A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I’ve just moved house for the 25th and (I hope) last time.
When you move house that often there are, almost inevitably, boxes which you just never get around to unpacking: you simply re-label them and move them on. This time, however, because I was downsizing quite dramatically, I simply had to get rid of some of the collected stuff of ages up in the roof. The boxes labelled ‘Good clothes that I might get into one day’ went to the charity shop unopened, as did most of the boxes containing the bedding and linen that a family of six accumulates over 70 years. Boxes of handbags and shoes went, laundry bags full of towels and curtains and clothing went – but some boxes I kept.
One was battered, dusty and old, labelled ‘TO KEEP – SOPPY BOX’ with various crossed out directions as to where it should be deposited through several moves. If I’d had more time I’d probably have looked inside it, but I was moving all in a rush, the removal van was due in a few days and I didn’t dare start opening boxes to check their contents – so I simply added some more parcel tape to it and relabelled it ‘BEDROOM ONE’.
One of them was a slim green quarto-sized book that I’d almost forgotten I ever had: Bilbo’s Last Song – illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Bilbo’s Last Song is a short poem written by J R R Tolkien and given as a gift to his secretary Joy Hill after she discovered it in his library. It never appeared in The Lord of the Rings and was indeed never published in his lifetime, first seeing the light of day as a poster, published very shortly after Tolkien’s death. I had the poster on my bedroom wall in numerous houses until it eventually fell apart and was consigned to the rubbish bin. I would give several appendages to own that poster still. Aside from the fact that it was a thing of beauty it’s now worth a small fortune.
Today, the illustrators most associated with Tolkien are the superb Alan Lee and John Howe, but for those of us of a certain age, THE Tolkien illustrator was Pauline Baynes. She it was who designed the iconic cover of the 1970s single-volume edition of The Lord of the Rings – which my mind’s eye still conjures up, however briefly, whenever the book is mentioned. She was Tolkien’s own favourite illustrator and they worked together on several volumes of his work, becoming close personal friends in the process.
The poem – which, chronologically, comes at the end of The Return of the King – is sung by Bilbo Baggins at the Grey Havens as he leaves Middle Earth for ever. It’s a simple, elegiac piece – sad but hopeful – which Bayne’s atmospheric poster matched perfectly.
When, in 1990, the poem was published in book form Baynes deployed what at first glance appears to be a more detailed, fairy tale style to accompany Tolkien’s words, but a closer examination reveals that the illustrations, like the poem, are really quite simple – howbeit deceptively so.
Each couplet in the 24-lined poem is accompanied by three vignettes – one large and two small – depicting scenes from The Hobbit and The Return of the King as Bilbo, shown on every page sitting remembering his life, is waiting to embark on his final journey. So perfect was Baynes’ understanding of Tolkien’s work that you really have no need of the accompanying notes and quotations at the back of the book telling which part of the story you’re looking at. Anyone who knows and loves Middle Earth will know exactly which part of Bilbo’s life they are seeing.
Although it was primarily meant as a children’s introduction to the world of Middle Earth, like many books intended for a young age group it has such irresistible charm that all but the most churlish can’t fail to be beguiled by it.
It carries additional resonances for me because of who gave it to me and the circumstances under which it was given, but that story is personal and – in part at least – not mine to tell. Suffice it to say that I was very, VERY pleased to find it again.
‘Bilbo’s Last Song’ has been through multiple reprints and is still available from all online booksellers.