One of the surprising objects on display at the British Library’s Fantasy: Realms of Imagination exhibition — currently running at the British Library until February 2024 — is a Swedish language edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit from the 1960s, illustrated by Moomins creator Tove Jansson. It’s a pop cultural oddity and a crossover of two different worlds… and also something that caused such upset at the time that Tolkien actually reworked part of The Hobbit in response.
To be fair, the problem wasn’t the idea of Jansson working on the book in general. That was something that, in theory, excited both readers and Jansson alike. The Swedish language edition was edited by noted children’s author Astrid Lindgren, and she and Jansson were excited by the possibility offered by the book; Jansson famously sketched the characters from the book over and over again until she was satisfied with her renditions on them, even though she intended to focus more on the setting and surroundings of the story to emphasize its epic scale, to the point where the characters were in many cases almost an afterthought in her artwork — a point of contention with Tolkien’s fanbase at the time.
Ironically, it was one illustration where the characters were very much the focus that caused the most trouble. Her depiction of Bilbo Baggins meeting Gollum is something that, today, might seem even stranger to those familiar with Tolkien’s mythology either from the books or other adaptations: unlike the traditionally meek, cowering figure that shrinks away from the world, Jansson’s Gollum is a literal giant, towering over Bilbo — something that surprised even Tolkien, who would go on to amend the text of the novel for future printings to prevent similar depictions, by adding a description of Gollum as “a small, slimy creature.” (Prior to this, Gollum’s appearance had never included any description of his size… which means that Jansson wasn’t entirely incorrect in her take.)
It’s this illustration that the Swedish language edition is displaying in the Fantasy: Realms of Imagination exhibit, explaining that even some of the most iconic, canonical fantasy literature of all time is open to interpretation, and even reworking by its author after the fact.
Despite this miscommunication, Jansson’s illustrations would be used in a subsequent Finnish language version of the novel, and the artist remained proud of her work on the project, describing it in a 1992 letter to the Finnish Tolkien Society as “an adventure” that she happily undertook.
Fantasy: Realms of Imagination is open at the British Library in London until February 25, 2024.