Casual observers probably think of elves, rings, and large glowing eyes when they hear his name. Literary enthusiasts know him through his most famous books, collectively known as The Lord of the Rings. Diehard fans know both these and his lesser-known but equally beautiful tales, including The Silmarillion and The Father Christmas Letters. If you take your undying love for J. R .R. Tolkien just one step further, you’ll walk right into a compact room on the second floor of New York City’s Morgan Library. And it is here that you will discover a new and enchanting side of this master storyteller and begin to understand his dedication to the world he spent his life creating.
Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth is a carefully curated collection of the author’s artwork, maps, manuscripts, and memorabilia — the first exhibit of his work to take this particular angle. From a visitor’s perspective, the detail and care taken in the presentation of this exhibit show the intense planning and forethought given by the museum’s curators. Every aspect is intended to help immerse the viewer in Tolkien’s imagination.
A hobbit-hole-shaped entrance welcomes you as you stand in the small waiting room just outside the exhibit. The entire exhibit space is rather cramped, and due to its popularity, even arriving precisely when the museum opens still doesn’t guarantee a quick entrance. And it is better this way. The curators seem to realize that these works are intimate, sacred in some way. They would do poorly in a huge hall, scanned briefly or overlooked entirely. But in this close setting, you must walk a journey of small, shuffling paces, working clockwise around a room that takes you chronologically through his childhood inspirations, love and marriage, and then the various stages of his authorial and artistic pursuits.
Often a good exhibit requires more than just the items in the cases to raise it to the level of greatness. But sometimes this “more” can simply be a well-directed spotlight or the color on the wall behind a particular piece of art. Each stage of Tolkien’s life is well marked, by placards with dates but also by the wall color. Nothing distracting, but decidedly distinct. Furthermore, a few of Tolkien’s more detailed images from his Lord of the Rings trilogy — such as Bilbo encountering Smaug and a bird’s-eye view of Hobbiton — were enlarged to cover walls. This gives viewers a chance to see detail on a different scale, and then enjoy it in miniature when they see the original a few moments later.
It would be difficult to say which pieces stand out more or capture one’s attention over the others. Each display is unique and delightful in its own way, from Tolkien’s doodles and designs on newspaper clippings to drafts of his dust-jacket design for the first edition of The Hobbit. (He originally drew the sun on the front in bright red, but his publisher covered it in white and wrote “no red” because of the added expense.) Throughout the exhibit, we cannot help but see the immense detail with which Tolkien crafted his world. Everything had a place and a purpose. Well-worn, heavily marked maps that looked as if they’d seen many a long trek hung on the walls, creased from use and with scorch marks where ashes dropped from the thoughtful professor’s pipe. He constantly used both the maps and a sheet of paper with all the storylines so as to keep his tales accurate and exact. A personal favorite: the piece of paper whereon he detailed how many steps a hobbit could take. Being short, they might not last long on a journey, so he wanted to be as precise as possible with how far they could travel in a given day.
In my mind, however, there was one display that demanded my attention before I even entered the exhibit. It took some time to reach, but there at last, right at the end, I found it. Six or so years ago, I discovered a collection of Tolkien’s works — a set of letters he wrote to his children every Christmas from 1920 to 1942. I was entranced by the stories, art, and detail that went into producing these charming letters every year and hoped that due attention would be paid them at the official exhibit. Only one letter and a few of the images were on display, but it was enough. The deliberately shaky writing he used to disguise his own hand, the hilarious naughty stunts of the North Polar Bear, and the exquisite hand-drawn stamp were all right there, reminding the world of a man who was not only an acclaimed author and Oxford professor but a father who dearly loved and cherished his family.
I have few complaints beyond the slightly cramped and awkward space. It was a great disappointment to one of my simple purse to find that no postcards from the exhibit were for sale. Also, for an author whose faith so deeply informed his writings, there was no mention of Tolkien’s Catholicism during the entire exhibit, something I found somewhat surprising but not totally unexpected. It was there in his art. I only wish the curators had thought to draw it out.
Regardless, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth is a delight and a joy to experience. Go early with a friend. Read. Observe. Muse. Smile and ponder. And then thank God for the depth, wisdom, and beauty of Tolkien and his art.