Image of Hobbit Dust Jacket, MS. Tolkien Drawings 32, copyright the Tolkien Estate
J.R.R. Tolkien’s annotations on a recently discovered map reveal that Hobbiton was located at the approximate latitude of Oxford. During the next few months, visitors to “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth” at the Bodleian Libraries’ Weston Library of Oxford University can immerse themselves in Tolkien’s world through the most extensive exhibition of his life and work since the 1950s.
Filled with memorabilia ranging from family photographs and fan letters to Tolkien’s pipes, the exhibition vividly evokes his professional and private life while offering an exceptional opportunity to explore the decadeslong evolution of Tolkien’s creations. Among the documents on view are the logs he used to plot his characters’ day-by-day journeys, draft manuscripts of his major and minor works, and the illustrations and maps that contribute so much to the visual impact of his stories. For those not able to undertake a pilgrimage to Oxford, the exhibition will travel to New York’s Morgan Library in January 2019.
Although Tolkien is best known for his invention of ancient races of Elves, Orcs, Dwarves, men and wizards (not to mention their languages), the surprise of the exhibition is Tolkien’s visual art—the dozens of drawings and watercolors he made to accompany his stories. Moreover, his visual designs are radically different from his writing because they do not depict Bilbo, Gandalf, Ringwraiths, or his other characters. Instead they capture the mountains, forests and rivers of Middle-Earth.
Under the guidance of his mother, who came from a family of engravers, Tolkien began drawing and painting as a child. By the time he entered Oxford’s Exeter college in 1911, he was an accomplished amateur, whose skill ranged from architectural renderings of the city’s historical buildings to nearly abstract, fantastical landscapes rendered in brilliant watercolors. While only the daydreams of an undergraduate, these imagined views were among the first seeds of his mature creations.
In fact, Tolkien was a consummate amateur. He never received professional training as an artist or a writer of fiction. He earned a living as a professor of English at Leeds and Oxford.
As he began composing “The Hobbit” in the late 1920s and ’30s, Tolkien relied on his skills as a visual artist to bring to life the places his characters inhabited. Readers of the novel are familiar with the intricately finished watercolors he painted in 1937 for the first American edition of the book. His style benefitted from the work of Arthur Rackham and other artists in a great age of illustration, but Tolkien also infused his images with the sinuous lines and scintillating patterns of Art Nouveau. Most famously, “The Hill: Hobbiton-Across-the Water” presents an image of tilled fields, blossoming trees and pristine architecture bordering a road that meanders to Bilbo’s round front door high on a hill. The abundant detail of this scene conveys a fuller impression of the Shire than any description in “The Hobbit.” Sometimes Tolkien’s visual imagination surpassed his verbal descriptions.
Tolkien Drawings 87, fol. 22r
Thanks to the extensive Tolkien archive at the Bodleian, the exhibition includes sketches he made yo plan the topography of his world. Unlike the polished illustrations published in most editions of “The Hobbit,” these rough renderings allow us to enter his creative process as he shaped his landscapes, locating the Elvish city of Rivendell nearly hidden in sheltering mountains or mapping the caverns, passages and peaks of the Lonely Mountain.
The most fascinating objects in the exhibition are the maps Tolkien created to chart his tales. As he said about "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy "I wisely started with a map and made the story fit.” Among the few pages of Tolkien’s first draft of “The Hobbit” that survive, one is largely devoted to Thror’s treasure map, the document that was inherited by the Dwarf king Thorin and guides the company to the hoard of the dragon Smaug. Tolkien recalled that the story began with a sentence he scrawled on an exam book while reading student papers—“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”—yet “for some years I got no further than the production of Thror’s Map.” Its imagery of a spiky hand rising from lines of mysterious runes and pointing to the outline of the mountain immediately captures the danger of the adventure.
The Bodleian contains 30 maps Tolkien drew while preparing “The Lord of the Rings", all part of his “working map” centered on the horse kingdom of Rohan. For Tolkien the writer, this map was the One Ring. He expanded the original sheet many times by attaching surrounding pages with brown packing tape. His inscriptions in pencil and pen have abraded until they are barely legible and are sometimes obscured by small holes burned by sparks from his pipe. Unlike the simplified map that appeared in the books, this chart displays the challenges Tolkien faced during the 12 years he spent writing the trilogy.
While these documents enthrall adults, the curator of the exhibition, Catherine McIlwaine, the Bodleian’s Tolkien archivist, has included plenty of ways for children to engage Tolkien’s world. A three-dimensional map and touch screens allow visitors to learn some Elvish phrases or follow the routes of major characters as they journey across Middle-Earth. Even if Tolkien would have been appalled by this high-tech equipment, its interactive features help guide a new generation into his books.