Real Life Adventures – The Tolkien Exhibit at the Morgan Museum
A couple of days before Valentine’s Day, as snow and freezing rain spit down upon me, I found myself standing on a railroad station platform awaiting the arrival of the train that would whisk me away into the heart of New York City. Poor weather notwithstanding, I was on a quest, one that would take me more than 100 years into the past by our reckoning and by untold centuries by another. I was bound for the Morgan Museum & Library to view their new exhibit, “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth.”
This exhibit, which runs from January 25th to May 12, 2019, features a collection of items pertaining to J.R.R. Tolkien’s life and creations on loan from the Bodleian Libraries (Oxford), Marquette Universities Libraries (Milwaukee), the Morgan, and private lenders. This impressive collection is one of the largest public displays of Tolkien-related works and items in several generations, and is perhaps an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those in North America to examine rare pieces of literary history.
Museum policy prohibits photography so I was unable to document my visit to the Morgan. I’ll do my best to describe what is on display at the exhibit, which is a poor substitute for seeing it yourself. However, if you can’t make it, the opportunity to glimpse the exhibit’s complete catalog is available and you can find links at the end of this essay for how to do so. But, now, let’s take a virtual trip through the exhibit.
The exhibit is extensive and well-planned. Visitors walk through a round hobbit-hole front door, the vista of the Shire as rendered by Tolkien, himself, in one of his watercolor paintings visible beyond the door. Once immersed in the world of Tolkien’s imagination, the visitor is gently lead through an examination of Tolkien’s life, beginning with his birth in South Africa and his eventual relocation to England following his father’s death. We’re granted a rare look at early childhood photos and letters, as well as documents pertaining to Tolkien’s life under the guardianship of Father Francis Morgan after his mother’s death, and remembrances of his meeting his future wife, Edith Bratt.
Among these items representing Tolkien’s school days are several illustrations and paintings that hint at the much larger imaginary world (or “secondary world,” as Tolkien would later call such creations) of Middle-earth. These include watercolor paintings that Tolkien made in his early twenties, some of which were ahead of their time. In his painting entitled “Eeriness,” we see a robed and staff-bearing figure gazing down a long, tree-lined road, a hat or hood covering its head. The figure bears much in common with Gandalf the wizard, suggesting the seeds of the Grey Pilgrim where already in place long before Tolkien wrote the first line of The Hobbit.
Another work, titled “Beyond,” depicts a pair of lonely mountains with a road running off towards them, a purple moon high overhead. Yet a third untitled work is a rendition of a covered bridge or colonnade extending towards a horizon bearing rugged mountains with flames visible behind them and a black moon or sun rising or setting in the distance. The colors of this fantasy landscape are nearly psychedelic, featuring purples, pinks, greens, and yellows one would normally be unlikely to associate with Middle-earth. This piece is more in line with Moorcock’s imaginary settings than those created by an Oxford professor of philology.
The exhibit now leaves Tolkien’s early years behind to get to what the majority of the visitors have come to see: Middle-earth, beginning with The Hobbit. The original page upon which Tolkien idly wrote the sentence, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” has been lost, but the sketch Tolkien made of Thror’s treasure map survives as does the title page, and both can be seen in the exhibit.
A wall facing these artifacts is adorned with the illustrations and paintings Tolkien created, five of which are watercolors specifically rendered for the first American printing of The Hobbit. These include “The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the-Water,” “Rivendell,” “Bilbo woke up with the early sun in his eyes,” “Bilbo comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves” (Tolkien’s personal favorite of the bunch), and “Conversation with Smaug.” These works are all familiar to fans of The Hobbit, but there’s something transcendent about seeing the Professor’s originals only a few feet away from you.
More works pertaining to The Hobbit round out this part of the exhibit, including the dust jacket Tolkien painted for the book, his original maps of the lands beyond the Misty Mountains, and plot notes of the book.
Continuing along, we next step into the much larger and complex phase of the development of Middle-earth as artifacts from the writing of The Lord of the Rings greet us. As with The Hobbit, many of the works on display here are visual in nature, including Tolkien’s designs for the trilogy’s covers, his sketch maps—including his much-revised map of Middle-earth—and several ink illustrations that were never intended for publication, but were rather aids for Tolkien in the world-building process of creating Middle-earth. Among these is a wonderfully atmospheric rendering of Old Man Willow on the banks of the Withywindle, the Gates of Moria, Dunharrow, and Barad-dûr. My favorite among these is his “The Forest of Lothlorien in Spring,” wherein we are treated to the elven wood in full spring blooming, something absent in The Fellowship of the Ring.
The collection of maps created by Tolkien will be of special interest to visitors of the gamer persuasion. One cannot help but feel a great kinship with Tolkien as we look upon his simple pencil and ink cartographical work from which Middle-earth became defined. The original map of the Shire wouldn’t look out of place among a judge’s campaign notes, and it is with great joy that I can report that a detailed map of Rohan, Gondor, and Mordor was done on graph paper. Apparently, hex paper wasn’t readily available to the Professor.
Not all is visual media, however. Fans desiring a more intimate look at the writing process will be pleased to have the opportunity to peruse artifacts of Tolkien’s writing. These include the sheet of paper which contains the “fire writing” found on the One Ring, a timeline Tolkien worked out to determine who was where and doing what in the opening chapters of The Two Towers after the Fellowship broke up, the original title page for The Lord of the Rings bearing its first title, The Magic Ring, and letters from Tolkien’s publisher and Rayner Unwin, who provided original critical feedback to the story at the tender age of ten.
Before we depart Middle-earth, we are granted a look into the lore that Tolkien spent his entire life writing, revising, and rewriting, the legendarium of Middle-earth known as The Silmarillon. This part of the exhibit houses more of Tolkien’s watercolor work, including “The Shores of Faery” which depicts Kôr, the city of the elves in the Blessed Land of Valinor. Depicted are the Two Trees which form an archway with the city visible in between.
Also present is “The Book of Lost Tales,” a school exercise book bearing the title “The Cottage of Lost Play” upon it. It was in this book that Tolkien first began to record his legendarium that eventually became The Silmarillion. Seeing this is something akin to stumbling across the original stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments—from this plain beginning comes something that altered the entire world.
This part of the exhibit also contains some of Tolkien’s designs of Numenorean heraldry, initial maps of Beleriand, a map of the “Ship of the World,” as well as fragments of the original version of the tale of Turambar and the History of the Elves.
If all this has not assuaged your hunger for Tolkien, yet more remains to be discovered in the exhibit. His letters to Father Christmas are represented, including one of his watercolors that includes a proto goblin on a warg and a Gollum-like creature. A page of the Professor’s translation of Beowulf is on display, as are family photographs of Tolkien, Edith, and his children. Perhaps the most fitting of these other pieces of ephemera, however, is the gown Tolkien wore when presented an honorary D.Litt (Doctor of Letters) from Oxford in 1972. For a man who spent his entire life surrounded by language and words, it was an honor that surpassed even the C.B.E. (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) awarded to him that same year.
“Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” is a rare opportunity for devoted fans to become immersed in the man and his creations, and it is not to be missed by those who harbor a deep love for Middle-earth. If the opportunity presents itself for you to visit the Morgan and see the exhibit for yourself, do so without hesitation. For those unable to pay a visit before the exhibit closes in May, there is some consolation in knowing that the exhibit catalog containing essays, photographs of the exhibit’s items, and other details, is available from the Morgan Library & Museum in both hard and softcover, as well as from Amazon.com.