J.R.R. Tolkien was interested in all things linguistic, as his written work more than demonstrates. What the new exhibition “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth,” reveals, however, is how much of a visual artist Tolkien was.

He liked to visualize the scenes and the world about which he was writing. The fact that this world was being born inside his head, with many influences from Beowulf to the Norse sagas, makes this all the more intriguing.

The most surprising thing was the Irish-English Dictionary.

It was displayed in Oxford University’s Bodleian Libraries in the middle of the new Tolkien exhibition. There, in its center, is the great man’s chair and his bureau, and sitting upon the latter are three books, one of which is the said dictionary.

Throughout the exhibition, these two aspects, word play and visual art, are combined in the most unusual artifacts.

Take, for example, the crossword puzzles from British newspapers, such as The Times and The Daily Telegraph, which are completed but then doodled all-around. And what doodles: One can picture the author lost in a reverie of words and shapes that, through a haze of pipe smoke, came finally to rest upon the pages of these newspapers. It was prescient of someone somewhere, presumably his family, to retain these glimpses into the private world of the creative mind of J.R.R. Tolkien.

On public display at Oxford is an extensive collection of materials related to Tolkien. The exhibition’s theme is the creation of Middle-earth. Gathered from the U.K., the U.S. and France, there are manuscripts, artwork, maps, letters and other artifacts. “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth” includes more than 200 items, 60 of which have never been displayed before, from Bodleian’s extensive Tolkien Archive and Marquette University’s Tolkien Collection, as well as from important private collections, with many items drawn directly from the author’s family.

This seminal exhibition is rightly hailed as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to see assembled a Tolkien treasury reunited for the first time since the author’s death in 1973. It is fitting that the exhibition should take place in Oxford, the city where Tolkien spent most of his adult life, first as a student of classics in 1911 (he later transferred to the School of English) and eventually as a professor of English language and literature, teaching Anglo-Saxon and Middle English literature especially.

Tellingly, the Oxford professor who in his spare time was busy imagining another world created some of these many images of Middle-earth on the backs of discarded examination papers.

Walking around the various exhibits, one is left marveling at the talents possessed by Tolkien: He was not only an eminent philologist, but also a successful writer. His first published work, The Hobbit (1937), was a great success upon publication. But, in addition to that, Tolkien was a painter, a sketcher, a cartographer and calligrapher, to say nothing of a much-loved and devoted husband and father.

On display are some touching photographs of him building sandcastles with his children. There is even a recording of Tolkien singing in Elvish. Just as there seemed to be no end to his ability to create imaginary worlds, so, too, there appeared to be no limits placed on the creativity of J.R.R. Tolkien.

What is also remembered by many, however, is how devout the Catholic convert was throughout his life, something strangely missing from the exhibition.

There is recorded, however, a domesticity to the creativity presented in the exhibition. So much of Tolkien’s creativity was bound up with his family life. This included reading extracts of his imagined worlds to his children: That was how The Hobbit came to be.

For his children, there are examples of drawings meant to amuse or comfort them. There is one of an owl beautifully drawn on account of his son Michael’s nightmare about that bird, Tolkien’s thinking being that the sight of a friendly owl would dispense such fears. It did.

There are his wife Edith’s transcriptions of her husband’s words, showing that she, too, had as beautiful handwriting as he. The genius of Tolkien was sustained and nourished by his settled and largely harmonious family life. This exhibition is a quiet testament to this.

Nevertheless, in the exhibition, it is good to come across an artifact that demonstrates how much of a struggle it was for Tolkien to bring his creations to the wider world. That comes in the shape of one of the most unexpected and amusing exhibits.

After the success of The Hobbit, Tolkien was eager to publish his next tale, The Silmarillion. His publishers were equally excited at the prospect of another book from the author. Tolkien handed the manuscript to his London publisher, George Allen & Unwin. This was duly passed to one of the firm’s readers. The reader’s response alone is worth a visit to the exhibition. In short, he doesn’t know what to make of the world he has stumbled into, at one point commenting: “Would there be any market for a long, involved, romantic-verse tale of Celtic elves and mortals?” This neatly typed response sheet gives hope to all writers.

The publisher, no doubt in dismay, scribbled on this report: “What next?” “What next” turned out to be The Lord of the Rings. The Silmarillion, which Tolkien began writing in 1914, was set aside — never to be completed, but nevertheless published by his son Christopher in 1977 — and, instead, he began work on what was to become his magnum opus.

The vastness of Middle-earth ranged before the visitor has a surprising intimacy when contained in this one room. Those who wish to see the emergence of a world that children of all ages have come to inhabit will not be disappointed. In this exhibition visitors see something — primarily visual — of the workings of one of the great creative minds of the 20th century.

Going back to that bureau and the books upon it: There, too, are Tolkien’s reading glasses, but there is something else besides, which turns out to be even more intimate in a curious way.

His collection of pipes is there, arranged around an old-fashioned ashtray. It is said he could not write without his pipe lit. During the exhibit preparations, each of these pipes still held the smell of the pungent aroma of tobacco, as if Tolkien had just placed one of them down, having completed yet another passage about Middle-earth.

To visit “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth” is to enter into the world of J.R.R. Tolkien in more ways than one.

K.V. Turley writes

 from London.


The exhibition, which opened June 1, closes Oct. 28. It is free, but book online both a time and a date when planning to visit, as only 60 people will be allowed in the exhibition space at any time, so as to ensure that all are able to peruse comfortably. After its Oxford exhibition, “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth” goes on tour to Paris and New York. In New York, it will be shown at the Morgan Library from Jan. 25 to May 12, 2019. In late 2019, the Bodleian Libraries and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France will collaborate on the largest Tolkien exhibition ever held in France.