The fantastic illustrations became famous despite having little to do with the books.
Barbara Remington, the cover artist for the first official paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, has passed away at 90. Her illustrations, remembered for their vivid color schemes and fantastic elements, became incredibly popular, even though readers found that they had little to do with the story. For all their success, Remington had to produce the works without getting a chance to read the books.
In 1965 a publishing company called Ace Books printed an unauthorized paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings and began distributing the stolen work across the U.S. These unauthorized reprints are said to have been filled with errors, but they sold extremely well. This led Tolkien, who had never intended his book to exist without a protective hardcover, to recognize the potential of the soft-cover market and he rushed to find a publisher who could quickly put out an official paperback edition.
Ballantine Books was chosen, and the company wanted to get its copies in stores as soon as possible to compete with the pirates at Ace, but this meant they would need cover art immediately. They called in Remington and commissioned her to illustrate all three books of the trilogy, as well as the Ballantine paperback edition of The Hobbit, leaving her with just their titles as descriptions. The New York Times explains in Barbara’s own words:
“I didn’t have the chance to see either book, though I tried to get a copy through my friends. So I didn’t know what they were about. I tried finding people that had read them, but the books were not readily available in the states, and so I had sketchy information at best.”
The rush to print and distribute meant that the art never made it to Tolkien’s desk for approval. Be that as it may, Remington’s covers, rich in dragons, lions, and fruit trees that weren’t in the story, circulated across the country to great success. They became especially popular on college campuses.
Tolkien was reportedly unenthusiastic about the new covers. Remington’s retelling of a meeting with the famed author suggests he was concerned, to say the least:
“When Tolkien saw the fruit tree, he asked, ‘What are pumpkins doing in a tree?’ Of course they weren’t pumpkins, but he wasn’t sure what they were,” Ms. Remington said. “He was especially perplexed about the lion on the cover because there are no lions in the story. He requested that Ballantine remove the lions from the cover, so they painted them over for later books.”
Regardless of Tolkien’s impressions of the art, sales took off and Remington’s illustrations remained. Today those classic covers are remembered fondly for their beauty as much as for their nonsensical nature. Remington went on to illustrate several children’s books and a cookbook.
It was not until years later that she read The Lord of the Rings. Remington said of the trilogy:
“After reading his work, I was in awe of Tolkien,” she said. “I knew there was something special about him. If I read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ first, I don’t think I could have drawn the cover art.”