Almost fifty years after his death, J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973) remains a polarizing figure. His popular influence is unquestioned: he established, virtually singlehandedly, the modern genre of heroic fantasy. Within the academic and critical community, however, there has been, and still is, a split between the minority who count him among the important, even the central authors of his time and the majority for whom he remains as marginal, as irrelevant to the study of “serious” literature, as he was in the mid-1950s, when his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings, was first published. We should not be surprised by such a split. It is common practice to contrast writers of the mainstream (whatever, exactly, we mean by that) with “genre” writers, who focus on a particular kind of story: historical novels, romance, mystery, science fiction. The comparison is biased, intrinsically, in favor of the mainstream, and therefore in this case against The Lord of the Rings, which at the time of its publication seemed to represent that most marginal of artistic categories, a genre of one.
The University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library holds the majority of Tolkien’s papers, making it the obvious place for an exhibition on his life and work. (Manuscripts of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and some other works are at Marquette University in Milwaukee, which presciently bought them from the author in 1957, only two years after The Lord of the Rings was published.) Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth was in fact the Bodleian’s second major Tolkien exhibit. The first was held in 1992, to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Tolkien’s birth. (Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth later moved to the United States and was presented at the Morgan Library in New York City in 2019.)
An exhibition on the life and work of a writer—as distinct from a visual artist—is an exercise in magical thinking. Instead of simply bringing the subject’s work together in one place, it tries to create a sense of contact with the subject through a series of tangible relics: manuscripts, of course, but also letters, photographs and other documents. Their purpose, it can seem, is to make the subject real and present, to forge a connection between books written and a life lived, as though it were something we were in constant danger of losing. Occasionally these relics are little epiphanies, embodying something essential about the subject, or the subject’s world, that verbal description would be hard put to match. One such, illustrated in the exhibition catalogue (fig. 8) of the same name edited by Catherine McIlwaine, but not included in the show itself, is a 1929 note from Tolkien’s good friend C. S. Lewis announcing a meeting of the Coalbiters, an Old Norse reading group at Oxford; the note is written in Old Norse! I cannot imagine a document that captures more perfectly the academic milieu in which Tolkien nurtured his mythologies.
One can also find the reader’s report (cat. 152) by the twelve-year-old Rayner Unwin on the opening chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. Rayner was the son of the publisher Sir Stanley Unwin and was groomed from childhood to inherit the family business. When he was ten his father paid him a shilling to read The Hobbit in manuscript, and his favorable response was instrumental in getting the tale published. Two years later he was asked to assess The Hobbit’s sequel. His report was favorable, though he couldn’t help remarking that there was “a little too much conversation and ‘hobbit talk’”; even a precocious twelve-year-old might be excused for missing the deliberate contrast between the hobbits’ exaggerated cheerfulness and the terrors they are about to encounter. A decade and a half later, it was Rayner Unwin who saw The Lord of the Rings into print at last.
In a very different vein, a letter to Tolkien from an American admirer in 1973 (cat. 15C) raises questions about small details of the story. Thus, “we are most interested in why Elbereth, star-kindler, was the name which Frodo invoked when in great peril. In the war with Sauron it would seem that Gilgalad [sic] might be an elf name more hated by the Dark Lord and his servants; and Glorfindel, still walking abroad in the land, should have been the greatest bane to the Witch-King at the Last Ford to Rivendell. But we are unable to find satisfactory answers to the questions thus raised in the available appendices.” This exemplifies the slightly obsessive character of the Tolkien cult, with readers hungry to resolve even the smallest inconsistencies as though dealing with an actual history. The often hairsplitting textual knowledge brought to bear by enthusiasts of Tolkien’s world, and the attending sense of blurred boundaries between imagination and reality, reflected back on Tolkien himself, and linked him, unfairly but one fears semi-permanently, to escapism and frivolous mental effort.
Successive exhibitions on a single author define the author’s changing significance for the exhibiting institution and for the culture at large. The two Bodleian catalogues, from 1992 and 2018, differ little in emphasis but hugely in scale. The later volume is hard-bound whereas the earlier one is paper, and it is more imposing in every way: more pages (416 to 95!), more illustrations, much more color, and (in lieu of an introduction?) six essays by noted Tolkien scholars on subjects relating to the nine divisions of the catalogue but not corresponding precisely to any of them: “J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biographical Sketch,” by Catherine McIlwaine, Tolkien archivist at the Bodleian and the catalogue’s author/editor; “Tolkien and the Inklings,” by John Garth; “Faerie: Tolkien’s Perilous Land,” by Verlyn Flieger; “Inventing Elvish,” by Carl F. Hostetter; “Tolkien and ‘that noble northern spirit,’” by Tom Shippey (an especially fascinating piece); and “Tolkien’s Visual Art,” by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull. All six essays are valuable, but none of them suggests a major reassessment of Tolkien’s life or work. In other words, Tolkien as perceived and celebrated in 2018 is essentially the same as Tolkien fêted in 1992, only bigger, more cinematic.
Only in one respect does the new catalogue suggest a new approach: the greater attention paid to Tolkien’s achievements as a visual artist. His visual world was complex and unresolved. He made, for example, naturalistic, largely academic early drawings in pen and ink, depicting buildings and landscape features. One of the best, from 1912, is reproduced in the catalogue. It is recognized that Tolkien’s most important drawing teacher was his mother. Even her handwriting shimmers with energy and elegance (see, e.g., cat. 17), and it is tempting to see in it the basis of her son’s medievalizing fantasies. Unfortunately we are deprived–like Tolkien himself–of the chance to investigate her influence in detail. After her tragically early death in 1904, her sister-in-law burned her papers: not from fear of any scandal, but because she simply could not imagine anybody wanting them.
There is another possible source for Tolkien’s drawing. During his childhood and adolescence the most popular art magazine in England was The Studio, an uneasy synthesis (to modern eyes at least) of progressive and conservative styles. For decorative arts an Arts and Crafts ethos was preferred, while the coverage of painting follows a rather timid proto-modernist path: Whistler is persona grata, but Cézanne does not turn up until 1903! This, however, was only a part of the magazine’s character. During the period in question it regularly featured ink drawings (and comparable etchings and engravings) of buildings, landscapes, seascapes, and scenes of daily life: a comfortable, low-intensity art with none of the passions of emerging modernism. The Studio provided, in other words, an inexhaustible reserve of the kind of art that Mabel Tolkien taught her son to create.
Although Tolkien would go on to use pen and ink (in somewhat different styles) as an aid in visualizing some of the places in The Lord of the Rings, there was another, very different aspect to his artistic output. Beginning in 1914, with a notebook he called “the Book of Ishness,” he produced a set of representational but highly abstract watercolors, mainly depicting landscapes. Some appear to be little more than doodles (e.g., cat. 41), yet they have an effect beyond anything his drawings might suggest, conveying the impression of landscapes distant, mysterious, and wonderful. In at least one instance Tolkien’s new visual style dovetails with his literary and linguistic world making. This is the watercolor McIlwaine calls “The Shores of Faery” (cat. 65), although the title may technically belong to the poem on the next page of the “Ishness” notebook (cat. 66). In any case the poem and the watercolor have the same subject: the landscape of Valinor, the dwelling place of the gods, with its two light-giving trees, as seen by the seminal figure in Tolkien’s mythology, the wanderer Earendel (later Eärendil). It is exciting to see two major components of Tolkien’s imagination–the mythology and the means to visualize it–moving in step. Here, if anywhere, we can see Tolkien becoming Tolkien, and we can see his imagined world taking shape through his own eyes.
As always when an artist—even an amateur—suddenly adopts a new style, we want to know where it came from. It may be more than coincidence that Tolkien’s poem of 1915 titled “The Shores of Faery” begins “West of the Moon, East of the Sun.” Only a year earlier a collection of Norwegian folktales, lavishly illustrated by Kay Nielsen, was published in London under the title East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Tolkien could not have afforded to buy the book, but given his interest in things Nordic it would be surprising if he never saw it. What he would have absorbed from it is another question. Nielsen and Tolkien painted in very different styles. Nielsen’s art is a giddy combination of ultra-abundant, ultra-precise detail (he learned much from Aubrey Beardsley) with juxtapositions of color so outlandish that they verge on the uncanny. Human figures are bizarrely attenuated and frequently epicene, and the setting evokes a world where enchantment is the order of the day.
There is little or nothing for Tolkien to imitate in all this, if by imitation we mean straightforward copying or even straightforward adaptation. Nielsen’s illustrations are, however, as pure an embodiment of faerie–the realm of wonder tales, including Tolkien’s nascent one–as we can easily imagine. They are varied, exotic, and evocative in the highest degree. There is no telling what a young artist and writer, newly set forth on the paths of his imagination, might learn from such an encounter. The same is true of another artist whose work Tolkien may have known: the Norwegian folk modernist Gerhard Munthe. Like Nielsen, Munthe consistently captured the world of legend and folklore in ways that went beyond the literal level of illustration. It is unlikely that Tolkien saw Munthe’s actual work—Munthe became known outside Norway in the 1890s, but never exhibited in Britain—but several of his works in painting and tapestry were reproduced in The Studio during the first two decades of Tolkien’s life.