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The Art of Middle-earth: The Elves, Fëanoreans, and Glücksdrachen of Jenny Dolfen


The Art of Middle-earth: The Elves, Fëanoreans, and Glücksdrachen of Jenny Dolfen

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Column Art of Middle-earth

The Art of Middle-earth: The Elves, Fëanoreans, and Glücksdrachen of Jenny Dolfen


Published on November 17, 2022

"The Hunt" by Jenny Dolfen (Used with permission by artist.)
"The Hunt" by Jenny Dolfen (Used with permission by artist.)

J.R.R. Tolkien’s world is so rich and multifaceted, no single artist can quite fully encapsulate it. And yet each can shine with an expertise, style, and niche all their own. For example, when I think of the panoramic landscapes of Middle-earth, Ted Nasmith’s paintings comes instantly to mind. When I think of the ancient halls or brooding forests, Alan Lee’s work is at the forefront. But when I consider, say, the Elves of the First Age and many of the dramatic, emotion-charged moments of The Silmarillion, I think first of German illustrator Jenny Dolfen, whose beautiful and award-winning watercolors have been on display across Tolkien fandom for years now.

Maybe you already know Dolfen’s work! Many readers will have seen her artwork plenty of times. Aside from being ubiquitous in Tolkien circles and conventions across the years, and having produced art books of her own, she’s received the Tolkien Society Award for Best Artwork three times already—in 2014, in 2018, and in 2019. And now? Anyone even vaguely familiar with her work shouldn’t be surprised to learn that her art is now featured in the official 2023 Tolkien Calendar!

Jenny was kind enough to give me some of her time for this interview. We talk about her work, gaming, Elfwood (anyone remember that site?), and those accursed sons of Fëanor (some of whom we must grudgingly like from time to time, when we can stop shaking our fists in the air).

Jenny is one of six artists who’ll be showcasing their work, via the new calendar, on the walls of Tolkien fans around the world for the duration of 2023. And beyond. Waaay beyond, if you ask me. When I was a teen (okay, and even well into adulthood), I would cut up the fantasy art calendars I owned once their years were past, just so I could tack individual illustrations to the wall. I never threw any of it away, either.

But to be clear: I will not be cutting up this one. I shall keep secret and keep it safe.

And with that said, Jenny, thank you for talking with me! I would first like to point out, for the Americans who may be reading this, that your name is pronounced “yenny.”

Jenny: Thanks for having me! Fun fact: Everybody gets my name wrong, apart from Scandinavians and Germans who are over 80 years old. It’s an old German/Scandinavian form of the name. Karl Marx’s wife was called Jenny and pronounced like me. I have to explain my name to everyone I introduce myself to, German or otherwise.

Unique-sounding names are the best. I mean, look, we’re going to talk about Tolkien. Names were, like, his favorite thing! So on that point, let’s start by talking briefly about this year’s calendar! It’s extremely exciting. I’ve already got my copy. Could you tell me how this gig came about?

Jenny: I’m actually not sure how much I’m allowed to talk about!

Tell me only what you’re comfortable saying, of course.

Jenny: It’s been a dream of mine to have my work featured in official HarperCollins publications of course, and the calendar has been a staple even in my parents’ house since the Eighties, so it’s a huge honour to be among the “next generation” of Tolkien artists featured in it. I hadn’t sent in any submissions—I knew HarperCollins knew my work, having talked with Ross Brawne briefly at the 50th anniversary event of the Tolkien Society in Birmingham in 2019, and at the time I got the email last winter, I was not thinking about great career steps at all. I actually got the email at the supermarket checkout and pretty much had to sit down first.

I can well imagine that shock and delight. We always seem to receive the most outlandish news in the most mundane of places. So with six artists involved in the calendar, is it safe to assume that each person is associated with two months of the year? I can see from the back of it that your illustration of Tuor’s arrival at the coast, “And his heart was filled with longing,” is one of them!

Jenny: Yes, that and Fingon’s archers intercepting a young Glaurung.

Ah, yes! Baby Glaurung, “young and scarce half grown.” I love that one. Love Fingon and his horsebacked archers peppering a cranky Glaurung.

Jenny: I think there is an extra piece for Donato Giancola (MUCH deserved—his work is incredible!), but the rest of us each have two pieces in there, as far as I know. I’m thrilled to be part of this new calendar format showcasing several young (or new, at any rate!) Tolkien artists. Of those featured, I’m an especial fan of Justin Gerard’s. His style is wonderful, I can lose myself in his colours and dynamics.

Right? Donato and Justin, they’re both great. And let’s not forget Kip, who’s also in this thing, and he’s super cool. I’ve had the good fortune to speak with each of them in my Art of Middle-earth series. And you should know, now I’m going to link over to this interview every time I mention your name in the future.

Now, did you get to decide which of your illustrations would be included or did HarperCollins weigh in on this?

Jenny: They asked me to send them a selection of my art that I thought might fit the calendar, and they chose those two. Two others I mentioned were “Forth Eorlingas!” and “The Last Alliance.” I’m very happy with the choice of Tuor, especially. Although the colours came out a little on the red side for both of mine, so I’m already bracing for the emails I’ll get that tell me “Tuor did not have red hair!!!”

I see what you mean, at least from our view of the back of the calendar. I don’t think there’s any need to defend yourself for the publisher’s chosen tint. Still, fandoms do offer an array of opinions, especially these days. So, I’d love to ask you some art-based Tolkien lore questions, but first: You’ve made a couple of books before, and contributed to some other projects as well. I know of Songs of Sorrow and Hope, and I believe Journeys is another? Are any of these available to buy now? If not, what might we look for next?

Jenny: That’s right, I’ve compiled two art books so far. Songs sold out a few years ago but is available as a digital download in my Etsy shop. Journeys sold out last week actually, and I’m still debating whether to reprint it for a third print run or offer it as a digital download as well.

I’ve also written two very different books, one called Darkness over Cannae, a lavishly illustrated novel of 144 pages depicting the Battle of Cannae between Hannibal and the Romans in 216 B.C., and currently in development is The Secret of the Haunted Forest, a storybook following the adventures of a jackalope. The first is available through Winged Hussar Publishing or (signed and/or with sketches) from my Etsy shop. The latter should be available in my shop this autumn.

Illustrations by Jenny Dolfen (Used with permission by artist.)

That is the most adorably adventurous jackalope I’ve ever seen. I suppose everything looks better draped in a cloak or cape. But even so, kudos!

So much of your work is based on the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. Looking at the various illustrations in your books, and the ones that have popped up online—like, all over the place—it becomes quickly apparent that most of it is based on The Silmarillion and the First Age in particular. I applaud this, of course! But I do wonder: What is it about the characters of the Elder Days that calls to you? Is it because the majority of Tolkien art focuses on The Lord of the Rings? Or is it irrelevant what others have done?

Jenny: That’s a reasoning that gave me a certain amount of exposure in the early days (2002–2005) when most Tolkien art on the web was focused on The Lord of the Rings, but it was never a reason. While none of us artists on the Internet are free of social media pressure, I have always painted what I wanted to paint, and as far back as the early Nineties when there was no Internet. My reason to paint, whether it’s Tolkien, Hannibal, Critical Role, or Harry Potter, is always the same—I want to spend more time with characters that fascinate me, and you can only read books so often before knowing them by heart. So I took to drawing and later painting them. I’ve done this from a very young age, since primary school, and The Silmarillion hit me in a way The Lord of the Rings hasn’t—I’ve loved mythology since long before reading The Silmarillion, and the bits of Tolkien’s larger mythology that shine through in The Lord of the Ring and in The Hobbit were finally there for me to plainly see. And of course, The Silmarillion is mainly about the Elves. Legolas was my favourite character in The Lord of the Ring, but there was so little of him in the books, so I basked in all the Elven glory of The Silmarillion.

Amen to that! For all the talk of Elves, we spend comparatively little time in their company in The Lord of the Rings. The Silmarillion changes that, since it’s largely their story. Yes, Legolas is great, but he’s not his whole race, and there are fascinatingly different kindreds of Elves to appreciate well before his time. I enjoy the distinctions and dramas of the Noldor and the Teleri, and even the seldom-seen Vanyar.

Now, I see that you’ve returned to Maedhros, in particular, many times. What is it about Fëanor’s eldest son, in whom “the fire of life was hot,” that compels you?

Jenny: I’m not even sure. But the very first pencil sketch I ever did from The Silmarillion was Fingon cutting off his hand, so that scene and those characters definitely left an impression! I was drawn to the controversy in the character, and I later realised there were several parallels between Maedhros and Hannibal that may have subconsciously influenced my fascination (first-born with a sack full of younger brothers and a strong-willed father; driven to fight a hopeless war; spending their later years dispossessed and on the run in an ever-tightening world; losing body parts; both dying by suicide when all is lost). I suppose Maedhros found a fan-pattern in my brain that already existed and felt right at home.

That’s brilliant. When you spot parallels—whether they were deliberate or just happened because patterns of life happen—you can never quite shake them. I was stricken by how much the story of Prometheus seems to factor into the misadventures of Maedhros (and I wrote about that recently) but now that you call it out, there are a lot of Hannibal touch points, aren’t there? Do you suppose Tolkien saw this, too? I don’t want to deviate from Middle-earth so soon, but can you tell me what got you interested in Hannibal in the first place?

“Across the wild Alps” by Jenny Dolfen (Used with permission by artist.)

Is it the character himself or does it start with an interest in Carthage and Roman history?

Jenny: Hannibal was the very first instance of me delving very, very deeply into a topic. I’d always been interested in History, particularly ancient Greece and Rome, and I was thirteen when I saw a movie about him—one of those terrible old peplum movies from the Sixties. Not long after, I found a young adult novel about him in my favourite bookshop, and I bought it to see how the movie held up (because, naturally, the book is always better than the movie). The novel was written by a German author who had written a lot of horrifically patriotic songs for the Hitlerjugend during the Third Reich, and his Hannibal novel, as I found out much later, was him coming to terms with that—it was about a boy trained as an elephant guardian in Hannibal’s army, who is fascinated with the young general and is later brutally let down by him, finally seeing him as a bloodthirsty monster (mirroring the author’s disillusionment with Hitler).

That is . . . heavy.

Jenny: And what’s heavier is that the novel completely missed its mark with me. Instead of embracing the pacifist message (which, as a German raised in a household of pacifists, I would have been primed to do), little thirteen-year-old me was left in denial, wanting to know the truth. I spent two years—until I was fifteen—reading every bit of Hannibal I could find, ending up with historians’ books in which the footnotes comprised more of the page than the actual text (and which cost two months’ worth of my pocket money) as well as the ancient sources, even in the original Latin. It introduced me to academic work and research, and, needless to say, I found out that truth doesn’t exist but is a very fascinating construct, worth every bit of exploring. That phase is largely responsible for my studying to become a Latin teacher. I went through several phases like this (and was thus well-prepared for The Silmarillion and The History of Middle-earth), culminating in my final thesis at University about Shakespeare’s historical sources for Richard III.

The joy of learning rich information from big chunks of footnotes also prepares one for appreciating Tolkien lore.

Jenny: Absolutely! I first read The History of Middle-earth books when I was still very young, about eighteen or nineteen, and loved the way they were presented. It didn’t bother me at all they didn’t present a narrative.

I doubt a Hannibal parallel was on Tolkien’s mind for Maedhros, though. You would have to have delved very deep, definitely deeper than his study of the classics. It’s more that both of them appeal to readers as almost an embodiment of the tragic Greek hero (of which Túrin is Tolkien’s epitome).

Right, Túrin, whose story is tragedy to the core (and who, for anyone new to Tolkien’s larger legendarium, was essentially born out of Tolkien’s fan fiction for the Kalevala, a famous Finnish epic).

So on the subject of The Silmarillion, is there a story from the book that you’ve avoided, or would find difficult to illustrate? Or, put another way, is there a particular scene or character that you couldn’t be convinced to portray?

Jenny: I’d say it’s not so much any section I’ve avoided, but just others that I feel most drawn to, to the neglect of the rest. It’s an open secret that I love the Finwëans, above all, and whenever they feature heavily, I’m right at home. I haven’t done much with the Beginning of Days, the Rings of Power, and the Second Age, and with the long tales that don’t have many Finwëans in them (both the Tale of Beren and Lúthien and the Narn i Hîn Húrin come under this).

I’ve drawn several of the characters I’m less into, often as commissions, so there’s none I’m completely averse to. I’ve done so many quick-ish commissions that I can’t even remember all of them. I was just going to say I’ve never drawn Sauron/Annatar, but I have a nagging feeling I may have. I wouldn’t even know where to look for that image!

I find it interesting that you say Finwëans instead of Fëanoreans, since it seems to me that you’ve favored Fëanor and his seven sons more than Fingolfin and Finafarin and their kids. But I might be wrong, it’s hard to know all that you’ve created; it’s so much!

Jenny: I was going to say Fëanoreans, too! But that would have excluded Fingon, whom I love very much, and Finrod, who often features in my work as well. But you’re right of course, among the Finwëans, the Fëanoreans are my favourite boys.

“The Drawing of the Sword” by Jenny Dolfen (Used with permission by artist.)

Well, they do act up from time to time. The only ones I like are Maedhros and Maglor—and even they are victims of their own tragic oaths—but they all serve a purpose. But still, they’re all walking some version of their father’s path.

Speaking of your work—and before I throw a few more Tolkien questions at you—where would you say is the best place for people to find and enjoy it? Primarily the Jenny Dolfen Art website? Other than Googling “Jenny Dolfen” along with a character name or subject, is there a better way to see your illustrations organized somewhere? I see it shared all the time on social media, but it’s rather haphazard.

Jenny: Yes, and I absolutely apologise for that! I used to keep my website pretty organised and up to date, but following the onset of my eye condition four years ago, navigating websites and editors that aren’t optimised for people with a visual disability is a nightmare, and I keep putting it off. The very old art (most things before 2012, and a lot of quicker/less-polished pieces after that) are not organised anywhere, as they’re not “portfolio material,” and I usually just post those on social media and allow them to start a life of their own.

Would you be able to tell me about your eye condition? That’s immediately worrying to hear for any fan of your work!

Jenny: Nobody really knows what it is. It suddenly started in early 2018, one minute to the next, as a blind spot in my right eye. A lot of different diseases and syndromes have been ruled out by now, I’ve been to a lot of specialists (and yes, we have excellent specialists here in Germany), and nobody has any idea what it is. It changes, it plops up in different places, vanishes, plops up again, apart from the one first blind spot that always stays where it is. I’ve grown sick and tired of eye clinics and I’ve simply decided to work around it. It makes daily life difficult, definitely—I can’t read regular-sized texts, so it’s enlarged electronic texts and audiobooks (and magnifying glasses). I only drive familiar routes (and only by daylight) or take the bike. I can’t draw or paint small details, so I use the iPad for line art (where I can zoom in on every nostril) and for colouring, I work in larger formats, digitally, and/or with dry media, where it doesn’t matter if I set the pencil on paper in the wrong spot initially before I hit the right one. My colleagues, students and family members know that I sometimes need help with the stupidest things, and they know I often just have to sit with my eyes closed somewhere when the battery is empty. I’m living with it. ;)

I’m sorry to hear all this. I hope at least the situation has plateaued, and gets no worse! It sounds like it’s not stopping you creating your art, but significantly slowing you down?

Jenny: Plateaued is a good way of putting it. It slows me down, definitely, and there have been times over the past four years when I felt that I couldn’t keep creating, but I’ve always found a way to get back again—I think creating is my default mode, and no matter how hard creating may be, not creating always ends up being harder!

What’s the best way to interact with you online? I know you’ve been at tons of conventions over the years, and in real life you’re a teacher. Can you tell us what you’re up to in the world when you’re not subcreating (as Tolkien called it)?

Jenny: I use social media extensively, and I usually reply to comments, especially to questions! (I think that’s my “teacher mode.”) I teach English and Latin at a school between Aachen and Cologne, but only part-time, filling up the rest of my day (and my salary) with my art. I have two kids who are almost grown by now (15 and 18), so babysitting duties are, thankfully, a thing of the past. We managed to raise both our kids wonderfully nerdy; our son loves his Fantasy in the form of computer games, and our daughter is completely engrossed in RPGs, as are my husband and I. We’re currently running three different D&D or Pathfinder campaigns, two DM’ed by my husband and one by me, and our daughter plays in all of them. I also started a D&D club at my school this year, which has been incredibly successful as well as being immensely satisfying. All in all, despite the setbacks, if someone had told me thirty years ago that I would one day be paid for painting characters I love and playing D&D (as well as having my art featured in the Tolkien calendar), I would not have believed them.

That all sounds like a blast. I’m very jealous. But I’m going to resist the rabbit hole of asking you more about D&D—lest I keep myself and you entangled in the topic indefinitely—and steer this back to Middle-earth. I’ve seen plenty of First Age illustrations, some Third Age, but I’m not sure I can recall anything unique to the Second Age (as you implied before) except perhaps this commission of Celebrimbor.

“Celebrimbor” by Jenny Dolfen (Used with permission by artist.)

And this leads me to wonder: When you take private commissions for certain characters, do you determine the particulars, as the artist, or does your client dictate some of their preferences? Or do you merely provide your own vision of that character?

Jenny: In recent years, the only commissions I’ve taken on are those that leave me completely free rein. With my eyes, I simply feel insecure about missing information the client may have mentioned. After over a decade of great contacts and fantastic experiences in the Tolkien fandom, I’ve also come to the conclusion that I can afford to be a “my art, my rules” kind of artist, which is extremely liberating. The last commissions I did where I still worked closely with the client already went in that direction—they told me their idea, left me to develop it, and left me completely free rein.

Very good to hear. You’ve earned the clout to make your own rules. But I imagine if the fandom gives you easygoing, open-minded clients, then it’s less of an issue. Celebrimbor aside, have you depicted any characters or scenes from Númenor (such as from the Akallabêth) or anything surrounding the forging of the Rings of Power in Eregion? Obviously, Amazon’s new show has had some success plucking out obscure book characters and placing them into pop culture.

Jenny: The entire Second Age has never gripped me as much as the First, so, actually no! While I love the large gaps in the story that the First Age leaves to fill in, I probably feel the gaps in the Second Age are too large for me to fill. I never found any one character I latched on to the way I did with the First Age characters. One who has that potential is Isildur, who at least can claim he ended up in the margins of my university journal a couple of times, but I’ve just always been content with the Quenta Silmarillion to keep me occupied.

Here’s a hypothetical question I like to ask all Tolkien-fan creatives, although I’m altering it slightly since you usually do portraits instead of locations. If you could receive an exclusive, never-before-seen yet fully detailed description (from Tolkien’s own pen) of one specific person (of any race) in all of Arda, who would you choose and why? Someone you’d love to have more fleshed out, either for your own curiosity or as fresh source material for your art.

Jenny: Anyone? ;) Especially for The Silmarillion, there is so little to go on! I think it’s incredibly funny that my main drawing object from that book is pretty much the only character of whom we get both hair colour and, incredibly, an item of ornament, as well as a nickname. I wouldn’t presume to get a detailed character description from the man who wrote a book about nine protagonists and giving us the hair colours of *two*. ;)

Weirdly, it’s not Tolkien’s physical descriptions that speak to me, and sadly, it’s not even his landscapes—it’s fates and characters and interaction and tiny bits of dialogue, so I’d say I’m good!

Well, that’s very true to Tolkien, then. This was a man who, when describing his primary characters, didn’t do what most fantasy authors do today (outright listing unambiguous physical attributes). Instead he succinctly gave us their demeanor and the impressions that those faced with them had. It’s their bearing, their spiritual resolve, and sometimes, yeah, even their fates that he projects. See how often Gandalf or Aragorn seem to grow taller to Frodo, in moments where they put forth some power or authority? In moments of need. Aragorn is already tall, yet Gandalf really isn’t physically very tall. In fact, in The Nature of Middle-earth, we learn that he was “shorter than the average of men” and “stooped with age.” Yet there are a couple of places where he seems looms tall, kingly, and powerful.

Oh, wait! Here’s another Second Age illustration I remembered, and which you mentioned earlier as one of those suggested for the calendar. “The Last Alliance,” which includes Gil-galad!

“The Last Alliance” by Jenny Dolfen (Used with permission by artist.)

I really wanted to share this one especially because depictions of Gil-galad these days are getting muddled, what with The Rings of Power. And this one is fantastic. Is that Elendil back there as well?

Jenny: It is! Elendil is on the left, the next is Elrond with Gil-galad’s banner (since he was his herald). The guy on the right is an in-joke character my Patreon supporters and I named Bert. He first appeared in a different sketch, very roughly sketched in, with an elongated head, so that happened. He’s since appeared in a handful of paintings, which meant we had to come up with a backstory of how he came from Gondolin to the Last Alliance.

Well now I have to ask: Does Bert survive the Battle of Dagorlad?

Jenny: Knowing his track record, I’m sure he did!

Quite unlike Oropher, grandfather of Legolas. Sadly. Now, the more I look at “The Last Alliance,” the more I appreciate it. Whenever I see any depiction of characters from Tolkien’s legendarium, I immediately look to the faces and run them, quite unconsciously, through the contrast-and-compare part of my brain where I see if the version I’m looking at resembles, in any way, the version I’ve got running around in my own imagination.

But there’s so much more to look at here, and in your work in general. Your horses are as amazing as your people! Their nobility and their regal stances are wonderful, to say nothing of the long flowing hair of the people—that I appreciate in fantasy. Even that rocky outcropping is impressive. Where do you imagine this particular scene taking place? It’s after Elendil and Gil-galad have met up, and now Elrond’s with them, so this is somewhere on the march/ride between Imladris and Mordor, surely.

Jenny: Yes, horses have always held a special place in my artist’s heart! I was never a “horse girl,” but all of my art crushes obviously got around on horseback, so I figured early on that I might as well learn to draw them properly.

I imagined this to be the crossing into Mordor, hence the ominous ragged stone outcroppings.

One simply rides into Mordor.

Can you talk to me about how you choose colors? The watercolor aesthetic is so clearly in the forefront of your style. For example, this illustration of Galadriel is rendered in shades of yellow and blue and only hints of green, yet she herself is so cleanly drawn. I’m likewise intrigued by the fact that despite this piece’s title, “Light of Eärendil,” Galadriel is neither with her mirror or bearing her phial. She seems to be collecting yellow starlight in a bowl before it is “set amid the waters” of her fountain. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the “busy work” in this piece is in the bushes and the rocks. Galadriel is but one part. Can you tell me about this one?

“Light of Eärendil” by Jenny Dolfen (Used with permission by artist.)

Jenny: Evil tongues might say that I choose my colours by using only Ultramarine and Ochre. ;)

But that is one of the combinations that gives me instant satisfaction, so I always end up with colour schemes like that, especially when working traditionally. Even my digital pieces end up along these lines more often than not, though with digital media, it’s easier for me to break out.

That piece is very personal. It’s also called “A light in dark places,” which is how I call it on prints. It marked the end of 2018, a year that brought me failing eyesight and the death of my brother, and for months, I was just somehow getting by. It was painted between Christmas and New Year’s, in the darkest time of year, when I was ready to try and look ahead once again. I was looking to do something calm and beautiful, and the background did take two attempts, because, as everyone knows, yellow and blue makes green! For the first try, I blended the colours while still wet, and of course they turned out green. For the second go, I put in the yellow wash beforehand, then only put in the blue after it had dried, careful not to cover areas where the yellow was very prominent.

For Galadriel’s pose, I was absolutely inspired by the way Cate Blanchett flows down the steps in the films. It was one of the moments in the film where I’m sure Tolkien would have rejoiced.

I’m very sorry to hear about your brother. It’s astonishing how a subject that already evokes hope—Galadriel herself, of course, but the fact that she’s collecting the light from the Star of High Hope—evolves even more when you learn what lies behind it. To think that you worked on this one during such a dark phase of your life, and not so long ago. Well, it’s excellent, Jenny. You do your brother honor with this.

Can we shift gears and talk about bad guys for a moment? You’ve mostly illustrated good guys. But I must, must, must ask you about this Morgoth!

“And Morgoth came” by Jenny Dolfen (Used with permission by artist.)

(1) Because he’s perfectly imposing and (2), you didn’t render him into a pretty-boy, Elf-like form as way too many do. That’s my pet peeve among fan art of the Dark Enemy of the World. There are far too many depictions of him as some dark and mysterious handsome Elf sitting on his throne with the Silmarils in his crown. First, the book-lore nerd in me protests, because by the time he’s wrought his iron crown, he’s become locked forever in the raiment/form he chose for his meeting with Ungoliant: the “tyrant of Utumno: a dark Lord, tall and terrible.” And Morgoth hated the Elves from the moment they showed up. No way he’d have approached Ungoliant looking like one.

But yours is great! What can you tell me about this, “And Morgoth came,” beyond the fact that it’s clearly the figure Fingolfin would see emerge from the gates of Angband to answer the challenge to single combat? Was this one a commission? He bears the Evil Overlord Shoulder Spikes, as you’ve called them, and I know you’ve described this illustration—and perhaps your general vision of Morgoth—as stony. Which I find appropriate, and I again appreciate that he’s not some dashing whip-thin Elf-boy here.

Jenny: Yes, exactly! From my very first readings, I imagined Morgoth as heavy. I tend to associate letters in a name with looks. The two o’s as well as the g and the th always signified “compact” to me, completely unconsciously. Later, descriptions in The Lays of Beleriand and other early writings had a lot of stone and heavy weight imagery to them, and I imagined this graceless, hulking, imposing, terrifying hill of a fallen god towering over fair and nimble Fingolfin.

I don’t get the same vibe from Sauron—he actually feels more lithe to me than he was depicted in the movies. Probably because my brain associated “snakelike” with his name.

And yes, it was a commission back then, along with its Fingolfin companion piece.

I love that your instinctive visual analysis based on the shape and sound of the word itself. Where Melkor might be more ephemeral, owing to his spiritual origins, by the time he gets the name Morgoth he’s bound to the earth in a very solid way. And yet I wonder about Melkor’s preferred form in Valinor itself before the Darkening, while he still moved among the Elves of Tirion and sowed unrest. Was it something like the form Sauron assumes before the sinking of Númenor, before he was relegated to an “image of malice and hatred made visible”? Have you ever illustrated Sauron in some fashion? If not, is that just by chance?

Jenny: Funny thing: I drew him yesterday! But that was a two-minute sketch under a student’s Latin vocabulary test. (They can request a drawing when they have zero mistakes, and they learn REALLY well.)

Holy kine! What an awesome teacher you are.

Jenny: Apart from that, not really! I’ve never been very interested in the bad guys. What interests me is love and friendship among the characters I love (in combination with tragedy), and that’s what I draw. The bad guys’ stories don’t revolve around love and friendship, so they don’t interest me from an artist’s point of view.

Again, how very like Tolkien of you. Sauron is an off-screen entity throughout The Lord of the Rings. Even when he was face to face with the Elves in the Second Age, it was only when he was masquerading as a helpful emissary of the Valar. And as for the First Age, he was a clear and present danger, and very much physical, conjuring phantoms and commanding Orcs and werewolves but still mostly from a distance. And there’s not one flicker of friendship about him.

So then let’s talk about Tolkien’s good guys one last time. All this talk of Elves and Fëanoreans and hair . . . and not yet one word about beards. Let’s at least touch briefly on one of the Naugrim. I’ve seen portraits of Thorin and Azaghâl, but honestly it’s this image of Gimli son of Glóin that I find most charming. And he looks young, which is fitting. Gimli is nearly 140 years old when we meet him.

“Gimli” by Jenny Dolfen (Used with permission by artist.)

At what point in time do you imagine this Gimli? Before or after the War of the Ring? Is this a Gimli who could be snippy at Elves, or is this a Gimli who would now call Legolas his true friend?

Jenny: To be honest, I hadn’t thought of that. I think I saw him as early in the books. I do recall clearly that I sketched him at the vehicle registration office waiting for my turn, and then finished the sketch in some professional development session, delighting my colleagues who were all bored out of their wits.

Hah! All right, so this is probably Gimli in Rivendell before the company is formed.

Okay. So. There’s something I can’t not bring up. I’ve looked around your website and I stumbled upon some of your Inktober sketches and I desperately need to talk about two of them in particular. First: I can’t just scroll past a drawing of Isabea (Michelle Pfeiffer’s character) from Ladyhawke, which I instantly recognized, and not say anything.

“Isabeau” by Jenny Dolfen (Used with permission by artist.)

I must know more! I adore nearly everything about that film, even the cheesy ’80s-synth (because the soundtrack is punctuated by lovely melodies throughout). Where does this film fit into your life?

Jenny: It holds a very special place in my heart! I saw it as a teenager with my mother, not long after it first came out I think, and I maintain to this day that it’s the only good fantasy movie ever made during the last century (or maybe one of five, but in that case I haven’t seen the other four). It’s the only fantasy movie of its era that takes the viewer seriously. There are fun characters and fun scenes, but with all other fantasy movies before The Lord of the Rings, as a viewer you get the feeling you are being treated like an imbecile by movie makers who are catering to you while also mocking you. Ladyhawke had none of that. I loved Philippe, I loved Goliath (Navarre’s horse), and I loved the look on Michelle Pfeiffer’s face when Isabeau, without a word, dropped her falcon’s gear into the Archbishop’s trembling palm. That movie is perfection.

Oh my God, I can instantly visualize the moment. She’s got this dreadful finality in her face, like revulsion that turns ice cold. You called it.

Now I need to ask about . . . Atréju and Fuchur.

“Atréju” by Jenny Dolfen (Used with permission by artist.)

Or, to my American friends . . . Atreyu the warrior and Falkor the luckdragon.

First, Jenny, I need to give you a brief disclaimer: I do love the 1984 film The Neverending Story almost as much as my wife does, but I want you to know that I absolutely validate your claim that the movie is “cruelty” to the book. I need to write about this topic by itself someday, because adaptation is a complex thing.

But you’re a native German and the book, Die unendliche Geschichte by Michael Ende, was written in German. So as far as I’m concerned, your opinion is more valid here. I will only say that the 1984 film, even if it is a mere shadow of the source material, is still highly influential in my household. A force of good. Even the music. My son, Sebastian, is, in fact, named after Bastian. And I’ve been waiting for him to be old enough for me to read it to him at bedtime. The time is nigh. And yes, Atreyu should have been green of skin (hard to pull off convincingly in ’84) and Falkor, the luckdragon (Glücksdrache), should have been less doglike and more sinuous, able to “swim in the air of heaven as fish swim in the water.” But, again, ’84.

Setting Hollywood adaptations aside (and by the way, the movie’s sequels are abominable, there’s no question), I’d love to hear what the book itself, in its original German, means to you.

Jenny: The book was nearly as influential for me as The Hobbit, which my mother read to me around the same time. I drew some scenes of it back in the day (more than from Tolkien), like this one obviously done when I was seven at most (I did the J backwards).

Illustration by Jenny Dolfen (Used with permission by artist.)

This is a scene from the second half of the book, when Bastian, now a self-styled prince and the savior of Phantásien, allied himself with the manipulative sorceress Xayíde and has Atréyu arrested for speaking up as the voice of reason, while her armoured giants are keeping Fuchur in check. Fun fact: pencils and erasers were for sissies. I drew straight with felt-pen and when accidents happened, they were turned into hair, or hats, or flowers.

As an avid reader even at seven, and with very little children’s fantasy books in the early Eighties, it was a validation to have a book protagonist who longed for different worlds as much as I did, and who was picked up and brought into that world by a character that was so much fanboy/-girl material.

That’s fair. My wife absolutely had a crush on that film Atreyu. Go on.

Jenny: The film was hugely successful in Germany at the time, too (directed by the late Wolfgang Petersen, who we always joked was too American for Germany and then out-Hollywooded even Hollywood). There were colouring books and sticker albums. My best friend was a huge fan of the movie, and had the books on audiotapes; we’d bellow the film music all the way although we had no idea what the lyrics said, and that friend and I recorded our own “audiotapes” of the book, with quite a lot of film elements as that was what he was familiar with, such as a hair dryer for sound effects for the Nothing. It was hilarious. I actually still have them somewhere.

It’s funny that the scene in the film that everybody talks about as having traumatized a whole generation of young watchers—Artax drowning in the swamp—is so different in the book.

Screenshot: Warner Bros.

There, Artax can talk, and he tells Atréju to go on without him, that he can’t fight against the sadness he’s succumbing to. It’s both less terrible—because Artax is a creature capable of reason and making decisions for himself—and far more so, because it’s such a heart-wrenching depiction of depression. There’s an incredible lot of wisdom in the book (Michael Ende was a philosopher as much as a writer), and I read it again at fifteen and once again at thirty, and always found new things that just tugged at my heartstrings. It’s the mark of a good children’s book—it grows with you.

Then I’m even more sold on the book, which I already own and is ready to go. If the film is a Hollywood compromise, and I still like it, then I know the book is sure to be amazing.

I’m fascinated by some of your other subjects, too, like Rachel Weintraub (from Dan Simmons’s Hyperion), who ages backwards as a result of contact with the Time Tombs (everyone should check that one out), and of course Drizzt Do’Urden. You mentioned on your Drizzt page that you were on the art site Elfwood back in the day. So was I! And if you were “that drow artist,” as you say, then I’m sure I came across your dark elves all the time!

Can you say what you might be working on next?

Jenny: I never know. With an eye condition that might just bring all your best-laid plans to a grinding halt, it’s best not to make any plans but be grateful for everything that works out and makes me happy. I’ve become quite content with the little things in that regard; and if a book happens—as it did with the Haunted Forest story last year—all the better. Right now, I’m very happily engrossed in fan art of Critical Role, as well as my own RPG characters.

Tell me a little bit about that—I’m aware of Critical Role but never got drawn into it for various reasons. What’s your engagement, and is the fan art merely your own, or have you gotten commissions there, too?

Jenny: I discovered Critical Role this January (with the Amazon series) and I’ve been head over heels since. It’s one of the most lasting painting sprees I’ve had in the last twenty years (not counting Tolkien, to whom I always seem to return). It has everything that speaks to me as an artist—wonderful characters, gorgeous visuals through official and fan art that you can choose to use but it’s not required, since it’s at its heart a narrative-based medium that I can feel free to explore—and there’s hours of new content every single week. It is daunting at first. When I’d watched the series (twelve short little episodes) and wanted to get into the YouTube stream, it was a mountain of content (over 1,000 hours), but my husband and I tackled it all from the beginning. The fandom has welcomed me with open arms. I’ve done a few private commissions now, some of my art graces the Critical Role fan wiki, and my next great ambition would be to do something official with them. They have a huge list of incredible artists; we’ll see if there’s a spot for me.

I’ve been playing RPGs for thirty years, and Critical Role has been a huge inspiration for our D&D and Pathfinder tables, too. It has also inspired me to take the jump and offer a D&D club at my school. It’s been a great hit! I have seventeen students who are now taking turns running adventures, and I’m having the time of my life.

“Orym” by Jenny Dolfen (Used with permission by artist.)

Here’s one of them, and I see this illustration’s only a few weeks old now. Now I know nothing of the character, but I know that he’s a halfling and I appreciate that. Moreover, I’d like to add that I just Googled the character and I see absolutely no other illustration of him that I like better than this one. So there! I’d probably prefer your interpretation of Critical Role characters than the originals, if I’m being honest.

Anyway . . . I’d like to wrap this interview up by going back to Middle-earth with your depiction of the character into whom all the Quenta Silmarillion’s tales coalesce, and from whom sprang so much of Tolkien’s legendarium. For those who don’t know the story, Tolkien discovered the name Ēarendel from an ancient Middle-English poem, Crist by Cynewulf: the Morning Star of Anglo-Saxon myth. Delighted by the beauty of the word, he borrowed it for a poem of his own, The Voyage of Éarendel the Evening Star, and turned the star into a man even before he conceived his ideas for Elves, hobbits, or rings.

But later, still deeply inspired by the concept, he increased the Éarendel role. As he wrote in a drafted letter to Rayner Unwin in 1976:

Before 1914 I wrote a ‘poem’ upon Earendel who launched his ship like a bright spark from the havens of the Sun. I adopted him into my mythology—in which he became a prime figure as a mariner, and eventually as a herald star, and a sign of hope to men.

This was the very first of your illustrations that I ever saw, or at least one that I immediately thought of whenever your name came up somewhere. It’s so compelling, as compelling as Eärendil himself is—because he’s such an important character, plays such a meritorious role, yet we don’t really know too much about his personality. We know what he did for all of Middle-earth, we know what he gave up, and we know what he does still even as the ages roll on. (He gets named, his light in the Phial of Galadriel becomes important, and his star gives Sam hope when he needs it most.)

But what does Eärendil himself see, what does he think? Any visual we have for him is bound to offer some interpretation, as yours does.

“Eärendil the Mariner” by Jenny Dolfen (Used with permission by artist.)

I love that you included Elwing here, folded into his arm. I never really know how to envision her bird form. Sometimes I imagine she’s like a swanmay from old D&D lore, a feather-attired woman in one shape or a great swan in the other. In this depiction Eärendil is humbler (he’s not yet wearing the Silmaril) and Elwing is still in her bird-shape so he’s only just been reunited with her, yet he seems to accept the severity and the burden of their situation.

I know you appreciate Tolkien’s “rescue” of such fragments from ancient Germanic lore that Eärendil represents. Can you tell me anything else about the genesis or thought process for this illustration (which I consider Classic Dolfen!)? This is from 2013, right?

Jenny: It was a commission back in the day, and I wanted to tie in the image visually with the Germanic lore Tolkien rescued the fragment from—but seen through an early 1900s lens, which again would have influenced the way Tolkien saw the Germanic myths. I have a hundred-year-old edition of the Edda, published in 1920 and illustrated by Franz Stassen. My mother had a lot of old, lavishly illustrated books at our home, and I’ve appropriated quite a few of them over the years.

I loved the illustrations long before I realised how much historical baggage they carried. The art style was completely innocuous in 1920 but was later fully assimilated by the Nazis, so in Germany, you need to be careful whom you tell you like the style. Tolkien himself bemoans this complete takeover of a lot that he held dear by the Nazis in a letter to his son Michael: “Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making forever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.” I always thought it was remarkable that an Englishman recognised this huge blow to German self-understating long before the war ended, long before Germans themselves had any inkling of it.

Long story short, I chose to use a lot of the costume designs from Stassen in this work (and still do, for Eärendil).

I see it. Nice! I’d not known about Stassen, although as I do some web-searching now, I think I must have come across his work before. It’s positively haunting. The mythological and the haunting combined are like peanut-butter and chocolate to me. And no surprise, I see Stassen has illustrated Siegfried’s famous “surprise!” moment with Fafnir the dragon . . . which of course brings us right back to Túrin and Glaurung . . . and Tolkien. I cannot get enough of myths and myths remade.

As for Tolkien and the Nazis, yes, there is that. Tolkien appreciated Germanic lore way before it was cool (in the modern sense). Sure, there was Wagner’s Ring cycle (which Stassen and others have also done great illustration for) and that was always well known, but when it comes to contemporary pop culture, I think Tolkien is one of our best links to Germanic myths—especially for those of who are so enamored of his world that we inevitably dig for its roots. He helps us look back through time to that ancient spirit ourselves, bypassing the Nazis entirely.

Tolkien himself is gone now, but it benefits us to see artists like you carrying that same torch, Jenny.

Well, this has been awesome. Thank you! You know, Ted Nasmith writes this about you in his 2023 Tolkien Calendar introduction: “[Jenny’s] division-of-labor between her passions echoes that of Tolkien, who balanced lecturing, tutoring, and other professional obligations with his own creative work.” In this interview alone, that astute observation has been on full display. You make your work look like play, and your actual play is the height of professional.

Thanks again for talking with me, for sharing your art with the world, and for your willingness to make connections with fans, whether face to face or keyboard to keyboard. I count your students and your family members lucky. I have been, too.

Jenny: Thank you so much for having me—it’s been an absolute delight!



By the way, dear readers, the leading image for this article is called “The Hunt,” which on her website Jenny captioned with “Finrod Felagund joins Fëanoreans Maedhros and Maglor on a hunt in Eastern Beleriand.” The Elf in the lead is clearly dark-haired Maglor, with his elder brother, Maedhros, just behind (the red hair and missing hand are the instant giveaways), and there in the back is the best Elf in all Arda (says me): Finrod. But I just have to zoom in a tiny bit because Finrod done right really needs a bit more air time.

From “The Hunt” by Jenny Dolfen (Used with permission by artist.)

Jeff LaSala lived in Germany for only one year, long ago, and really needs to go back if only to see some more castles and pick up an untranslated copy of Die unendliche Geschichte. He is responsible for The Silmarillion Primer, the more recent and much shorter Second Age Primer, the Deep Delvings series, and a few other assorted articles on this site. Tolkien nerdom aside, Jeff wrote a Scribe Award–nominated D&D novel, produced some cyberpunk stories, and works in production for Macmillan and the Tor Publishing Group. He is sometimes on Twitter.

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Jeff LaSala


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