An American edition of The Hobbit, marking its 30th anniversary, was proposed to contain drawings by Maurice Sendak of Where the Wild Things Are fame. Tolkien requested samples, and Sendak provided two. But “the editor,” whoever was the liaison between Tolkien and Sendak, mislabeled the drawings, calling Sendak’s wood-elves hobbits.
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.
I find this tale of the ignorant “editor” a little far-fetched; the article doesn’t name the publisher, but just says “the American publisher,” which is presumably Houghton Mifflin. Either the “editor” who labeled the drawings wasn’t familiar with the book (unlikely), or looked at Sendak’s drawings and thought they were of hobbits rather than elves and didn’t bother to check (a bit more likely). It also seems reasonable to think it might have been some random person at the company or Sendak himself who mislabeled the drawings.
In any case, I’m not sorry the project didn’t go through. In the sample drawing at the article, Bilbo looks OK, but Gandalf looks about as tall as Bilbo and a bit too Wild-Thingy for me. As my seven-year-old son might say, “That’s boring to my taste.” Gandalf supplies the drama, the not-your-usual-afternoon-tea part of the pastoral Hobbiton scene. If he looks like a dwarf in a long cloak, where’s the adventure in that?