When the Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring came out in 2001, the movie just looked right. My wife had asked me if it looked like how I imagined the book would, and I responded that it pretty much lined up exactly with my imagination. And a large part of that was thanks to illustrator Alan Lee.
Lee provided artwork for the 1992 edition of the Lord of the Rings. For that generation, he gave form to places like Orthanc, Rivendell, and Minas Tirith. Previous generations had depicted these locations more fantastically, like something you’d find on the side of a van. While Lee’s depictions were also fantastic, they retained an element of reality where you could imagine that these places could have existed in a forgotten past, built as they were of either cruel unyielding stone or curved delicate wood.
The landscapes, too, were mysterious and dusky, featuring a land that had been mostly untouched by civilization. It recalls Romantic period landscape paintings, complete with the random ruins that draws the viewer’s attention.
His style would become Middle-Earth’s “official” look when Peter Jackson brought him on as the art director for the movie trilogy. The grand scale models made for the films are Lee’s illustrations brought to life and in three dimensions, with labyrinthine corridors now inhabiting the places we once could only see from the outside. With apologies to the Hildebrandt brothers, it’s almost impossible to see Middle-Earth any other way.