J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973), Dust jacket design for The Hobbit, April 1937, pencil, black ink, watercolor, gouache. Bodleian Libraries, MS. Tolkien Drawings 32. © The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937.

Studio of H.J. Whitlock & Sons Ltd., Birmingham, J.R.R. Tolkien, January 1911 [age 19], black and white photograph. Bodleian Libraries, MS. Tolkien photogr. 4, fol.16 © The Tolkien Trust 1977.

The Morgan Library’s JRR Tolkien exhibit may not be large, but it’s crammed with plenty of items that require a good long look just to see every detail. Images of a small number of the items are up on the exhibit’s website, which provides a sense of the exhibit’s range: not just Tolkien’s illustrations and maps, but early versions of these, along with letters, manuscript pages, plot notes, geometric designs for heraldry, Elvish alphabetical experiments, even doodles drawn on newspaper pages as he worked the daily crossword puzzles.

For some future post I may write an appreciation of Tolkien’s writings, but here I just want to point to Tolkien’s talent as an artist. I had already seen the big pieces — full-page illustrations for The Hobbit, cover designs for LOTR, the Father Christmas letters — and of course I knew the basic story of Tolkien’s life: a WWI vet with an expertise in linguistics, he invented Elvish and then fell by accident into writing fantasy. All along, however, he was drawing — realistic scenes of the trees, rivers, and hills around him, as well as fantasy scenes that helped him envision what eventually became Middle Earth.

Tree of Amalion, MS Tolkien Drawings 88, fol. 1 [?1940s]

Tolkien’s doodles evolved into geometric patterns for Middle Earth shields, clothing, dragon-scales, and even trees. Many of the pieces in the exhibit emphasize Tolkien’s love of nature, showing us the anger and sadness that lie behind the Scouring of the Shire, Saruman’s senseless destruction of Fangorn, and the elves’ eventual departure from Middle Earth. Trees feature prominently throughout, appearing even in Father Christmas’s bedroom wallpaper as a row of floor-to-ceiling firs. In Quena script, Tolkien captioned the image to the left: “lilótime alda amaliondo aranyallesse túno” [‘the many-flowered tree of Amalion in the Kingdom of Tuna’; Túna is the hill city built for the elves on the eastern edge of Valinor and overlooking the island of Erresea and the sea — see The Silmarilion]. Note the swirling branches holding different varieties of flowers, buds, and fruit. According to Catherine McIlwaine, the editor of Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth (the exhibit’s hefty catalogue),

Tolkien drew a tree bearing different flowers and leaves many times over the years; there are examples as early as 1928 and as late as 1972…. Tolkien … described it as bearing ‘various shapes of leaves many flowers small and large signifying poems and major legends.’ (Bodleian Library, 2018, p. 182)

J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973), Section of the first map of The Lord of the Rings, c.1937–1949, black, red and blue ink, pencil, colored pencil. Bodleian Libraries, MS. Tolkien Drawings 103. © The Tolkien Trust 1992, 2015.

The life of an author is never an easy one, and Tolkien was also a husband, devoted father of 4, academic, and founding member of the Inklings. He continued to tweak his history (and maps) of Middle Earth throughout his life, and his drawing habit supported this work.

If you need an additional reason to visit NYC before May 12, when the exhibit closes, this might be the final needed push. But plan your trip carefully. The best time to visit is when the Morgan opens (10:30 am), on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday (the museum is closed on Mondays).

*© 2019 (can I copyright a word?)

About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
This entry was posted in Am reading, Art, Fantasy. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Tolkienerdity*

  1. What a great exhibit and nice write up. This is my favorite of The Hobbit covers.

    Liked by 1 person

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