The Lord of the Rings was first published in the mid-’50s, and, along with the rest of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium, was intended to provide Great Britain with its very own formative mythology (the kind that he thought had been displaced by the 11th century Norman conquest). Nevertheless, the stories have always found a passionate following in America.
“Many young Americans are involved in the stories in a way that I am not,” the author told The New York Times in 1967, as if he saw even then the shape that obsessive pop culture fandom would take over the following half-century.
Now the “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” exhibit at New York City’s Morgan Library & Museum provides some fans a rare chance to see an extensive public display of original Tolkien material culled from Oxford’s Bodleian Library and other collections. There are the kinds of historical documents you could expect from a museum: Black-and-white photographs of Tolkien’s parents in South Africa (where he was born), before they both died young. There are photos of Tolkien himself throughout different stages of his life, as well as his wife, Edith. But there’s a touch of unique personality to it as well. Because Tolkien was an orphan, he was under the guardianship of Father Francis Morgan (no relation to the library), who forbid him from pursuing a relationship with the non-Catholic Edith…at least until Tolkien could come of age, graduate Oxford, and make such decisions for himself. So, to motivate himself academically, Tolkien kept a record of his number of hours worked, and kisses that Edith owed him in return; you can see the cute document in the exhibit.
Those who know Tolkien’s work best from Peter Jackson’s film adaptations may be surprised that the late author had an extensive visual imagination of his own. The exhibit includes handmade “Father Christmas letters” Tolkien made for his children, which came with personalized messages as well as colorful drawings of the North Pole (one drawing of a fascinating icy citadel is labeled “My House”).
Most impressive of all are the watercolors depicting key events from the saga of Middle-earth, such as Bilbo’s conversation with the dragon Smaug, or a sunlit vision of Hobbiton in the Shire, each blown up to wall size. Walking around the enclosed spaces feels both homey and awe-inspiring, like Bag End turned into an art tour. Bilbo Baggins himself would surely have been delighted by all the people who showed up to the Morgan Library’s “Long-expected party” in early April to see the exhibit and celebrate Tolkien’s legacy in their best hobbit, wizard, and elf costumes.
If you can’t make it to New York City before the exhibit closes on May 12, check out some photos below.
For more Tolkien, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands now, or available for purchase online.