Visiting Middle-earth

Robin Reid at the Bodleian

By Robin Anne Reid:

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth

This exhibition will run from June 1-October 28, 2018. The tickets are free although booking ahead is probably a good idea! If possible, I’d encourage booking two times because I wish we had so that I could have visited it once, then gone back to a second more leisurely viewing!

The exhibition will be moved to the Morgan Library, New York, from January 25-May 12, 2019. This exhibition will not be free, and will probably be a smaller version of the Bodleian one. Then in late 2019 (specific dates not yet announced), the Bodleian Libraries and the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF), Paris will collaborate on the “largest Tolkien exhibition ever to be held in France. The linked article has a good description of the exhibition and the highlights of the 200 plus items featured—half of which have never been on public display before—and other information.

A significant percentage of the items are on loan from the J. R. R. Tolkien Collection at the Raynor Memorial Libraries, Marquette University, Tolkien Archive at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where they have an excellent secondary collection of works relating to Tolkien (including fanzines).

When I saw this exhibition first announced a year ago, I was flabbergasted. To say that the Bodleian and Oxford University had never been particularly prone to acknowledge Tolkien the Phenomenally Popular novelist (as opposed to Particularly Prominent Anglo-Saxons!) is an understatement. The PR materials say it is a once in a lifetime exhibit, and, well, yeah, I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime. So we knew we had to go.

Since Dr. Dimitra Fimi has been organizing a track of Tolkien programming at Leeds for some years, we planned to attend the exhibition then go on to Leeds. Our proposals were accepted, and we started planning (including hiring out wonderful cat sitter to come in to take care of the feline Credentials and scheduling the canine Credentials at a lovely boarding place).

Reader, it was incredible!

What follows is a cleaned-up version of notes I scribbled as I went through the exhibit. I spent about two hours there though it felt like no time at all (elven time)! No photography is allowed inside of course, but note-taking was allowed though I think I left nose prints on just about every pane of glass in the exhibit! I was not the only one…

After turning our tickets in, we went into an entrance hall. The lights were low, soft music played in the background (credited to an original composer, David Harper (not quite sure of that last letter because my handwriting got increasingly cramped over time), and images were projected on the walls and floor: a map of Middle-earth on the floor, some of the images that were licensed to be used in this exhibition (on prints, mugs, etc.): Smaug and Bilbo in the mountain, Bilbo on the barrel, the Hobbit book cover map. On the wall at the end of the entrance areas was an image of the Doors of Durin from the walls of Moria.

The exhibit is in one large room with a number of free-standing cases arranged throughout to give the impression of a sort of labrynth (especially given the fairly low light in the room—the lights in free-standing cases and the cases along the walls are quite good). Images were projected on the wall above the cases along the walls.

I did not have the sense of a clearly marked path that one had to follow though I may have missed more subtle cues. I’ve been in some exhibitions where they had a roped off path throughout which was lacking here: that was good in that one could wander but it also meant that there was a lot of eddying around in the room. The exhibit has been up for over a month, but we were there on a Saturday and it was pretty solidly crowded, crowded enough that my housemate lost track of me and could not find me inside and left thinking I was outside.

The information cards on each case/grouping was good, including both background information on the items in the group and bibliographic credit when items were from another collection (like Marquette). The cards included appropriate Tolkien quotes for each topic and, especially in the case of the paintings and drawings, some evaluative commentary. I didn’t see any indication that there was an audio tour available.

I’ve arranged the sections below not in the way I wandered through the exhibit but from a basic chronological sense though given Tolkien’s recursive approach to writing there is no linear chronology of his process, i.e. he began working on the languages before/during World War I (see John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War and was working on and off on his Silmarillion (the huge body of work that came to include The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and from which Christopher ‘edited’ the 1977 Silmarillion) throughout his life, with the earlier material in what look like school notebooks.

The first thing inside the door is a large framed version of Pauline Baynes’ poster map of Bilbo’s journey which includes inset images: I’m glad they included Baynes’ work since her art was on the earliest editions of Tolkien’s work.

The notes follow the jump.

Tolkien’s Childhood

A number of small black and white family pictures: Mabel Tolkien, JRRT and his brother Hilary as children, Sarehole Mill.

A letter he wrote with his mother when he was three to his father who was in South Africa while the others went back to England for a visit. His father died before the letter got there (or perhaps was sent?).

A pen and ink line drawing JRRT made of himself and his uncle for his mother when she was in the hospital.

A pen and ink line drawing of himself and his uncle JRRT made for his mother who was in the hospital. It’s more of a comic than attempt at realistic image, and the two figures are in chairs in front of the fireplace, seeming very hobbit-like to me.

A small watercolor painting, dated 1904, in what looks like a 3×5 (if that) notebook. The painting is of a tree in the right foreground, surrounded by grass, with water and hills beyond, and a sky with golden light: there are a number of his drawings and paintings of trees throughout the exhibit (MY FAVORITES!), and this very good piece reminded me immediately of the description of Frodo’s perception of Lothlórien (green, blue and gold).

Student Days

Pictures: JRRT, Edith Bratt

Letter to Edith from Oxford about what he was doing. My favorite part is his story of taking his robe to register and take the oath at Bodleian. He said he was treated well though some are treated badly!

A report card from the Sub rector at Exeter after his first year. Warning about his laziness.

Copy of his Army Field Manual

The Silmarillion

The early drafts of The Book of Lost Tales in what look like school composition books, with his titles inked on them.

The map of the world as a ship.

Two pages of Edith’s handwritten copy of a part of “Tale of Turin” – her writing is legible!

The informational sign focuses on his language creation (over seventy years).

Images, Maps, Watercolors

1920s Map of Beleriand

1928 Tanequitil

Dragon (Glorund)

Forest Taur na Fuin which the card says was later reused or retitled as Fangorn

Title Page for the Silmarillion

Beren and Lúthien

Map of Doriath

Tree of Tongues

Heraldic devices for Silmarillion characters and houses

The reader report on “Beren and Luthien” which meant Tolkien was encouraged by publisher to write the Hobbit sequel


Informational card about the importance of maps as basis of narratives.

Pencil and ink: first map of the Shire

Contour map of the Crossroads

Stone Wain Valley

Written list of Hobbit Long Measures (from Marquette—a lot of the items relating to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are from the Marquette archive).

Three versions with notes of Rohan and Gondor maps, focusing on Gandalf and Pippin’s ride.

1948: Map of the Northwest and Map of the Southwest to show journey of the Fellowship. Offset because action of book moving across Middle-earth.

My note: I’ve ‘seen’ but not really noted it in the published reproductions, but the difference between the fine details of the West and the lands to the South and East—Harad—where there are just names and nothing more makes it clear how little development he did of those lands and cultures. It would be interesting to see what fans have done to fill in those gaps.

Oxford Study

Oxford study furnishings, desk, art pencils, prints on wall (Scholar Gypsy), pipes, and variety of documents.

A parody exam he made up for the Inklings when they were on walking tour with unanswerable questions. There are sly references to characters and events in his fiction but also a lot of parody of ‘exam-speak’ and knowledge of how students approach exams!

Wartime Diary (date book not journal) (World War II not I)

Other wartime memorabilia (pictures, ID cards, Air Raid Warden)

Picture of Tolkien in study

Pages from “Fall of Arthur” (Mordred gathering the host “dark wind comes driving”)

Letter from RW Chambers on “Fall” praising it and encouraging him to finish it.

Pages from Beowulf translation

Pages from Selig Spell

Fan letter from his students on how much they enjoyed his Beowulf lectures

Illustration of a forest

Father Christmas Letters with pictures of children, envelopes, illustrations. 1920, 1926, 1932.

Roverandom draft

The Hobbit

Lots and lots of the images—will have to go back to the Scull and Hammond book on his art which I haven’t studied recently! The commentary cards were not only about dates and identification but pointed out aesthetic elements in each image.

Watercolor: Smaug and Bilbo, conversation, 1937 (many of dates are ‘circa’).

Watercolor: Bilbo on barrel 1937: third Watercolor, Tolkien’s favourite, and card said he was sad it was not in the American edition.
Watercolor: Eagles, 1937. Card: Tolkien copied a plate in Coward’s Birds of the British Isles.

Pen and ink: mountain path 1937 (the path through mountains where the thunder battle happened).

Pen and ink: Wilderland map, with inset pictures.

“Ignore Red”: Tolkien’s illustration for the Hobbit book cover with editor’s instructions to ‘ignore’ request for red (for sun and dragon image). Final dust jacket design, 1937. The card notes that the position of eagles and dragon was reversed for the final image (eagles moved to daylight side, dragon to night)

Thror’s Map 1920: One of three leaves from earlier draft. From Marquette.

Watercolor: Rivendell 1937. Second watercolor Tolkien did (first Smaug, third Bilbo on barrel)

Early plot notes from the 1930s, Hobbit manuscript, Beorn’s house.

List of name changes for The Hobbit, Marquette

Pen and ink: Trolls 1937

Card: There were no plans to have illustrations in Hobbit until publisher saw Tolkien’s work. Nine pencil drawings in the first edition.

Manuscript title page for The Hobbit prepared by Tolkien who forgot to put his name on it; the error was corrected by an editor. Marquette. 1936.

Watercolor: The Hill 1937. One of five Tolkien painted in the summer of 1937 for American edition, later used in English edition.

The Lord of the Rings

Three dustjackets Tolkien designed, one for each volume of trilogy, but only one was used (probably to connect the three volumes).

Various drafts of Ring verse – in different elvish scripts. The card information was that he wanted the two lines inscribed on the Ring to be printed in red in the story which was not done, presumably because of cost. There is an ongoing theme that Tolkien’s creative ideas were often turned down because of expense. An example is his desire to have facsimiles of the Book of Mazarbul reproduced and included in book.

Early draft of “Hobbit sequel” titled “The Magic Ring” and reader report from Rayner Unwin (age 12): too much hobbit talk but he liked Black Riders.

1938 early title page.

1949 later title page.

1939 Treebeard in early draft as evil giant, encounters Frodo, the surprise twist hidden in Elvish script.

1953 drawing, Doors of Durin, image.

Draft showing layers of composition (pencil ink etc.): Riders of Rohan.

The epilogue, Aragorn’s letter to Samwise, in two language, facsimile, but publishers cut it (due to cost).

“I visualize with great detail…scenery”: Five colored pencil pieces of drafts he did for himself as part of his writing process, not intended for illustrations or publication.

Old Man Willow

Forest of Lóthlorien in Spring (GORGEOUS!)


Moria Gate


Tolkien’s Art

Doodles and designs, not more developed pieces for his novel

Elvish flowers, plants

Pictures for his children including Owlamoo, an owl from Michael’s nightmares which helped him deal with the dreams.



Calligraphy practice (learned from mother)

Tree of Tales: his own tree, each leaf a different tale or poem he wanted to write.

Book of Ishness – experimental drawings during Oxford days.

Landscapes, vivid colors, angles, but still recognizably mountains, and trees. Names for imaginary places.

Land of Proja (illustration for Kalevala)

“New Patterns of old colors”

He loved crossword puzzles and did them—but also included elaborate and colored doodles around them. Some from 1960. They are all numbered! Ex: Time Crossword puzzle #9,489


Large case of multiple editions and translations of Tolkien’s work.


Reference letter from Henry Bradley, editor OED, for Tolkien.

Fan Letters:

Arthur Ransome

C. S. Lewis

W. H. Auden

Sam Gamgee (a reader whose name was Sam Gamgee wrote him about the name!)

A letter and poem by Tolkien for Rosalind Ramage

Iris Murdoch

Song lyrics by Joni Mitchell sent by her husband “Fear Like Wilderland”

Lynda Johnson Robb (LBJ’s daughter)

Princess Margrethe, Denmark

Various fan art, poems, postcards, letters written in Elvish (info card says that was disappointing to Tolkien). He saved all he received. One fan, besides asking for book recommendations, mailed him seeds (still attached to letter).

Other displays:

Large digital molded contour map showing journeys.

Touch screen interactive map on wall also can show journeys.

Some “test your Elvish” kiosks (free standing) in exhibit room: I do not do Elvish so didn’t try. The Tolkien interactive quiz outside was fairly basic and repetitive.

Exit: Baynes LOTR Map with vignettes. Card says that she consulted with JRRT and he complimented her on how well some of them caught “his own vision.”

Conclusion: I’m glad we were able to attend, and only wish I’d thought to schedule a second visit so I could spend more time with some of the specific items. I especially loved the visual works, especially the trees: maps, drawings, designs, watercolors, and how he was drawing and painting from such a young age.

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10 thoughts on “Visiting Middle-earth

  1. Thank you – it sounds amazing! I’ve written the New York dates in my calendar.

    How far in advance did you book?

  2. It’s not on the Morgan’s website yet that I could find, but while looking I did find a wonderful YouTube introduction to the Bodleian exhibit. Gave me the sniffles, actually.

    Edited to add: If you have captions set to automatically on, turn them off for this one, because there are subtitles included.

  3. Thank you for compiling this very detailed report of the exhibition. Just wish I could afford the trip to the UK (from South Africa) to go to the exhibition

  4. An excellent review, though I have to say that there have been several Tolkien Exhibitions at the Bodleian over the years.

  5. Thank you everyone for reading!

    @Lenore Jones:

    How far in advance did you book?

    I am terrible at remembering dates (as I found during my less than year-long attempt to be a history major), but it was pretty much as soon as we could after the exhibition was announced. I do remember we booked before we knew our presentations were accepted at Leeds for the conference there, so as early as possible. We’re already planning a New York trip: exact dates not yet set but it will be during our university’s spring break, March 18-25, and I’d love to meet up with any fellow fen that week who are doing the exhibit as well.


    I saw the title, and thought “I’ll be driving past Mt Doom next week!”

    In New Zealand, I assume?

    @Richard Rowland: From South Africa to England would be a major expense–I wish you could as well!


    An excellent review, though I have to say that there have been several Tolkien Exhibitions at the Bodleian over the years.

    I was not aware of past ones: do you remember when/what was involved? I did a quick search of “past exhibitions” at the Bodleian webpage which had no record, but it only goes to 2008 and may not be complete. I always had the idea from British scholars I knew (including but not limited to Tom Shippey who especially waxed sarcastic about Oxford’s general attitude toward Tolkien as a fiction writer) that the university tended not to play up Tolkien’s work (not to the extent that this exhibition showed) and to not make it easy for academics to access the archived material (as distinct from the Tolkien Estate’s rather draconian requirments).

    I noticed there’s a dedicated Tolkien archivist at the Bodleian (wonder how long she’s been involved–I know that Bill Fliss made a huge difference at Marquette’s Tolkien Collection), and all the publicity and stories imply that this event was groundbreaking.

  6. Robin, I couldn’t find the New York exhibit on the Morgan Library’s website. Not sure why, since there are other upcoming exhibits listed in that same time frame. It’s on my radar, though. I may be able to do that week (I live in New Jersey). Feel free to email as planning progresses. FirstnameLastname (drop the final S) at Google’s mail is the easiest to describe, or ask OGH for my netcom address.

  7. @robinareid
    Yes, although a slight change of plans (hey, we only have to drive 6 hours to refill the wine cellar in Hawkes Bay, rather than 8 hours to the Wairarapa!) means that my best plausible view is something like this. I expect more snow, the clear skies might happen

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