Front to back: Legends from the Ancient North series

In the first of a new series looking at the making of an individual book cover or set of titles, we talk to Penguin art editor Isabelle de Cat and illustrator Petra Börner about creating visuals for five new editions of works said to have inspired JRR Tolkein

In the first of a new series looking at the making of an individual book cover or set of titles, we talk to Penguin art editor Isabelle de Cat and illustrator Petra Börner about creating visuals for five new editions of works said to have inspired JRR Tolkein…

Beowulf cover. Artwork by Petra Börner

The five Penguin Classics that make up the newly launched Legends from the Ancient North series are The Wanderer: Elegies, Epics, Riddles; Beowulf; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; The Saga of the Volsungs and The Elder Edda. As works that inspired the fiction of Tolkein, they are, says de Cat, “startling, brutal, strange pieces of writing, filled with heroes, dragons, trolls, dwarves and magic”.

“The iconographic tradition linked to these ancient legends is as diverse as it is rich,” she continues, “and I started on the project by looking through vast amounts of images, from early northern stone carving to pre-Raphaelite paintings, from medieval saga illuminations to the illustrations of Elmer Boyd Smith or Carl Otto Czeschka.”

As well as a translator of many of the epic tales of northern Europe, Tolkien was also an illustrator, explains de Cat. But instead of using what would have been his own contemporaneous visual influences – such as William Morris sketches, for example – the art editor took the opportunity to work with a modern day illustrator who could reference this visual heritage. “Petra’s bold line and incredible use of colour made her an ideal choice,” de Cat says.

All the artwork for the series was created by Börner who used cut-up coloured paper and then layered the pieces together to create single illustrations. From her sketches to the finished covers it has, she says, been a process of reduction and of paring back. “As a homage to Tolkien I asked Petra to adopt an element from the visual language of his illustrations: a strong black line, a lot of white, and a very restricted palette of two bold colours with a splash of red,” says de Cat.

“The focus of each illustration was to be the supernatural, the magical, the brutal and the monstrous rather than the heroes,” she adds. “Grendel for Beowulf, the tree Yggdrasil full of magical creatures for The Elder Edda, a giant for Sir Gawain, the dragon Fafnir for the Saga of the Volsungs and an epic battle for The Wanderer.”

“Initially I was commissioned to do the artwork for Beowulf, mirroring [a] cover of The Hobbit in terms of colour and composition,” says Börner. “I struggled to find the right tone for Grendel and explored different types of monsters, looking at the animal world – bats, bears and gorillas – but then trying to capture a more supernatural or alien madness.”

“At first, focusing on Beowulf solely, Petra sent back dozens of preliminary sketches, conjuring up a world of dangerous caves and scary creatures,” says de Cat. “She worked relentlessly to pin down the figure of Grendel, until we both loved him. The illustrations for Edda and the Volsungs came out nearly perfect from the first go. Gawain evolved quite dramatically right through to the end [see below].”

“I enjoyed sketching the creatures and setting the scenes and its surroundings,” Börner adds. “Whilst finalising the Beowulf cover I was commissioned to illustrate all five covers and it became key to work on a theme that could carry forward and tie them all together.”

Sketch work for Beowulf cover

Background layer for the Beowulf cover

“We had to make sure all the sketches were perfect and that we had everybody on board before Petra could embark on finalising the artworks, as her meticulous paper cutting technique does not allow for changes of mind,” says de Cat.

The Elder Edda cover features the Norse tree of life, Yggdrasil

“I focused on the tree rather than the beast/snake or the deers and elves,” says Börner of her work on The Elder Edda cover, above, “as I wanted it to grow grand and powerful over the cover.”

Final artwork for the The Elder Edda cover

Artwork detail

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight cover

For the image on the cover of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, “the giant has to appear a gigantic,” says Börner, “and it was a challenge without making the composition too busy at the bottom.”

The Wanderer cover

Final artwork for The Wanderer cover

Artwork detail

For The Wanderer cover, above, which Börner constructed as a frenzy of colour, the focus moves to a battle scene rather than a character from the tale. “I initially wanted to focus on the starry sky with the battle raging in shadow below, but instead went for a close-up scene with heavy armour, blood and gore,” she says. “I wanted it to be chaotic, violent and grisly!”

The Saga of the Volsungs cover

Sketch work for The Saga of the Volsungs cover

Final artwork for The Saga of the Volsungs cover

Artwork detail

For the cover of The Saga of the Volsungs the dragon Fafnir is shown in the foreground protecting its treasure. “My technique called for simplicity,” says Börner, “as too many elements make for a very busy composition, [so] I closed in on the treasure.”

With final artwork in place the next stage of the process was titling each edition. “The double challenge for me was to integrate harmoniously all the titling into Petra’s creations – she agreed that I could deconstruct some of the decorative elements to allow for the type – and also to make sure the finished printed cover retained the vibrancy of the colours as she intended them,” says de Cat.

“The uncoated stock of the cover has a lovely feel, but tends to dull colour down, and it took a lot of testing and tweaking for the books to look as bright as the original artworks.”

The five titles will be published by Penguin Classics on November 28; £6.99. Series publisher is Simon Winder. More of Börner’s work at

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