Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth Exhibition

The Bodleian Library in Oxford is currently (1st June to 28th October) running an exhibition of items from the Tolkien archives. I’ve never been one to bask in, for instance, the particular chair an author wrote in (the chair from Tolkien’s study, and his little writing desk, are both on display), nor to get much from standing in the presence of an original manuscript, unless it’s been made more interesting with doodles (as with Mervyn Peake) or interesting corrections. I was, though, genuinely thrilled to see some of Tolkien’s original artwork, including two I must have known since first reading The Hobbit around the age of 10 or 11 — “A Conversation with Smaug”, which was used as the cover to my copy of The Hobbit, and his illustration of the trolls.

“A Conversation with Smaug” by Tolkien

What struck me about both was how small they were. Neither seemed appreciably bigger than the state in which I’d first seen them, i.e. the page-size of a 1970s paperback (they were probably more hardback size). And this smallness — tinyness, even — became something of a theme throughout the exhibition. For someone who created the first modern epic-sized fantasy, Tolkien, when he wrote, and when he drew, wrote and drew very small. The thing that really brought this home was seeing a letter written by Tolkien’s mother. Her handwriting was extremely neat, quite stylistic, but extremely tiny. I can’t find an example to reproduce, but I particularly remember her letter “p”, which had a strongly angled upright, with a little curlicue at the end, joined onto a perfect little circle. The whole thing looked as regular as typewritten text, but also, of course, being handwritten, entirely unique. And also tiny. Tiny, tiny, tiny.

Moving from that to some examples of Tolkien’s own writing, in his invented scripts, seemed more of a logical step than a leap of invention — with his invented letters being based around tiny circles with lines and curlicues attached, all so neat and tiny. Not quite as tiny as Mrs Tolkien’s, but tiny nevertheless. The tinyness of Mrs Tolkien’s handwriting could, of course, be put down to her writing on small letter-paper to keep down on postage costs, but to me, the tinyness of Tolkien’s runes and handwriting makes me think more of the privacy of imaginative creation, as though, in a way, he was making his “sub-created” world out of deliberately smaller elements, to contain it within our world, not make it stand on a par with it.

And I’ve no doubt that so much practice with tiny, neat calligraphy would have given Tolkien the control of his pen (and paintbrush) needed to produce his very neat drawings and paintings. There was a quote from Tolkien reproduced alongside one of his drawings, saying that he didn’t have the patience to be an illustrator and didn’t think he could draw, but I’m always impressed by how much the more successful of his artworks work because of the sort of sparseness and control you don’t expect to find in an amateur, who’d be more given to over-drawing, filling up the page with detail to compensate for lack of skill. Tolkien seemed to know what he wanted to draw, did it to the best of his ability, then stopped. And his use of colour on occasion makes successful use of quite restrained pastel shades, another thing I don’t associate with someone who “can’t draw”.

I have to add, though, that the last thing I looked at in the exhibition was Pauline Baynes’ watercolour map of Middle-earth, and there you could definitely see the subtle touches that showed a professional was at work. Despite being the original piece, I could only detect the barest hint of supporting pencil work — a very faint line running through the centre of the curves of text naming regions of the map was about it. (The colours were also a lot subtler and brighter than the image I’ve linked to.) Pauline Bayne’s illustrations (for the Narnia books) are something I’ve known for about as long as Tolkien’s Hobbit illustrations, so that was another thrill, seeing some of her original work.

One of Tolkien’s pages from The Book of Mazarbul”

Elsewhere, there were Tolkien’s maps — not just finished versions, but some work-in-progress versions, one of which had a second layer of paper stuck onto it, where frequent rubbings-out and corrections led to his needing to redraw a section. Role-playing gamers of a certain generation will no doubt be thrilled to see one map of Middle-earth drawn on green-lined graph paper, which was, for me, the go-to stationery for your serious fantasy role-play mapping (having smaller squares than standard squared paper, it seemed you were being that much more serious). Role-players will also be happy to see Tolkien’s artistic attempts to recreate pages from the Book of Mazarbul that the Fellowship find in Moria, recording the last days of the dwarves’ attempt to reclaim their old domain. Tolkien has artistically burned the edges and added suggestive smudges of blood-like red. It could be a prop from a particularly well-made dungeon crawl.

There were also letters. On display was a reader’s report from a young Rayner Unwin on The Lord of the Rings, and a few fan letters, one in runes, one from a young Terry Pratchett (praising Smith of Wootton Major), and some illustrations to The Lord of the Rings done by Princess Margrethe, two years before she became Queen of Denmark.

All in all, a good exhibition. Not many physical objects (a chair, a collection of pipes, an old — and, again, tiny — notebook), nor many photos, but the things I got the most out of, anyway, were the originals of the illustrations and book-cover designs (those for The Lord of the Rings and the first hardback of The Hobbit were all there). The exhibition was held in one reasonably-sized room, but it didn’t feel small, thanks in part to that intriguing Tolkienian tinyness.

Comments (4)

  1. Garen says:

    Thanks for the report – sounds like it was worth a visit!

  2. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Your theory re ‘the privacy of imaginative creation’ makes a lot of sense. I was immediately reminded of the secret diary often kept by a child or teenager. Usually the handwriting is tiny because the diary itself is so small, but I reckon there’s another reason: because small handwriting is associated with secrecy. And Tolkien had a large family and a demanding job, in which context his writing must have seemed like a secret vice – something he loved but which distracted him from what he felt were his core obligations.

    I’ve never liked how an author’s belongings are sometimes fetishised (supposedly the wardrobe which inspired ‘The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe’ is now in some American university) although I guess it’s justifiable if the items in question are so old as to have some historical value, and provide some sort of genuine insight into the author’s world.

  3. Murray Ewing says:

    I have a picture in my head, now, of an American university chancellor checking no one’s about, locking the door to the acquisitions room, then climbing into that wardrobe…

  4. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I can see the film now – a Bilbo Baggins-type narrative about a crusty old American don who finds himself in Narnia and is forced to reanalyse his life via interacting with fauns, talking animals etc. Tom Hanks might be interested….

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