05th June 2018

Bodleian hosts ‘once-in-a-generation’ Tolkien exhibition

An exceptional collection of manuscripts, artwork, maps, letters and artefacts on display at the Bodleian gives insight into the life and work of one of Exeter College's most famous alumni.

JRR Tolkien (pictured back row, leaning forward) during his time at Exeter College

A ‘once-in-a-generation’ exhibition exploring the full breadth of JRR Tolkien’s (1911, Classics and English) unique literary imagination has opened at Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth reunites an unprecedented array of Tolkien materials from the UK and the USA, including manuscripts, artwork, maps, letters and artefacts from the Bodleian’s foremost Tolkien Archive, the Tolkien Collection at Marquette University in the USA, and from private collections. One of the exhibits is on loan from Exeter College’s archives: a report card on Tolkien’s progress as an undergraduate student, written by the Sub-Rector. The exhibition gives visitors the opportunity to discover more about Middle-earth, the imagined world where The Lord of the RingsThe Hobbit and Tolkien’s other works are set, as well as about his life and work as an artist, poet, medievalist and scholar of languages.

‘Tolkien was a genius with a unique approach to literature,’ says Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian. ‘His imagined world was created through a combination of his deep scholarship, his rich imagination and powerful creative talent, and informed by his own lived experiences. We are incredibly proud to hold the Tolkien archive and to be able to share so many previously unseen items in this once-in-a-generation exhibition.’

Catherine McIlwaine, Tolkien archivist at the Bodleian, believes that the exhibition will surprise visitors. ‘We don’t know what they will bring with them,’ she says, ‘but I’d like them to leave with the impression of the whole man and his work – not just Tolkien as the maker of Middle-earth, but as a scholar, a young professor, a father of four children.’

Among the exhibits are many previously unseen materials about Beren and Lúthien, lead characters in a love story by Tolkien about a mortal man and an elf maiden. The tale appears in several of Tolkien’s works, in brief in the posthumously published novel The Silmarillion (1977) and more fully in Beren and Lúthien, published last year (both edited by the author’s son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien).

The mythical tale of romance sees mortal Beren and elf Lúthien embark on a quest together and fall in love. Following the final battle Lúthien revives the mortally-wounded Beren by renouncing her own immortality.

The story – and the materials connected with it – is especially interesting as it was a very personal tale written by Tolkien after he returned from the Battle of the Somme. The names Beren and Lúthien are carved on the gravestone Tolkien and his wife Edith (née Bratt) share in Wolvercote cemetery, near Oxford.

Among the materials related to this story that are on public display for the first time are a page from the Quenta Silmarillion which introduces the tale of Beren and Lúthien, Beren’s heraldic device, and the Second Silmarillion map, on which Beren and Lúthien are mentioned.

Other highlights of the Bodleian exhibition include Tolkien’s own dust jacket designs for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, handwritten drafts of his books, hugely detailed maps of the kingdoms of Gondor and Rohan, and pages of the exquisitely calligraphic Elvish runes that Tolkien invented. Letters Tolkien wrote to his children as Father Christmas hint at the range of his imagination, as well as giving insight into his character, and anyone interested in the legacy of that imagination may enjoy seeing a piece of fan mail from a 19-year-old ‘Terence Pratchett’, who went on to create the much-loved Discworld series of books, which included over 40 novels.

The Bodleian has published two books to coincide with the exhibition, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth and Tolkien Treasures, both by Catherine McIlwaine. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth is a lavishly illustrated book, with more than 300 images of Tolkien’s manuscripts, drawings, maps and letters and traces the creative process behind The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. It also reproduces some personal photographs and private papers which have never been seen before.

In Tolkien Treasures Ms McIlwaine presents some of the highlights from the Tolkien archives held at the Bodleian. It focuses on JRR Tolkien’s childhood in the Midlands and his experience in the First World War, as well as his studies at school and at Exeter College. The full range of books and materials that accompany the exhibition can be viewed here.

Anyone wishing to discover more about Tolkien can do so for free at the Maker of Middle-earth exhibition until 28 October 2018. It will then travel to New York, and then to the Bibliothèque nationale de France for what will be the first exhibition about a foreign author the library has ever held.

Fans of Tolkien may also be interested to know that The Fall of Gondolin, written by JRR Tolkien and edited by Christopher Tolkien, will be published by HarperCollins in August. Together with Beren and Lúthien and The Children of Húrin, The Fall of Gondolin forms one of the three ‘Great Tales’ of the Elder Days – the first age of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, some six thousand years before the events of The Hobbit.

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