The Maker of Middle-earth, in Gorgeous Detail

The final design of The Hobbit dust jacket, with notes from Tolkien in the margins. (© The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937)
A traveling exhibit displays the most thorough collection in years of Tolkien’s wide-ranging creative gifts.

Oxford, England — After five months of ferocious and futile slaughter in “the Great War,” an Oxford undergraduate — knowing his deployment to the Western Front was inevitable — used his Christmas break in 1914 to cultivate his imagination. Twenty-two-year-old J. R. R. Tolkien began writing “The Story of Kullervo,” a heroic yet dark tale based on the Finnish saga The Kalevala. In May 1915, a year before he arrived in France as a second lieutenant in the British Expeditionary Force, he painted a watercolor, “The Shores of Faery,” which places Kor, the city of the Elves, at its center. Accompanying the painting, in his sketchbook, is a poem with the same name, describing Valinor, the “Undying Lands” that would form part of the landscape of his legendarium. Tolkien’s taste for fantasy, he explained, was “quickened to full life by war.”

Such clues to the development of Tolkien’s creative imagination are beautifully assembled in “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth,” an exhibition by the Bodleian Library of Oxford University that represents the most thorough treatment of his life and work in decades. The collection includes draft manuscripts of his best-known works, such as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well as fan letters, family photographs, and dozens of drawings, maps, and watercolors that Tolkien created to illustrate his stories.

Indeed, the numerous sketches and paintings in the Bodleian’s Weston Library, which is hosting the exhibition, will enlighten even longtime Tolkien fans about the intensely visual and artistic aspect of his creativity. For many years, Tolkien’s four children — John, Michael, Christopher, and Priscilla — were the recipients of his “Father Christmas” letters, which usually included images drawn with ink or watercolor. His invented stories for his children ultimately led to The Hobbit (1937), and he brought to the manuscript a series of artistic renderings to flesh out his vision. “I never could draw,” he wrote to his publisher with characteristic modesty, “and the half-baked intimations of it seem wholly to have left me.” Nevertheless, Tolkien produced dozens of drawings and watercolors, like the enchantingly pastoral “Hobbiton,” to help capture the forests and mountains and fields of Middle-earth.

The Bodleian’s Tolkien archivist, Catherine McIlwaine, has given the exhibition a tremendous vitality by placing Tolkien in the full context of his life: his role as son, scholar, tutor, author, husband, father, and friend. On display is a tattered portion of Tolkien’s 1926 prose translation of Beowulf, the Old English epic poem that he studied and taught for most of his professional life. He considered it the “greatest of the surviving works of ancient English poetic art,” and his college lectures on the poem drew large and enthusiastic audiences. “Dear Prof. Tolkien,” begins a 1941 letter from Betty Bond, one of Tolkien’s students. “Some of us among the home students would like to tell you how much we have enjoyed your ‘Beowulf’ lectures this term, and to thank you not only for enlightening but also entertaining us for two hours a week. We hope that we shall now be able to face the terrors of schools [examinations] as fearlessly as Beowulf met Grendel!”