat. A particularly good one was of Smaug's skeleton moldering on the bottom of Long Lake. Bilbo himself seems based on the body type of a real (human) dwarf; the dwarves are in contrast closer to "normal" body types, and only a little shorter than the elves and men who appear. The style of clothing, weapons, and even hair and beards are (to my eyes) in a definite traditional historic Russian mode. What I found particularly refreshing was the complete freedom from the influence of the Jackson films which has lately swamped Tolkien art.

The type of painting is what I can only describe as a clear "Northern" method, as opposed to the misty "Celtic" style of, say, Alan Lee; it is realistic in depiction and not stylized like other Russian illustrations, especially those clearly aimed at younger readers. Two elements I found interesting were the absence of quotation marks and that the table of contents was placed in the back of the book; I don't know, but it wouldn't surprise me, if this is just true of all Russian books.

And so it joins my Tolkien books as certainly the most exotic curiosity in my collection. Its interesting format and unique visual interpretation helps me to once more look at an old favorite in a new way. As a lover of both Middle-earth and book illustration, I am very pleased indeed.

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