Oxford University’s Bodleian Library recently launched a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition dedicated to J.R.R. Tolkien and his connection to Oxford. Many authors have strong connections to Oxford: Lewis Carroll who wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, C.S. Lewis who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia and, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien who brought us The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. This exhibition brings together rare items from various archives together into one place to showcase the breadth of Tolkien’s works. Jonathan, the publisher of Anglotopia, sent me up to Oxford to have a look.
J.R.R. Tolkien (1892 – 1973) is one of the world’s best-loved authors, with his works regularly appearing in polls of the top 100 greatest British novels of all time. The Hobbit (1937) has sold over 100 million copies worldwide while The Lord of the Rings (1954-5) has sold over 150 million copies, and both works have been translated into over fifty languages.
The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford is the largest university library system in the United Kingdom. The collection, begun in 1602, contains a copy of every book printed in Great Britain and it grows by 5,000 items every week.
Bodleian Libraries has the largest collection of original Tolkien manuscripts and drawings in the world. And The Tolkien Archive has been kept at the Bodleian since 1979.
The archive has been added to often, the latest addition was acquired in May 2016: a recently discovered map of Middle-earth annotated by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Many of the objects on display here have not been seen in Oxford since Tolkien’s death in 1973 so this exhibition is being billed as a “once in a generation” opportunity.
Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth opened at The Weston Library at Bodleian Libraries this month and it is completely free (although it is recommended to pre-book as it is so popular).
This is a chance to explore the legacy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s vast creative genius with not just the Bodleian Libraries extensive collection but also many items from private collections.
There are around 200 items in the exhibition and around half have never been displayed before. The various manuscripts, artworks, maps, letters and artefacts have been gathered from the UK, the US and France.
John Ronald Reul Tolkien was born in 1892 in Bloemfontein in South Africa.
His mother, Mabel, took her two young sons to England in 1895 for an extended stay but got news that their father, Arthur, had died so they stayed in Birmingham.
His mother taught him to draw and throughout his life he used drawing and painting as a form of relaxation.
Tolkien started inventing languages when he was a young boy and he wanted a world for the languages to be used. For almost 70 years Tolkien spent his free time creating the language, scripts, races, legends and history of Middle-earth. He was sociable at school and had a group of friends in the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club and Barrovian Society).
Trained as a linguist, Tolkien felt that a believable language needed a detailed mythology to go along with it. His high fantasy tales of wizards, hobbits, dwarfs, and orcs functioned in-part as vehicles for his invented Elvish languages.
Tolkien spent most of his adult life in Oxford, first as a student of classics at Exeter College in 1911, aged 19, but switched to English part-way through, graduating with a first class degree.
After serving in France during World War One, he returned to Oxford to work on the New English Dictionary (later the Oxford English Dictionary), whilst also tutoring in English for various colleges.
After five years at Leeds University as Reader and then Professor of English Language, he returned to Oxford in 1925 and remained there for the rest of his working life, firstly as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, 1925-1945, and secondly as the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature, 1945-1959.
It is inconceivable that he would have written The Lord of the Rings without being a Professor of Anglo-Saxon as he took some themes from Beowulf, the Old English epic poem, that he taught as an Oxford Academic for over twenty years.
Apart from three years in Bournemouth, Tolkien spent his retirement in Oxford working on the legends and stories of The Silmarillion, which were published posthumously in 1977 in an edition prepared by his son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien (see more below).
He died in 1973 whilst visiting friends in Bournemouth and is buried with his wife, Edith, in Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford.
Essentially, he was an Oxford Don who wrote and told stories to his children that became some of the most popular in western literature.
Tolkien met Edith Bratt while at school and they were married in March 1916, in the middle of World War One. He was one of the few soldiers to return from the Battle of The Somme.
By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.
The couple went on to have four children together and each year, for 23 years, Tolkien sent illustrated letters to his children in the guise of Father Christmas.
I made up and even wrote lots of things (especially for my children).
One of those stories was Roveranddom, a bedtime story about a dog who was changed into a toy by a passing wizard and went on to have marvellous adventures. Tolkien came up with the idea to calm the children during a particularly stormy night in their cliff-top lodgings on a family holiday in Filey, North Yorkshire, as his son Michael had lost his black and white toy dog while playing on the beach.
Roveranddom was offered to his publisher but he was encouraged to write more books about hobbits.
The story goes, one day he was marking examination papers in his home study at 20 Northmoor Road (his chair is on display here) and discovered that a candidate had left one page of an answer book blank. On this page he wrote, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”.
I did not and do not know why.
He may not be able to explain it but the tale of The Hobbit commenced here.
On display are plan notes for The Hobbit from the early 1930s.
Change name of Bladorthin > Gandalf
Gandalf > Thorin (Oakenshield)
Medwed > to Beorn
I worked for a publisher for many years and it amused me to see Tolkien sent a typed manuscript for The Hobbit to a publisher and forgot to put his name on the cover (this was added in pencil by the publisher). You would be surprised to know how often this oversight occurs.
The publisher, George Allen & Unwin, published little fiction and even fewer books for children, but they accepted The Hobbit.
‘There and Back Again’ as the sub-title is important as it arouses interest, points to a journey and reassures younger readers (spoiler alert) that there will be a safe return.
Curated by Bodleian’s Tolkien Archivist Catherine McIlwaine, the exhibition examines the full breadth of the unique literary imagination of this extraordinary cultural figure.
From his creation of Middle-earth – the imagined world where The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are set – to his life and work as an artist, poet, medievalist and scholar of languages.
The numerous items exploring the vast spectrum of Tolkien’s creative and scholarly output range from his early abstract paintings in The Book of Ishness to the touching tales he wrote for his children.
Original manuscripts of his popular classics sit alongside lesser-known and posthumous works and materials, some of which are on public display for the very first time.
The range of objects on display navigates visitors around Tolkien’s creation of language, his childhood and student days, his career as a scholar of literature, and his family life as a husband and father.
Once your timed ticket has been scanned (and you’ve been reminded there’s no eating, drinking or photography inside) you enter the exhibition by walking over a projected map of Middle-earth.
I wisely started with a map and made the story fit.
I discovered in the exhibition that Hobbiton is approximately at the latitude of Oxford.
I never made anyone go farther than he could go on a given day.
Tolkien’s attention to detail ensured that the reader remained immersed in the virtual reality of Middle-earth. He even invented a system of measurements for hobbits (based on a hobbit’s toe-nail) to estimate the maximum distance a halfling could walk in a day.
This is a one-room exhibition with displays around the edge, four further glass cabinets and a 3D map with projections in the centre of the room.
There are a couple of ‘Test your Elvish’ interactive posts and a touchscreen interactive map (which seemed to be already losing its sensitivity just a few weeks into the exhibition’s run).
The room is dark with lighting only focused on the exhibits. There is a Security Guard in the room enforcing the no photography rule.
In a glass cabinet displaying his desk with a partially completed illustration alongside colouring pencils and his glasses, there are more personal objects such his wartime identity card (notable features ‘cauliflower ear’) and family photographs.
It was interesting to see draft manuscripts of The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit showing the evolution of the story (editing process) displayed alongside Tolkien’s watercolours, dust jacket designs, line drawings and maps too.
There’s a lovely cabinet dedicated to fan mail. It includes a note from Arthur Ransome (the author of the Swallows and Amazons series), Iris Murdoch and other authors.
I particularly liked the note from a man called Sam Gangee from London who wrote in 1956 as he had been listening to The Lord of the Rings on the radio and wanted to ask how a character name had his name.
The Silmarillion is the history of the War of the Exiled Elves against the Enemy…
Tolkien’s very earliest work on the legends of the elves was The Silmarillion. It was unfinished during his lifetime and then published posthumously by his son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien. Original manuscripts on are on display here.
It includes descriptions of the desolation following the battles in the Silmarillion that probably owe much to his wartime experiences, in particular, the devastating effect of Morgoth’s monstrous iron dragons, which perhaps owe homage to the use of tanks for the first time during the Battle of the Somme.
The publication of The Silmarillion has always been my chief [literary] ambition
His friend C.S. Lewis read it and loved it but his publisher didn’t agree. The Reader’s Report noted: “Would there be any market for a long, involved romantic verse-tale of Celtic elves and mortals? I think not.”
An Artist Too
Tolkien didn’t just produce the words for his books, he also painted beautiful watercolours to illustrate the tales. The style reminded me in some ways of Finnish author and artist Tove Jannson’s illustrations of The Moomins.
He designed the cover for the first edition of The Hobbit, which the Tolkien Estate describes as “one of the most distinguished British dust-jackets of the 20th century.” This is a design classic and is still in use today.
He was also keen on cryptic crosswords. While solving the puzzles he often added beautiful doodles to the newspaper pages, and some are on display here.
The Lord of The Rings
The final cabinet in the room is about The Lord of the Rings. Following The Hobbit, his publisher had encouraged him to write a sequel. But as he wrote the story it became longer and much darker.
This story was written between 1937 and 1949. Yes, it took 12 years.
It was published in three volumes, for practical reasons, in 1954 and 1955 as it was 1,000 pages long.
His publisher recognised it as a work of genius but foresaw difficulties in selling a long fantasy novel for adults.
There is an exhibition written by Tolkien archivist Catherine McIlwaine priced at £40, hardback. A paperback edition is available only at Bodleian Library Shops, priced at £25. The book brings together the largest collection of original Tolkien material ever assembled in a single volume.
About Tolkien and his connections with Oxford
After you have seen the exhibition you may wish to see some of the locations in Oxford connected with the author.
Radcliffe Camera is actually a Library and a landmark building in Oxford (built in 1737-49). Tolkien decided that this building would be the inspiration for Sauron’s temple to Morgoth on Nümenor.
He enjoyed The Botanic Garden and his favourite tree was a large Austrian black pine. In Lord of the Rings, the tree comes alive as the Ents, the walking, talking trees of Middle Earth.
Tolkien was a professor of English language and literature at Merton College in 1945 to 1959. He would often write outdoors at an old stone table in the gardens that might be the inspiration for the setting he envisaged for Elrond’s conference where four hobbits, two men, and one each of wizard/elf/dwarf pledge their faith to a fellowship of the One Ring.
(Tolkien would also meet with C.S. Lewis here and he used the stone table as inspiration for Narnia.)
If you visit Merton College then do go next door to Exeter College where Tolkien was an undergraduate from 1911 until the start of WWI. The college is the home to a rather committed branch of the Tolkien Society, which meet at the Pippa Langston Room, Cornwall House, every Thursday evening at 7pm.
At the Ashmolean Museum look out for the posie rings – gold finger rings with a short inscription on their surface.
Eagle & Child was the pub where Tolkien, Lewis and other members of The Inklings literary group used to meet, enjoy a pint and discuss their works between 1933 and 1962 (though Tolkien stopped attending in the 1950s).
The Inklings meetings were convivial and an opportunity for each member to read their latest literary works to a welcoming audience. They met once or twice a week at the pub and the meetings were fuelled by beer and banter.
There is a handwritten note to the landlord, pinned up above the fireplace that reads ‘The undersigned, having just partaken of your ham, have drunk to your health’, and is signed by the group.
Tolkien’s home has a blue plaque as 20 Northmoor Road in north Oxford is where Tolkien penned his famous works.
Exhibition on Tour
Following its inauguration in Oxford, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth travels to the Morgan Library, New York, from 25 January to 12 May 2019.
In late 2019, the Bodleian Libraries and Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF), Paris will collaborate on the largest Tolkien exhibition ever to be held in France.
One of the busiest weekend for the exhibition will be in September for the Tolkien Society’s Oxonmoot. It’s an annual event that brings together over 200 Tolkien fans, scholars, students and Society members from across the world. It has been held annually in Oxford since 1974 on a weekend close to Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday (22nd September) and is the key event in the Society’s annual calendar.
The weekend celebration is a mix of talks, exhibitions, shows and a masque ball held in the evening where everyone dresses up as their favourite Lord of The Rings characters.
Name: Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth
Location: The Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3BG
(15 minutes walk from Oxford railway station)
Dates: 1 June – 28 October 2018
Opening Hours: 10am to 5pm daily
Cost: Free admission. Booking necessary at tolkien.bodleian.ox.ac.uk
Each online transaction is subject to a £1 booking fee. There are a limited number of tickets available on the day on a first come, first served basis.
Do note, photography is not allowed in this exhibition.
There is a children’s trail available.