Illustration Versus Imagination

April 23, 2014

As I was reading The Last Legionary novels,* something occurred to me. I actually had an even more compelling version of the same experience when I reread the Tripods novels with my daughter a few years ago. As I read these books, I drew pictures in my mind of what the aliens looked like, but I was later exposed to illustrations that displaced my own creations in my memory. For years, when I thought of the masters from The City of Gold and Lead, I thought of the illustration from Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials. That persisted in my mind for years. I had completely forgotten that I had my own idea of how the masters looked, until I was reading Christopher’s words again, and then my image came back, as clear as ever. It was an interesting how by immersing myself in the story once again, my imagination pulled itself back up to show off its work.

Many novels are published with important illustrations, especially if they are aimed at children (although I personally think there should be more illustrated books for adults). In some cases, the pictures can’t really be separated from the text. In Alice in Wonderland, for example, I view John Tenniel‘s illustrations as a key part of the story. Some of the most famous features of the character were the illustrator’s own innovations. Although the real Alice Pleasance Liddel had dark hair, she was drawn with blond hair and wearing a pinafore dress, so that has become unalterably part of the character’s identity. Tenniel also had important input on the content of the second volume (he preferred to draw a carpenter for Tweedledum’s and Tweedledee’s poem, rather than a baronet, or a butterfly, any of which would have fit the stress pattern); moreover, some of the jokes are only explained in the illustrations—such as the identities of the Anglo-Saxon messengers Hatta and Haigha.

However, most novels do not have illustrations that are as canonical as the drawings of Alice and her dreams. In most cases the illustrations are determined after the whole text is composed, based only on the artist’s impression, often without any consultation with the writer of the text. The pictures may change from edition to edition; cover pictures on an otherwise unillustrated novel are especially likely to change. Here for example, are four covers for Day of the Starwind:

(Here’s one more, but it contains a significant spoiler if you haven’t read the book, which seems like bad form for a cover illustration.) The all depict the Deathwing tower that is the center of the book’s action, but obviously in very different styles.

The villain in the book has his whole body, except for his hideous face, encased in golden metal:

At first glance the person looking down at him was beautiful, in an inhuman way. A tall, broad-shouldered, imposing figure that seemed to have been carved from gold—or from some smooth
and burnished metal that was the colour of gold. It might have been a sculpture of some mighty ancient god. Yet it moved—the flexible seams at the joints hair-thin and almost invisible. For an instant Keill thought the golden figure was a robot, but then he saw the face more clearly, and knew otherwise—sickeningly otherwise.

If the metallic body was that of a god, the face was that of a devil. A devil made of flesh, human flesh, and revoltingly ugly. The skin was a sickly grey, puffy and mottled. And the features were small, clustered in the centre of the grey face—close-set eyes that lacked brows or lashes, a nose not much more than two gaping slits, a small blubbery mouth held partly open to reveal tiny, blackened teeth.

I had my own idea of what this character looked like. The top of his head was peaked, and the metal surrounded him, looking almost like a robe. It’s hard to describe, but I can see him clearly in my mind, although again, I had forgotten what this Deathwing agent looked like until I started rereading. The reason was the cover illustrations, not for this book, but for the next one:

They’re all quite similar thematically, with the Altern the golden giant and the tentacles. (There are images of one more cover online that actually features something different, but I’ve never actually seen that edition.) They all depict the golden figure in a similar fashion as well; I suspect that the later illustrators were heavily influenced by the way he appeared on the original cover, at the bottom. That’s not how I saw him though. My giant, having come out of my mind, seems much scarier to me, but I had forgotten entirely about that imagery until I was reading the books again.

It’s not just forgotten images that resurface when I’m exposed to the story again. It was important that I had dreamed up the evil aliens I saw myself. The situation with the Tripods imagery is interesting because the books were not the first exposure I had to that world. The BBC made a two-season television series out of the first two books. (The second series was so bad, apparently, that the third never got made.) This was during the 1980s heyday of the original Doctor Who‘s popularity in America**, and Oregon Public Broadcasting started showing one episode of The Tripods every week, right after (or was it before?) Doctor Who. (Doctor Who itself was on every weekday.) There were no masters in the first book/season (and the ones in season two apparently bore no resemblance to the ones from the books), but there were plenty of the tripods. However, the way they looked on the show was so different from the way they were described in the books that as soon as I started reading, I developed my own mental image, which was based on the text and the novel covers. (I don’t think I had even noticed the serialized versions of the books in Boys Life magazine at this point.) As I was writing this, I didn’t even have a clear picture of what the television tripods had looked like, and I had to find the images online to refresh my memory.

Ultimately, what I guess what I found remarkable was the strength of the internal images I had created. Professional illustrations shoved them out when I wasn’t actually engaged with these books, but as I was actually reading, my own, original illustrations came back to me—a remarkable demonstration of priming in memory.

*For anyone interested in discussing the second volume, Deathwing over Veynaa, feel free to comment on it at the other post. I may write something specific about Day of the Starwind when I take a couple hours to finish it, but my memory of the second book—that it was not especially impressive—was confirmed on rereading. The plot is serviceable, but the villain just seems to be too far over the top. He’s an unnaturally tall and skinny albino, with telepathic abilities, who is also one of the galaxy’s preeminent physicists. (Did the telepathy help his scientific work?) I see the author’s reason for making the obvious Deathwing agent so outre; his weirdness ultimately serves a contrastive purpose, but it’s just too overdone.

**The global maximum of Doctor Who’s popularity in America must be right now, however. Just this week, one of my students showed me a TARDIS dress she was wearing, which she had been able to purchase not at ThinkGeek but Hot Topic.


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