Designing Beowulf by Ben Gardiner

It’s a balancing act designing a cover to illustrate J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary texts; simultaneously giving his fantastical works a stand out and distinctive look, whilst also paying respect to the genre and decades of publishing that have gone before.

The famous ‘Tolkien branding’ of uppercase Sabon Roman is immediately identifiable as it is used consistently across both backlist and frontlist Tolkien titles. However, the title type of Beowulf was given a Viking-esque feel with the use of Jonathan Barnbrook’s Mason Serif typeface, complete with elegant terminals and quirky alternative characters (check out the ‘W’).

The bold Nordic theme was also encouraged for the visuals. To begin with it was a case of researching imagery, trying to represent the character of Beowulf by exploring the weaponry he might have carried, the armour he might have worn, or the weathered face he might have sported. However, we found that the more emphasis that was placed upon Beowulf’s visual identity, the less impactful the cover became. And so, we decided to change tack to one that evoked the feeling of the epic Viking-adventure to match the mood and tone of the poem.

It was also important to convey a literary aesthetic with the look of the cover, as a substantial part of the book consists of Tolkien’s notes, written lectures and commentary. Working in close collaboration with the Tolkien Estate, this inspired the idea of delving into the archives of J.R.R. Tolkien’s own artwork to see if there was anything he may have produced to illustrate the work. The Dragon was the perfect fit: the coiling beast was set in full colour under the title type, with an emboss to highlight and lift his scales. He sits on a bed of blue-green to evoke the sea, darkened at the edges for a sense of atmosphere.


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