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Maurice Sendak’s "The Hobbit"

In the 1960s and in preparation of its 30th anniversary, the publisher of Tolkien’s The Hobbit reached out to Maurice Sendak to create illustrations to accompany and re-imagine this classic hero’s tale. Unfortunately this pairing was not to be. Tony DiTerlizzi probed what happened and the story is pretty interesting, as is the what could have beens if not for some misunderstandings.

As Sendak noted passages for possible illustration and sketched in the margins of his copy of the book, the publisher prepared the art samples for Tolkien’s approval. The editor mislabeled the samples, however, identifying the wood-elves as “hobbits,” as Sendak recalled to Maguire. This blunder nettled Tolkien. His reply was that Sendak had not read the book closely and did not know what a hobbit was. Consequently, Tolkien did not approve the drawings. Sendak was furious.

In hopes that all could be smoothed over between the two, the publisher arranged for a meeting in Oxford while Sendak was in England touring for the U.K. release of “Wild Things.” The day before their meeting, Sendak suffered his first major heart attack. He was 39. Sendak spent several weeks recovering in a hospital in Birmingham. He never met with Tolkien, and the project was abandoned.