'I wisely started with a map and made the story fit,' JRR Tolkien once wrote. A new exhibition in Oxford – the writer's home for so many years – shows just how true that is, and offers a treasure trove for fans. Michael Murray-Fennell reports.
‘Do not write on this margin’ is printed on the top-left-hand corner of a single page torn from a university exam booklet. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien has clearly ignored the instruction, covering both the margin and the rest of the lined sheet with a detailed map in both pencil and black, red and green ink.
Geographical features include a river, a forest and contours showing the rise and fall of the land, but there is no doubt that this map is drawn from the imagination; labels include ‘orc-raids’, ‘wandering gnomes’ and a ‘dwarf-road’.
Created in the 1920s, that map is the first one of Middle-earth, a fantasy world of elves and wizards, dwarves and dragons. There would be many more maps. By the end of the 1940s, academic and author J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973) was sticking together multiple sheets with brown parcel tape to keep up with his expanding universe.
This yellowing map contains countless creases and folds – proof that it was pored over by its creator. To the west of the Misty Mountains, there’s a small burn hole, most likely caused by Tolkien’s pipe. ‘I wisely started with a map,’ he wrote, ‘and made the story fit.’
Across this landscape, Tolkien told two stories – one quite short and one very, very long. In The Hobbit (1937), Bilbo Baggins travels from his comfortable home in his beloved Shire, over those Misty Mountains, through the dense forest of Mirkwood, to the Lonely Mountain and an encounter with surely the most famous dragon in literature, Smaug.
In The Lord of the Rings (1954–55), another hobbit, Frodo, again leaves the Shire and journeys to Mordor to destroy an all-powerful, all-corrupting ring. Both tales defined the fantasy novel, became publishing phenomena and left a lasting imprint on our culture.
The Bodleian Libraries in Oxford are currently displaying a huge range of material relating to the author from both its own vast Tolkien archive and from private collections around the world. There are manuscripts and maps, letters and fan mail, early drafts and drawings, the author’s writing bureau and Windsor chair, even intricate doodles on scraps of newspapers.
For anyone who grew up in the Tolkien universe, seeing the original artwork – the death of Smaug, for instance, the dragon’s head thrown back, his scales pierced by a black arrow, over the burning remains of the lake town of Esgaroth – will be like meeting an old friend.
The exhibition will later travel to New York, but Oxford is a particularly appropriate venue; Tolkien spent most of his adult life in the city, first as a student of classics in 1911 and later as professor of English language and literature. From his study at 20, Northmoor Road, he built Middle-earth.
Over a long academic career, Tolkien taught the history of the English language, Germanic philology, Old and Middle English, Old Icelandic, Medieval Welsh and early English literature. The exhibition also includes his translation of Beowulf, the Old English epic that he was partly responsible for rescuing from its lowly position as a historical source and reclaiming as a great work of literature.
If The Hobbit was first written to amuse his children, Tolkien’s ambition behind The Lord of the Rings and all the Middle-earth tales was on a Beowulf scale. He wanted ‘to create a mythology of England’ and to fill a void that he – at heart, an Anglo-Saxon – believed had been created by the Norman Conquest. It was a mythology that would capture the imagination of millions across not only England, but the world.
For every critic who dismissed his fantasies, high-profile readers such as W. H. Auden and Iris Murdoch declared themselves fans of his heroic romances.
‘Would there be a market for a long, involved, romantic versetale of Celtic elves and mortals?’ a reader at the publisher George Allen & Unwin once asked after looking at one of Tolkien’s earliest stories.
‘I think not,’ the author concluded.
The evidence – the best-selling books themselves, and also their film adaptations and their legacy, from Harry Potter to the ‘Game of Thrones’ series – has proved otherwise.
For anyone who flicked back and forth to locate the adventures of a hobbit on the map at the front of the book, this exhibition is a treasure trove.
‘Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth’ is at the S. T. Lee Gallery, Weston Library, Broad Street, Oxford until October 28. A book of the same title by Catherine McIlwaine is published by Bodleian Library (£40). See tolkien.bodleian.ox.ac.uk for more information.
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