Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Tolkien and the Mysterious. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!
From January 25 through May 12, 2019, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City is running an exhibit focused on J.R.R. Tolkien’s art and writings, in collaboration with the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. (A slightly different version of the exhibit was run in England first).
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” With these words the Oxford professor J.R.R. Tolkien ignited a fervid spark in generations of readers. From the children’s classic The Hobbit to the epic The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s adventurous tales of hobbits and elves, dwarves and wizards have introduced millions to the rich history of Middle-earth. Going beyond literature, Tolkien’s Middle-earth is a world complete with its own languages and histories. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth celebrates the man and his creation. The exhibition will be the most extensive public display of original Tolkien material for several generations. Drawn from the collections of the Tolkien Archive at the Bodleian Library (Oxford), Marquette University Libraries (Milwaukee), the Morgan, and private lenders, the exhibition will include family photographs and memorabilia, Tolkien’s original illustrations, maps, draft manuscripts, and designs related to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.
I was fairly jealous that I couldn’t attend the original Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibit, so I was extremely excited when it was announced the the exhibit would be making its way to the US, and I basically counted down the days to its opening in New York. This March, I finally was able to go.
The Morgan website notes that the exhibit is “first come, first served,” and I was warned upon purchasing my ticket (which, of course, includes access to the whole museum) that visitors were only allowed through the Tolkien exhibit once. If you left the room, that was it. This all sounded ominous, and it was even more concerning when I passed a long, roped-off line labelled for the exhibit. However, early crowds for the exhibit must have been much larger. Although I went on a Sunday, about an hour and a half after the museum opened, there was no line, and I went right up and in. (Where all my hopes were crushed as I was informed by a staff member that no photography was permitted. I was also reminded that I wouldn’t be allowed back once I left, though no one marked my ticket or anything.)
According to staff, there is “no order” to the exhibit and guests can wander at will, but items are grouped into general categories that follow a loose timeline of Tolkien’s life and work. There’s an area for Tolkien’s family life, for The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, etc. And most people seemed to be following this order through the exhibit, though, of course, I can imagine that would not have to, particularly if they were familiar with Tolkien’s life.
And whether or not visitors are familiar with Tolkien seems to be one area in which the exhibit struggles. On one hand, the signage does not provide a lot of information, and if you don’t know about Tolkien, you’re likely to be confused by what you’re looking at and, really, by the experience in general. I overheard several people desperately asking friends how many books The Lord of the Rings was, what “Gondor” was and who lived there, etc. They were probably somewhat baffled by the whole thing. On the other hand, the signage frequently does not offer information that is particularly new if you’re an avid Tolkien fan. I wouldn’t say that I personally “learned” much that I didn’t know already.
That said, the exhibit was still incredibly cool for me to visit as a fan. Most of the materials I was already familiar with–illustrations from the books, drafts of book jacket designs, maps Tolkien had drawn, etc. The joy here is simply seeing these things in person rather than reproduced in a book or on a screen. There were, however, some items I was not already familiar with–heraldic devices Tolkien had drawn for Silmarillion characters, random doodles he was wont to make on the newspaper as he did the crosswords, a timeline for the different characters and their plots in The Lord of the Rings, and an “account book” he kept with Edith for kisses owed based on how much studying he did while in school. I was somewhat baffled that some of this stuff had been saved (really, random doodles the man made while thinking about a crossword puzzle?), but I suppose he was famous enough his family knew anything he had “created” would be interesting to Tolkien scholars and the general public.
It is worth noting that most of the exhibit is papers, fair enough since it’s about Tolkien’s creation of Middle-earth, the work he did thinking, plotting, brainstorming, illustrating, communicating with his publisher, etc., but there were a few other items, like an Oxford robe he wore to receive an honorary degree, as well as his colored pencils and paint set. I wished a little that there were more things like this, Tolkien’s personal effects, as seeing them in person was incredibly interesting and made Tolkien seem a bit more real even than the originals of papers and pictures I’ve seen reproductions of a thousand times.
There’s no doubt the exhibit is worth visiting for any fan of Tolkien. I suppose its real problem is leaving visitors tantalized and wanting more, just as The Lord of the Rings itself often does. For fans who cannot visit, there is an exhibit book (aptly titled Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth), and it’s very possible you can get the book from your library if you don’t want to purchase it.