Monday, April 29, 2013

Another analog to the Doors of Durin

A few months ago, after long gestation, I made a comparison between Tolkien’s illustration of the Doors of Durin and a Jewish parokhet at a synagogue in China. As I said then, we have no reason to expect this image inspired Tolkien; the similarity is striking, but is almost certainly coincidental. There is a more definite analogy between the Jews and the Dwarves — Tolkien admitted that much — but the imagery of this particular Ark of the Torah was surely a random similarity. What seems more likely is that similar arrangements of arches, crowns, columns, etc., were a commonplace on which Tolkien drew. Likely enough a medieval one.

Well, you can imagine my surprise when I happened to see a copy of Heroes & Kings for sale on eBay. This is a collection of poems Charles Williams, published in London by The Sylvan Press, 1930. It’s also very rare — only 300 copies were printed (of which only 250 were offered for sale) — which explains the high asking price of this auction. The decoration on the cover looks rather familiar, doesn’t it? Very much like Tolkien’s Doors of Durin, with the addition of a sword.

Now, again, I am not suggesting this decoration influenced Tolkien. I don’t have any reason to think he ever saw it. Tolkien did not meet Charles Williams until 1939, and he did not particularly appreciate his creative output. “I had read or heard a good deal of his work,” he later wrote, “but found it wholly alien, and sometimes very distasteful, occasionally ridiculous” (Letters, #276). Elsewhere, he wrote, flat-out, that “I do not think we influenced one another at all!” (Letters, #159). Might Tolkien be overstating his case? This decoration is certainly much closer to him than the Jewish parokhet. Tolkien might have seen this work,  even though it was published in only 300 copies more than a decade before. But it’s a very big maybe. Even if he did, is it likely this image stuck in his head and came out again a decade later in the Doors of Durin? It doesn’t seem very likely. Unless further evidence should come to light, the more probable explanation for this similarity is that both Tolkien and Norman Janes or Hubert Foss were merely drawing water from the same well (Janes made the woodcuts in Heroes & Kings; Foss was the book designer).

But once again, it is certainly a fascinating coincidence!


  1. I agree, these coincidences are fascinating.

    If someone would wish to claim that this or a similar image was a source for Tolkien's envisioning and drawing of the Doors of Durin, I should think that the main problem would be to eliminate all other possible sources of similar (or greater) likelihood — there would have to be quite a bit of digging to be fairly sure to cover at least the most likely possibilities (both in terms of putting it near Tolkien and in terms of similarity to Tolkien's image).

    1. machine learn it (ie recursive till quickly validated)
      Question then becomes if this type of iconography existed in multiple forms which ones would Tolkien have come across (or most likely). Because if there is an example that meets the ocalms razor minimum threshold then we might get unique insights to why whomever drew the door on the RBoW (or why Tolers drew it that way if he wants to take credit for his masterpiece:).

  2. Williams apparently visited Oxford for occasional Inklings meetings during the 1936-39 period when he was still in London, so Tolkien probably met him at that time. He was certainly already aware of Lewis's interest in Williams, having (according to a letter by Lewis to Williams) read The Place of the Lion at Lewis's suggestion - whatever his private thoughts on the matter.

    1. +3 think you are on the right path.
      Williams and Lewis were obsessed with George MacDonald and likely tried to convince Tolers that the secret key was in George MacDonalds Ex Libra stamp (the one of a stone door with writing carved into it, inspired/stole/borrowed from William Blake I believe, who did it of a classical section of myth). Doors in tend to be so hard to find without the key.