J.R.R. Tolkien created entire realms within his stories, and now the Morgan Library & Museum has the maps to prove it.
The Morgan’s new exhibition, “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth,” gathers together 117 rarely seen items — like the original map from which Tolkien worked while writing “The Lord of the Rings” — to present a tale of the celebrated author’s life beyond the page.
First shown in Oxford last year and brought to the United States in collaboration with the Boldeian Library, the exhibition features letters, drawings, watercolors, maps, drafts and notes that portray how Tolkien’s world of Elves, Hobbits, dragons, mystical trees and mythical lands came to capture the imaginations of generations of readers.
Sign up for our newsletter
Divided into six sections, the show begins with photographs and ephemera from his childhood — including a letter in which Tolkien’s mother describes him as an “Elvish” child — and spans the duration of his career as a writer, culminating with his lifelong project, “The Silmarillion,” which tells the history of the Elves during the First Age of Middle-earth and serves as the narrative key to Tolkien’s writings.
Manuscripts of his two most famous works, “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” will be of interest to even the most casual fan, and the visual artifacts gathered in the exhibition provide further insight into Tolkien’s process as an image-maker and writer.
In a collection of cards created for his children, Tolkien writes and illustrates in the hand of Father Christmas. The small drawings, full of whimsical detail and created while Tolkien was penning “The Hobbit,” contain allusions to the goblins and creatures that later come to populate Middle-earth. Similarly, architectural motifs in Tolkien’s version of the North Pole echo throughout his later drawings and written descriptions of arched doorways and dark passages.
In drawings from Tolkien’s schooldays, eerie forests and psychedelic patterning doodled on strips of newspaper serve as early glimpses into a mind preoccupied with an alternative time and place.
“These images were so engrained in his imagination that he had this innate need to express them before he even knew what Middle-earth was,” said Morgan exhibition curator John T. McQuillen last week at a preview of the show.
While writing “The Hobbit,” Tolkien was meticulous in his effort to commit his vision of Middle-earth to paper, creating watercolor illustrations and a detailed map of the terrain crossed by Bilbo Baggins during his adventures.
Though not intended to serve as final drawings, these “amateur illustrations,” as Tolkien called them, were eventually incorporated into the book after his publisher saw them and insisted that they include them. Five of these watercolors, along with two ink line-drawings, are displayed in the exhibition alongside a draft of the book’s now-iconic dust-jacket, which Tolkien also designed.
But despite the praise that Tolkien received from his publisher — and the impressive collection of vivid drawings on display throughout the whole of the exhibition — Tolkien did not think of himself as an artist. In a letter to an Oxford colleague, Tolkien writes: “All the illustrations, save the dust jacket, are bad.”
A number of Tolkien’s maps also feature predominately in the exhibition, including his original “Thror’s Map,” which depicts Middle-earth and was made to conceptualize “The Hobbit.”
“The geography of Middle-earth was critical to the veracity of the story,” said McQuillen. “And Tolkien was clear when he stated that the map came first and he made the story fit.”
“It is exciting to see so much material in Tolkien’s own hand,” said McQuillen in a statement prior to the preview. “It’s as if we are looking over his shoulder while he composes and illustrates his vision of Middle-earth. We get to glimpse moments in the creation of the narrative, such as when he changes the wizard’s name to Gandalf or suddenly comes up with the idea of the One Ring. It is almost voyeuristic: we have the opportunity to see the creative process that brought us the books with which we are so familiar.”
“Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth” is on view at the Morgan Library & Museum through May 12.
Top Image: Installation view of "Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth." Photo courtesy the Morgan Library & Museum.