I stand in the rounded doorway of the entrance chamber. The wall to my right bears a calligraphed monogram in the form of a cross laid over a curl of ribbon. The gatekeeper, a man with a black suit and a walkie-talkie, cautions me against phone use.
‘We were trying to make it feel like you were entering into a very different space,’ explains John McQuillen, an associate curator at the Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan, which is hosting Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, an exhibition of J.R.R. Tolkein’s artwork and writing. The effect, McQuillen says, is for the visitor to feel, ‘Here we go, into the world of Middle-earth!’
I cross into the exhibition chamber. The walls are crowded with drawings and paintings, most no bigger than a sheet of computer paper: a row of hand-drawn book jackets bearing intricate lettering, a painting of a tall figure in a wizard’s hat and cloak standing at the threshold of a forest, another of a stream moving between grassy cliffs over the caption ‘RIVENDELL’. In most of the paintings, the colours bleed into each other and accumulate in strange corners.
‘It’s a watercolour called gouache, which is much heavier than a children’s set of watercolours,’ McQuillen tells me.
Beside each work, there is a museum label so long that, if you’re like me, getting to the end of it is a little like trying to finish reading through The Lord of the Rings itself. But you don’t need to read the labels or the books to grasp that the exhibition places Tolkien in the company of William Blake and Maurice Sendak as an artist of texts and images.
On one wall is a drawing a tree bearing a variety of different flowers. According to the label beside it, Tolkien drew many versions of this tree, which he named the tree of Amalion. For him, the tree represented his own creative visions, which extended in as many directions as the tree’s branches and, like its flowers, took on a variety of forms.
The exhibition began over a year ago at the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford, where archivist Catherine McIlwaine sorted through over five hundred boxes containing everything from Tolkien’s completed drawings and manuscripts to his jottings on scrap paper. From those materials, McIlwaine created the catalogue for an exhibition at the Bodleian that opened in June of 2018.
While the Bodleian exhibition was in preparation, McQuillen culled through McIlwaine’s catalogue to create a condensed version of it that could be accommodated by the Morgan’s tiny gallery space. He settled on 115 objects that spoke to the creation of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion.
‘It’s a big world,’ McQuillen sighs. ‘Middle-earth is a very big world.’
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in 1892 in Bloemfontein, in what is today the Free State Province in South Africa. When Tolkien was three years old, his mother took him and his younger brother to visit her parents in England. Tolkien’s father, a bank manager, had planned to join the rest of the family in England, but contracted rheumatic fever and died. Tolkien’s newly widowed mother decided to remain in England and raise Tolkien and his brother there.
After serving in combat in the First World War, Tolkien became a professor of Anglo-Saxon, also known as Old English, at Oxford’s Pembroke College. During this time he wrote The Hobbit and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings. (See Tolkien’s Gateway to understand the influence of Tolkien’s academic work over his fiction).
Tolkien’s works were well-received in the fifties, although it would be another decade before they reached their peak popularity. In 1956, Tolkien was contacted by London rare book dealer Bertram Rota on behalf of William Ready, director of the library at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Marquette is a Catholic Jesuit university, Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and Ready was collecting the papers of Catholic authors.
‘I think it is sort of interesting that this librarian had such foresight in the 1950s and even at that point realised the importance of Tolkien’s work that he wanted to build this collection,’ McQuillen muses. ‘They were interested in the fact that Tolkien was a very devout Catholic. While The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings weren’t overtly Christian, there are deep Christian themes in them.’
Tolkien ended up selling his works to Marquette for 1500 pounds. After Tolkien’s death in 1973, his son Christopher continued sending his father’s manuscripts to Marquette’s library, although The Silmarillion and Leaf by Niggle manuscripts were given to the Bodleian.
In 2012, William Fliss became the new archivist at Marquette’s library. ‘It was just around the time the Hobbit movies were coming out,’ Fliss tells me over the phone from the library. ‘I started doing showings of the original manuscripts and they were so popular, I kept doing them every couple of months.’
Last summer, Fliss sent twelve items from the collection to McIlwaine for the Bodleian exhibition. ‘It’s the first time those manuscripts were back on British soil since 1958 or since the late 80s, depending on the leaves we’re talking about,’ Fliss says.
After McQuillen perused McIlwaine’s catalogue, he settled on 115 objects that would tell Middle-earth’s creation story. Among them were all twelve of the items borrowed from Marquette’s Library.
‘When the exhibition at the Bodleian ended in October, we arranged for those items to remain in storage in Oxford,’ Fliss said. ‘Less travel for manuscripts is a better thing, you know, fewer opportunities for bad things to happen.’
The collection arrived in New York in time for the Morgan exhibition’s January opening, and will remain there until May 12th. Then most of the items will be returned to the Bodleian, and the remaining twelve will go back to Marquette.
Meanwhile, Fliss has embarked on a quest of his own. ‘I’ve started a collection, quietly in the past couple of years, where I gather three-minute interviews with Tolkien fans,’ he says. ‘My goal is to collect 6,000 fans, which is the number of Riders of Rohan that Théoden mustered to lead the siege of the city of Minas Tirith. Eventually I’ll make them available online so people can listen to interviews or read transcripts of them.’
I asked Fliss what kinds of stories he had heard so far.
‘There was an American living in Saudi Arabia, [who] said that since he was an orphan, he had troubled relationships early in life. Tolkien was a father figure for him in terms of teaching good conduct and virtuous behaviour.’
And so, Tolkien’s life story, as told by his art, found its way from Bloemfontein to Oxford and Milwaukee, and from there to Saudi Arabia and New York City. And Tolkien, who lost his own father early in life, fulfilled a fatherly role for a man living in another era and another part of the world.
But Fliss is quick to assure me that fans of all levels can participate in his project. ‘I’m not just seeking out crazy loyal fans,’ Fliss says. ‘If you self-identify as a fan, you’re welcome to contribute.’
In the Morgan’s gallery, the label beside the tree of Amalion holds a confession: Tolkien lamented that, as a professor and a husband and father, he didn’t have the resources to grow his own tree as much as he wanted. I stare at the tree, the way the golden branches curl around each other, the spiky leaves and lush pink petals. I step back and take in the gouache landscapes and the sentences scrawled out in invented languages. I look at my fellow gallery-goers who step back and squint and lean in so their noses hover inches from the artwork. They seem baffled and fascinated and utterly lost in what so many scholars have made of Tolkien’s work: in a tiny corner of New York City, a forest of Amalion.
This post was produced by Samantha Steiner. Samantha is a writer and visual artist. She holds a B.A. in comparative literature from Brown University and is an M.F.A. candidate in nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. In 2017, she served as a Fulbright Scholar in Argentina. Her writing has appeared in Coffin Bell and The Temper and on the International Writers' Blog. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @Steiner_Reads.