The Book That Made Me: Philip Reeve

Published on: 15 October 2019 Author: Philip Reeve

What's the childhood book that made you who you are today?

Author-illustrator Philip Reeve explains how a book of drawings by Brian Froud planted stories in a young teen's mind of fantasy worlds, trolls, knights and fairies...

Left: Philip Reeve as a boy; right: the front cover of The Land of Froud by Brian Froud

There is no one book that made me. Like most readers, I have a whole chain of them, which stretches way back through Ray Bradbury’s collected short stories, Rosemary Sutcliff’s Warrior Scarlet and The Eagle of the Ninth, The Lord of the Rings, the Asterix and Narnia and Molesworth and Noggin the Nog books, all the way into the mists of the 1960s, where it doubtless began with some long-forgotten picture book.

They all helped to shape my tastes, and give me an interest in words and a love of stories. But the book that had the biggest effect on my life told no story in any conventional sense, and contained very few words at all.

Gateway to a strange land

As observant readers will have gathered from the list above, my favourite childhood books were fantasies – I loved Tolkien and C S Lewis, Alan Garner, Lloyd Alexander and Patricia Wrightson. But those books mostly came without pictures, or had pictures which didn’t quite match the images that the texts put in my mind.

Then, when I was about 13, I started to notice that some of the book covers I liked best were credited to an illustrator named Brian Froud. In the autumn of ‘79, nosing around a bookshop in Brighton, I found a whole large-format book devoted to his work.

It was wrapped in cellophane so I couldn’t look inside, but the cover image, of a boy talking to a strange troll-like creature among the twistiest, mossiest trees I’d ever seen, was enough to make me know I had to have it. It cost a daunting £3.95, which meant weeks of saving, but I got there in the end, and I brought my copy of The Land of Froud home in triumph on the first weekend of half term.

There was a short introduction (written by Brian Sanders, illustrated with Froud’s pencil sketches), in which I learned how the young illustrator had started out, and that he now lived on Dartmoor with his friend and colleague Alan Lee. Then came 45 colour plates, beginning with reprinted images from other books, but quickly giving way to pictures painted just for this one; pictures of trolls and knights and fairies, spooky, funny, enchanting pictures which felt somehow exactly right, as if it really were a gateway to a strange land, but one which I somehow recognised.

I said earlier that The Land of Froud tells no story, but the pictures hinted intriguingly at dozens of stories. Trolls bedecked with knotted string and holed stones wait in the woods to offer advice to wanderers, errant knights fail to notice giants watching them from among the tangled trees, while fairies, gnomes and goblins lurk behind rocks and roots.

With each picture was a note from the artist – but it was seldom longer than a sentence or two – beside an image of a gnome-like creature: ‘I think this is what the Scandinavians call a Tomte’. And for an atypically sinister picture of a Pre-Raphaelite maiden being menaced by a dangling monster: ‘One day I saw a large bunch of twigs and leaves bound up in cobwebs and hanging by a thin thread'.

Sometimes the comments were more general – ‘When I’m out for a walk I don’t stop, so it’s the moving and the memories that are meaningful’. This is good advice, which I still try to heed.

There are no landscapes in the traditional sense in Froud’s work, but a lot of the pictures in The Land of Froud have landscape backgrounds which (sadly, I think) are absent from his later work. Often there is a frieze-like screen of tangled, wintry trees, grey with lichen against a sepia sky, almost indistinguishable from the rocks they grow among. They capture the feel of Dartmoor better than almost anything I’ve seen.

'I wanted to be an illustrator and live on Dartmoor'

Later, I would learn that Froud’s work sits firmly in the tradition of Arthur Rackham and William Heath Robinson. Later still, I would discover that a lot of the compositions in The Land of Froud are homages to the great Swedish illustrator John Bauer. At the time, I only knew that I had found what I was looking for: pictures which rescued fairy tales and folklore from the over-bright, over-sanitised grip of Disney movies and drew them back into the Celtic twilight where they belonged.

By the time I’d devoured the book a few times, I not only had a renewed interest in those old stories, I knew with perfect certainty that I wanted to be an illustrator and live on Dartmoor. That certainty stayed with me through O and A levels, all the way to art college.

I’m not sure that was altogether a good thing. I spent far too much time trying to draw in a "Froudish" way and not nearly enough experimenting – but it worked out all right in the end. Perhaps I would still have become an illustrator if I’d never seen The Land of Froud, and I might have been a better one, but if I’d been a better illustrator I might not have found the time to be a writer, too. And I did end up living on Dartmoor (with a print of The Land of Froud’s cover illustration on my living room wall).

It worked out all right for Brian Froud, too, because The Land of Froud was also picked up and pored over by someone far more influential than me – the Muppets creator Jim Henson, who promptly hired Froud as concept artist for his 1982 movie The Dark Crystal. The long-awaited sequel is now on Netflix.

The Land of Froud is long out-of-print and hard to find, but some of the illustrations from it were republished in a more recent Froud book, Trolls, and most of them can be found online.

See the other features in The Book That Made Me series

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