An Evening with Jef “The Wizard” Murray

Interview with Brandon Young

As a critically acclaimed and internationally-known artist, illustrator, and storyteller Jef Murray wears many hats. His illustrations of the characters and scenes we find in Tolkien, Lewis, and George MacDonald have a capacity for capturing the ineffable. This is why I like to call him, simply, The Wizard. For he is a Wizard, unweaving the aesthetic spell cast by Hollywood.

In anticipation of MythCon 45, Mythmoot III and ALEP 3, I asked to interview the Wizard. Not a day later the Signum Eagle himself came to me and told me the interview would gladly be granted. When I arrived, I soon found myself seated by the fire, with the Wizard beside me. What follows is a record of that fantastic visit:

Young: So Jef, you’ve been one of the highest in-demand Tolkien artists at conventions and conferences, and have participated in a number of them. We shall get into a few specifics in a moment, but generally why do you think it’s important to go to these events?

Murray: Well, I do, indeed, regularly attend Middle-earth themed conferences and conventions, worldwide, and I have been blessed with the opportunity to show my paintings and sketches at these as well as at more dedicated exhibitions of my work. I’ve also been a speaker at civic, religious, and academic gatherings on topics as far-ranging as Christian themes in Tolkien’s works and in fantasy works in general, on Fairy Tales as vehicles for conveying truth, on my Middle-earth and Narnia-themed artwork, of course, but also on Gothic artwork and on the writings of Bram Stoker! In addition, I’ve spoken on dragons, on writers like Flannery O’Connor and G. K. Chesterton, and even on the topic of Gregorian Chant.

The life of a wizard, as you can see, is certainly never dull!…

So, how important are fantasy-themed conferences to us all? Well, if you accept my peculiar notion that all of us are inherently inventive, and that we all have a capacity (latent in some, I’ll grant you, but there nonetheless) for bringing life and creativity into being around us, then gathering with others with similar urgings cannot help but spur us  on to greater things.

Being in the company of those who neither unjustly criticize nor dismiss us allows us to better appreciate our own unique gifts. And our particular (and sometimes peculiar!) way of seeing things is never like anyone else’s; we’re like facets of an infinitely large jewel, each of which contributes to the beauty of the whole. I never attend a conference or art show that does not inspire me. And if someone else is not so inspired, I’d suggest they may not be giving their own imaginations enough space or time or energy to truly flower.

That is the point, it seems to me, of attending such conferences.

Young: ALEP 3 is coming up this autumn. In fact some of the people and places in your book Seer were inspired, were they not, by ALEP? Could you tell us a little about that event for folks who might attend?

Murray: A Long Expected Party, or ALEP, was first held in 2008, and it is a Tolkien-themed conference that defies description. Less a conference than a completely immersive experience, the event has been held every third year since it began, and this September will mark the third reunion of what has become, for many of us, our extended Shire family.

ALEP 3 (or AL3P), will be held September 24th through the 28th in Shaker Village, Kentucky. During those days, all of Shaker Village will become The Shire! Most participants will be staying at the village, and as with the very first ALEP gathering, many of us will remove the yokes of care and worry from our shoulders from the moment we take our first steps onto the green hills of the Village. And we will not concern ourselves with the outside world again until, many days later, and deeply refreshed from having spent so much time with good friends, we must leave the Shire behind once more.

How do I describe what happens in the intervening days of ALEP? It is surpassingly difficult! We awaken each morning and walk the unpaved stretch of road that connects all of the dwelling places with the main dining hall. In the cool mists of daybreak, we bid good morning to Elves, Hobbits, and Dwarves. The breakfasts are hearty and plentiful: enough to put a smile on the face of even the most ravenous of halflings. And that is only fitting, as we will need that provender to stoke the fires for each day’s many adventures….

And, yes, as you mentioned, it is true that my book, Seer: A Wizard’s Journal, does contain at least one reflection based directly on the very first ALEP, and two or three tales, the embers of which were first fanned by that extraordinary gathering.

Young: Speaking of Seer, it received very warm reviews, both in the States and abroad, even though it is a difficult book to describe. Can you tell us a bit more about it, and about its upcoming second printing?

Murray: I’d be delighted to. But, you are correct, it is a difficult book to describe, and I even had the singular experience of having to try to help a librarian catalog it for the first time. Was it a book of short stories? Not exclusively. What about a collection of artwork? Well, somewhat. But, it also contains poetry and essays that range over quite a number of topics. It is, in short, a journal, one that I made over the course of many years, and that has no fixed organizational principle other than that most of the tales fit into the seasons of the year in a satisfying arc, and that made the progression of its tales a bit less haphazard….

As a writer, I tend to work in vignettes rather than in epic tales. This frustrates some of my readers, who want a long narrative that carries them along. But these tales do have subtexts that follow throughout them, and characters that reappear in new and interesting ways as you progress through the book….

Young: And what projects are you working on now?

Murray: Well, for one, my fifth calendar has just now become available. On my own, I have created three in the past that were Middle-earth themed and one that was Narnia-themed; these in addition to working on calendars for Heren Istarion and Beyond Bree. But this one is something new: a calendar featuring Fantastical Beasts and Beings.

Young: Beasts and beings from Middle-earth? Thanks for the biscuits and tea by the way. I suspect we will be talking until the deep hours with “toes next to the fire” as Lewis wrote. Thank you for eveerything, Jef. But, I guess you already know how grateful I am.

Murray: A Wizard can dicern good intention from bad intention. Discernment is important. Brandon, you are welcome to this Wizard’s abode anytime. I suspect those editors will indeed want it shortened for their own purposes.

As for Beasts: Yes, some from Middle-earth, and some from Narnia, and some from other locales in the realms of faerie, include some that one might encounter in the Harry Potter series. There will be Elves, Hobbits, and dragons, as one might expect. But, the calendar also features centaurs, mermaids, naiads, dryads, and even some of the less savory and frightening creatures like fire demons/Balrogs.

Also, I’ve plumbed the works of some of my favorite writers and found appropriate explanatory quotes for each of the folk featured. So, we have verses from the Poetic Edda, from T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Lewis, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and even Ursula K. Le Guin. It was quite a fun project, and I hope others enjoy exploring its pages as much as I did whilst putting it all together.  

Young: Dr. Amy Sturgis (a favorite of Mythgard Institute students and many others), along with Michael Drout and yourself be at ALEP 3 this year. Is it true you’ve illustrated a book on Gothic themes edited by her?

Murray: Yes, It’s certainly an essential book for any serious scholar or people who love the stories. called The Magic Ring: Deluxe Illustrated Edition (Valancourt Classics) by Baron De La Motte Fouque, Amy H. Sturgis and Jef Murrary (2010).

Ah! Lorraine’s biscuits are nearly ready. My young friend, shall we return to this after a break?

Young: Wow! Has it been two hours? You Wizards have ways of bending Space and Time! Yes, and when we get back…I may have some things regarding thoughts on Fantasy and Literature such as Frank Herbert, Doctor Who and so forth….