John Howe (1957 to present) is a Canadian illustrator (currently living in Switzerland). Howe grew up in British Columbia and moved to France to study illustration at the Ecoles des Arts Décoratifs de Strasbourg. Howe has been influential on fantasy visual language generally through his work on the Tolkien Mythos.
The most enduringly popular Middle-earth artist...his work has appeared in numerous books and calendars…and earned him a role as a conceptual artist for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings movies (Sisto and Marchese, 2022).
The image shown here was also created for a Tolkien work, his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, an edition published by HarperCollins (1995) which features Howe’s landscape as the jacket cover. Howe’s image which depicts the confrontation at the Green Chapel; the place in the wilderness that Gawain has journeyed to in order to receive the return blow from the Green Knight’s axe, emphasises the link between the Green Knight and nature. The figures are situated in verdant undulating land, the Green Knight is shown as a giant, seemingly an outcrop of the landscape as much as the large standing stones that define the mid-ground. For Gentile (2014) writing in Storytelling, Self, Society, Howe’s image has resonance with the trope of the wild man generally, the description below fitting well with the broad, hirsute figure confronting Gawain in Howe’s painting.
The idea of the Wild Man has also inspired artists’ working images of the Green Knight, such as John Howe, whose illustration of the Wild Man/Green Knight appears on the cover of an edition of J. R. R. Tolkein’s translation of the poem…“The ‘classic’ Wild Man of the later Middle Ages,” writes Malcolm Jones in Medieval Folklore, “is covered in shaggy hair (except for face, hands, and feet), frequently wears a wreath of leaves around his head, and wields a club, usually a branch” (433). Clearly, this description resonates significantly with the Green Knight, whose beard and long hair as well as his holly cluster all show some connection to the image of the medieval Wild Man (Gentile, 2014:234).
The diminished scale of Gawain in Howe's image compared to the Green Knight and the landscape combined with the atmospheric sky overhead reference deep time and the ways that nature at large dwarfs the constructed world of Arthur’s court, symbolised in the pentangle on Gawain’s shield, a geometric symbol for chivalric authority and moral standing.
Gentile, J (2014) Shape-Shifter in the Green: Performing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Storytelling, Self, Society, 10(2):220–243. https://doi.org/10.13110/storselfsoci.10.2.0220.
Sisto, A. and Marchese, S. (2022) 229 – Always Reaching: An Interview with John Howe. [online] The Prancing Pony Podcast. Available at: https://theprancingponypodcast.com/2021/11/14/229-always-reaching-an-interview-with-john-howe [Accessed 23 May 2022].
Tolkien, J. (1995) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: HarperCollins.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by John Howe, courtesy of the artist. Reproduced by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd © (1996) (J.R.R. Tolkien).
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1995) by John Howe. Cover art for the HarperCollins 1996 edition of J. R. R. Tolkien's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.