On Friday 1st June 2018, the Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth exhibition opened at the Weston Library in Oxford, UK. Curated by Bodleian Libraries Tolkien Archivist Catherine McIlwaine, the exhibition brings together manuscripts and illustrations by the legendary author and Oxford academic J. R. R. Tolkien and is described on its website as being ‘once-in-a-generation’. After visiting the exhibition earlier this month, I can honestly say that that is no exaggeration, and I doubt that I will ever see again so many priceless Tolkien treasures gathered in one room.
As I walked upon a map of Middle-Earth projected on the floor, the Doors of Durin shining out ahead, anticipation of what lay in store could not have been much greater. Once through into the exhibition proper, I was overwhelmed by the extent of the collection on display. Alongside handwritten pages of The Hobbit full of changes and corrections, intricate doodles drawn on sheets of newspaper, and stained and dog-eared leaves from the Book of Mazarbul were photographs from Tolkien’s childhood, the cap he wore at school, and the write-up of his father’s early death in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Abstract and garishly-coloured paintings from Tolkien’s undergraduate days sat side-by-side with maps of Middle-Earth and Wilderland by Pauline Baynes, most famous for her iconic illustrations in C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, while editions of Tolkien’s work in every conceivable language were artfully arranged with fan mail from his readers, including a letter from one star-struck Terence Pratchett. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth is as expansive as its subject’s creativity, and McIlwaine has expertly captured not only the entire range of Tolkien’s interests as philologist and storyteller, artist and poet, but also something of his private self, a Tolkien who was man as much as myth.
What surprised me most about the exhibition was that the item on display that moved me above all else was not what I expected it to be. It was not the original watercolour ‘Bilbo Woke Up with the Early Sun in his Eyes’, always my favourite illustration in The Hobbit, nor was it Tolkien’s working map of Middle-Earth, complete with burn hole from the author’s errant pipe. It was, in fact, a rather understated drawing of a tree whose branches bore the weight of many fruits and flowers, each a different colour and variety. Done primarily in coloured pencil, Tolkien called this tree the Tree of Amalion and it stood for the enormous scope of his legendarium, with every fruit and flower representing a tale he one day hoped to tell.
Those of you familiar with the work of Tolkien beyond The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings will see parallels between the Tree of Amalion and two other trees in Tolkien’s work: the Tree of Tales in the essay On Fairy-Stories and the tree that Niggle struggles to paint in Leaf by Niggle. This last example, in particular, encapsulates the multitudinousness of Tolkien’s mythopoeic work in the same way as the fruits and flowers growing on the Tree of Amalion:
‘It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots.’
What both the Tree of Amalion and the tree in Leaf by Niggle demonstrate is fundamentally bittersweet, for while they offered Tolkien the means of documenting the expansiveness of his plans, it is clear that they also gave expression to his underlying fear that a large proportion of his work would never be completely realised. Indeed, Tolkien drew multiple versions of the Tree of Amalion throughout his life, showing just how much this fear preoccupied his mind.
Expertly assembled and dazzling in its breadth, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth is a monumental achievement. Ardent fans of Tolkien will fall in love with Middle-Earth all over again, while those whose tastes are for the less fantastical will leave at least with an appreciation of the scale of Tolkien’s work. The exhibition is a fitting tribute to a man whose vision was too great and will leave you wondering how much more he might have written had he been immortal like the elves.
For more information about the exhibition, which runs until Sunday 28th October 2018, visit the exhibition website at https://tolkien.bodleian.ox.ac.uk.