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.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)
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?)
What a great exhibit and nice write up. This is my favorite of The Hobbit covers.
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Thanks, Laurie. And I agree about that being the best cover. It’s wonderful as a huge flag hanging outside the Morgan Library.
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