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Artist helps bring Tolkien work to life

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As universally known as the big budget movies have made "The Lord of the Rings" books by J.R.R. Tolkien, his other works have not reached the same level of widespread fame and glory.

Tolkien's earliest works — hinted at and referenced in "Rings" — were in progress long before its publication and that of "The Hobbit." But Tolkien's dream of having his collection of the cosmology of Middle-earth published was realized only when his son and literary heir Christopher edited and published "The Silmarillion," four years after his father's death. It became an immediate best-seller.

A testament to its lasting popularity is the new volume, "The Silmarillion," illustrated by renowned Tolkien artist Ted Nasmith, interviewed while visiting Salt Lake City as part of a national tour.

Nasmith has watched the ranks of Tolkien fans swell as the Peter Jackson-helmed movies have exploded on world culture, but his own love for Middle-earth stretches back long before the recent films. While in high school, immersed in formal art training, his sister introduced him to Tolkien, which became an immediate new focus for his artistic abilities. It opened for him a love of "lost and misty times, myth and legend," he said.

Nasmith joined the Tolkien Society and dreamed of contributing to the Tolkien calendars that were being published during the late 1970s and '80s. But it seemed a distant goal.

Making his living rendering architecture, Nasmith made his breakthrough with a calendar in 1987. He quickly established himself as one of the pre-eminent Tolkien artists, which led to book covers, calendars — and finally, this expansion of his 1998 illustrated version of "The Silmarillion."

"I think this will probably be the last illustrated 'Silmarillion' for a long, long time," Nasmith said. "It will be the illustrated edition for years and years. It is pretty important to me personally, and it's a big Tolkien title, so I gave it 120 percent. I was delighted to be able to go back to the 1998 version and get more of what I wanted in it."

Compared to "Rings," "Silmarillion" is less concrete in its descriptions, more in the style of the Old Testament or Bullfinch's Mythology, leaving the artist with a greater opportunity for personal interpretation. But it wasn't just the artist and the publisher who needed pleasing. "Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R.'s son, was very much involved in the decisionmaking; it was a three-way dialogue. Once we settled on a list, it was between Christopher and me to decide."

Christopher Tolkien is known for requiring fidelity to his father's original work. "He is probably the one person in the world who knows his father's mind and sensibilities," said Nasmith. "To communicate with him is the closest thing to communicating with J.R.R. himself. He is difficult to please and exacting — and that pushes me to put my best foot forward."

Nasmith also wanted to please himself — and he accomplished that. "I do seem to get inside the book, and I get some good feedback from fans — and I appreciate that, whether I am working for them or not."

E-mail: lc@desnews.com