Stunning new ­exhibition explores Tolkien’s life, work and legacy

We check out ‘Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth’, an exhibition that showcases the life of the father of modern fantasy through personal memorabilia

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"I have drained the rich cup and satisfied a long thirst," wrote C S Lewis to his friend and fellow Oxford scholar J R R Tolkien on reading the finished typescript of The Lord of the Rings. Twelve years in the making and a further six to bring to publication, ­Tolkien's epic work proved to be just as stimulating for readers who had waited patiently for a ­sequel to the author's previous literary success, The Hobbit.

Both books have continued to enchant and inspire new generations the world over, and both frequently appear in polls of the best British novels of all time. Tolkien, who was born in 1892 and died aged 81, is today regarded and revered as the father of modern fantasy, his realm of Middle-earth the product of a fecund imagination, fierce intelligence and creative prowess. Few fantasy ­writers so meticulously map their kingdoms, or invent legends, family trees and even languages for their characters. A stunning new ­exhibition exploring Tolkien's life, work and legacy opened last month at the Weston Library in Oxford in the United Kingdom – the city where Tolkien spent most of his adult life, first as a student and later as a professor.

Conversation with Smaug, a watercolour painted by Tolkien in 1937 as an illustration for the first American edition of The Hobbit. In this image, Bilbo Baggins, rendered invisible by a magic ring, converses with the fire-breathing dragon, Smaug.

Tolkien: Maker of Middle- earth is the biggest collection of Tolkien-related material to be gathered for display in a generation. It consists of more than 200 items, some from the Bodleian Library’s extensive Tolkien archive, some from Marquette University’s Tolkien Collection, and some from important private collections.

Catherine McIlwaine, the curator of the exhibition and author of the accompanying catalogue of the same name, explains that over a third of these items have never been seen or published before, ­making this something of a unique experience.

"There are many highlights," she says. "There is the account book Tolkien drew up when he was a student to record the number of hours studied and the number of kisses owed to him by his fiancee, Edith. There is the striking dust jacket he created for The Hobbit in 1937. And there are the personal objects on loan from the Tolkien family including his pipes and tobacco tins, his chair and writing desk, his trilby hat and briefcase, which give us a tangible sense of Tolkien as a person."

I particularly like the intricate patterns and designs he doodled on newspapers as he completed cryptic crosswords, some of which were incorporated into his ­Middle-earth “legendarium”. Also, the varied selection of letters of appreciation he received, either in English from the likes of W H Auden, Iris Murdoch and Joni Mitchell, or in runes or Elvish languages from less renowned but somewhat more devoted correspondents.

The final design of The Hobbit dust jacket. Tolkien not only illustrated The Hobbit but was also closely involved in its production process, designing the dust jacket and the binding. Tolkien’s notes can be seen around the outside of the image. He was keen to use four colours: green, blue, black and red but this was too expensive and the publisher had the final say in the left-hand margin, ‘Ignore red’.

McIlwaine's favourite exhibits are the three leaves from the Book of Mazarbul which illustrate an episode in The Lord of the Rings. "Tolkien used his knowledge of medieval manuscripts to create these pages from this fictitious book," she says. "He burnt the edges of the paper with his pipe. He washed them with brown watercolour to age them and then added red and brown paint to resemble bloodstains. He even added holes and tears to make it look as though they had been stabbed with a blade." For her, the result is more than an illustration: "It is three convincing 'artefacts' from Middle-earth."

Tolkien's life is charted in sections devoted to certain stages. There are photos of the author when he was a child, and a pertinent description of him in a letter by his mother: "He looks more of an elf." His own letters as an able student and willing soldier speak of love, war and loss. Tolkien the academic comes alive through volumes from his personal library, his prose translation of Beowulf, and bits and pieces connected to his literary club, the Inklings.

We get some endearing glimpses of Tolkien the family man through several drawings: a series of sketches from 1918 of his wife and infant son in various playful domestic situations; vibrant watercolour scenes from his bedtime story Roverandom; and the many glorious illustrated letters he sent his four children in the guise of Father Christmas, which came complete with North Pole postage stamps.  

For many, though, it is Tolkien the author that will be of most interest. Individual sections on The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and the posthumous work The Silmarillion contain composition and publication histories, original manuscripts, artwork (including Tolkien's favourite watercolour of Bilbo Baggins riding a barrel down the river), and many maps – not least the exhibition showpiece – a 3D relief map of Middle-earth.

McIlwaine explains that maps were an essential part of Tolkien’s world-building. “Maps were central to the believable ‘reality’ of Middle- earth. Since its creation, readers have delighted in following the journey of the hobbits and their companions through the medium of both story and maps,” she says.

Writers come and go. Over time, fantasy, like all genres, gets redefined, turned around, pushed in new directions. And yet Tolkien’s “secondary” world has lost none of its appeal, and he remains a publishing phenomenon. One indicator of his lasting popularity is that this is the first exhibition at the Bodleian to be ticketed. Entry is free, but visitors are allotted a timed slot to cope with demand.

We can attribute ­Tolkien's ongoing success to the ­universal nature of the themes in his books: the struggle between good and evil, the power of love and the love of power. However, first and foremost, Tolkien was a master storyteller, capable of bewitching children and adults alike by immersing them in Middle-earth – what McIlwaine calls "a richly ­imagined world filled with strange places, peoples and cultures" – and regaling them with drama and adventure from beginning to end. If this exhibition reinforces one aspect about Tolkien it is that talent he had for creating and relating.

After taking everything in and weighing it all up, we emerge from Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth a little overwhelmed and awestruck, but also significantly enlightened about the man, the myth, and the enduring magic.

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth is exhibited at the Weston Library, Oxford until October 28. For more information, visit The accompanying catalogue by Catherine McIlwaine, published by the Bodleian Library, is also out now


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