Sometime in the late 1920s John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, who taught Anglo-Saxon and philology at Oxford but was grading School Certificate examinations for some summer cash, idly wrote in a student’s exam book, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” It was the first sentence of a surprisingly successful fantasy novel for young readers, The Hobbit (1937). Tolkien’s publishers wanted more about the quaint, quirky, half-sized hobbits; but it was almost 20 years before the author published his sequel, the sprawling, complexly imagined The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955), a book that would inspire whole libraries of genre fantasy.
The story of “Middle-earth” really began decades earlier, when Tolkien — who had been posted, like most of his university friends, to the killing fields of the Great War — started inventing the history, geography, mythology, and languages of Middle-earth, an imaginary world populated with dragons, elves, goblins, walking trees, and even human beings. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are only the iceberg-tip of Middle-earth: since Tolkien’s death in 1973, his son Christopher has edited several-thousand pages of the author’s unpublished writings, thus almost every year sees the release of a “new” Tolkien book. And with the wild success of Peter Jackson’s two trilogies of film adaptations and their concomitant merchandizing blizzards, it appears that Tolkien invented something far more magical than he imagined: a franchise.
The Morgan Library’s Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, originating at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, tries to wrest Middle-earth back from the movies, toymakers, and game marketers to its source: J. R. R. Tolkien’s writing-desk. The exhibit is richest for those already familiar — perhaps deeply familiar — with Tolkien’s writings, for it studiously avoids acknowledging the endless adaptations of these works made since his death. It presents a selection of family photographs and correspondences; manuscripts, typescript pages, and working notes from The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion (the title under which Christopher Tolkien assembled and edited the central portion of his father’s long-labored-over, revised, but never completed “legendarium”); a number of the maps Tolkien drew, and endlessly revised and refined, of Middle-earth; some fascinating specimens of writing in Tolkien’s very elegant Elvish languages and scripts (each carefully distinguished one from another); and a great number of illustrations and decorative designs, most of them related to Middle-earth.
Tolkien received formal art training in school and drew throughout his life, and Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth tries hard to make a case for him as a significant — or at least interesting — visual artist. Some of the his watercolors from the first half of the 1910s show a bold, colorful, almost expressionistic fluidity, but any traces of aesthetic flair are refined away in Tolkien’s more mature work. The illustrations for The Hobbit are beautifully composed, sometimes alight with Byzantine, jewel-like colors, but they are ultimately static. Tolkien paints watercourses effectively, and mountains even more impressively, but he’s hopeless at depicting human beings, only a little better at animals, and utterly unable to convey action. The result is a series of fine if somewhat stiff exercises in a post-Arthur R. Rackham illustrative vein, but with none of Rackham’s energetic tension.
The paintings and drawings, like Tolkien’s handwriting, are uniformly small. If they lack in drama, they abundantly evidence Tolkien’s microscopic attention to detail, visual rhythm, and complex ornament. In some ways, his paradigmatic artworks may be the wonderfully detailed doodles, which sometime resemble miniature pages from the Book of Kells, that he drew on newspaper pages while doing the crosswords. He comes into his own even more when he projects himself back in time to his beloved Middle Ages, working in the monkish genres of illumination and calligraphy. Even his most casual correspondence and marginal notes are written in an elegant hand, and when he sets his mind to writing beautifully — as in some of the manuscript pages for The Lord of the Rings, or his exercises in his various Elvish scripts — his writing achieves a visual elegance that rivals that of classical Islamic calligraphy or the great medieval codices.
The paradox of this exhibition is that the central works upon which Tolkien’s popularity rests — The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings — are perforce absent. It’s all very nice to know that Tolkien drew quite well when he set his mind to it, or that he was capable of calligraphic wonders, but those skills are tangential to what makes people so enthusiastic about his work. Tangential as well, however fascinating, are the care with which he constructed the topography of Middle-earth or the assiduity with which he charted the family trees of the various Elvish languages. What lingers of Tolkien’s work in readers’ minds are, for instance, the droll episode when Bilbo Baggins is captured by the Cockney trolls in The Hobbit; the confrontation of the wizard Gandalf and the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm in The Fellowship of the Ring; Frodo and Sam’s agonizing crawl up Mount Doom at the climax of The Return of the King. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth provides a thorough picture of Tolkien as a remarkably finical creator, a detail-oriented chap — a craftsman. But it’s short on insight into how he created his most moving achievements.
Tolkien fans — or fans of the Tolkien franchise — are more numerous than ever. The descendants that make up the Tolkien Estate seem eager to distance themselves from the vast marketing machine that Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema have put in place (though they didn’t refuse the reported quarter-billion dollars that Amazon recently paid for the rights to do a multi-season Lord of the Rings prequel series). What they’d like you to focus on is J. R. R. Tolkien as a serious artist and writer, creating his imaginary worlds through an endless process of painstaking accretion and revision. But what gets lost in Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth are the very elements of life, humor, joy, and tragedy that made The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings popular in the first place. Much as the exhibit tries to transport us into the lofty tower of a masterful, endlessly creative wizard, its final impression is of a tour of a medieval scriptorium.
Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Manhattan) through May 12.