If you’re a Tolkien fan anywhere near New York, you must see the Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibit now at the Morgan Library and Museum. On display until May 12, this is the largest exhibition of Tolkien’s work ever in the United States.
It’s overwhelming to see these works up close for the first time, especially if you’ve spent as much time as most Tolkien readers have looking at his beautiful illustrations and maps. The famous jacket of The Hobbit, for example, is on display, as well as the watercolors Tolkien painted for that book. There are also numerous maps of Middle-earth, family photos and letters, notes and diagrams of language, paintings and letters of Father Christmas that Tolkien sent to his young children, early sketches and paintings, and even the Oxford don’s commencement robes. There is so much in this mammoth exhibition that it is hard to take it all in during one visit.
On seeing these works up close, I was struck by the smallness and intricate detail of most of them. I had somehow expected that Tolkien’s famous painting of Bilbo and the Dwarves floating along on barrels, titled “Bilbo Comes to the Huts of the Raft Elves,” would perhaps be on a large canvas, but it was not that much larger than the copy of it in the hardback book I’ve had for many years. Perhaps my outsized expectations are because Tolkien’s epic work looms so much larger than life, but the effect is something like going to the Louvre and seeing that the Mona Lisa is rather small compared to what you’d imagined.
For me, looking at these beautiful, vibrant watercolors reminded me of seeing the gilded work in an illuminated manuscript. The intricacy and attention to detail is astounding, and one wonders if Tolkien were using a magnifying glass for these works, or if he just had amazing eyesight. They require some attention and examination to see how fine his pencil and brush strokes were. The maps are so finely detailed that they are difficult to read without getting up close. You can also see erasures and corrections Tolkien made as he continually worked on his epics.
His early paintings are quite interesting as well, and show the kind of artist Tolkien would become. ‘Eeriness’ is one such example; it depicts the back of a red hooded figure, reminiscent of Gandalf, walking down a dark wooded path with a staff. The Morgan has enlarged this one, along with some other paintings, to spectacular effect on the walls of the exhibit. To add to the fun, when you get to the gallery, there is a Hobbit hole to walk through, and on the walls are large versions of Conversation with Smaug, among other treasures.
Tolkien’s family photographs and letters are quite moving. There is a note written by Tolkien’s nurse to his father, and signed with a scrawl by 4 year old Ronald. Sadly, his father never got the note, as he was ill and would die before receiving it. There are also letters from his mother, who died when Tolkien was just twelve, and one he sent to his wife Edith while he served in World War I. There are family photos as well, and you can see the pride in Tolkien’s face as he poses with Edith and their four children. He was by all accounts a devoted father who famously started the Hobbit as a story for his children. The incredibly detailed letters and illustrations of Father Christmas that he sent to his children each year also speak to the kind of parent he must have been.
This exhibition is more than just a collection of amazing, vibrant paintings of dragons and fortresses and wizards and hobbits, though it is without doubt all that as well. It gives fans a more intimate look at this man, and what all his work meant to him. Middle-earth was the immense canvas of Tolkien’s life, and by viewing his work, we get a sense of how all-consuming it was for him, as well as the kind of a person he was, as a scholar, a creator, and also as a parent and a husband. What a life he had, and how lucky we are that he shared such gifts and treasures with the world.