A Reader Reviews: ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War’

'Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms'
Photograph © A Reader Writes Back 2019

Having specialised in Old and Middle English at university, it was with great excitement that I saw the British Library’s announcement of its major exhibition on the Anglo-Saxon period: Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War. Earlier this month, I travelled down to London and spent a little time poring over some of the most beautiful material objects to have survived from the period.

The exhibition brings together manuscripts and artefacts from the fifth century to the eleventh. Boasting a number of big hitters, from the Lindisfarne Gospels to the Domesday Book, the Spong Man to the Alfred Jewel, alongside other wonders perhaps less well-known among the public, such as the enormous Codex Amiatinus, an eighth-century Northumbrian Bible that has not been back in Britain for 1300 years, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is an exhibition on an epic scale and one that numbers among the largest I have seen.

In spite of countless other priceless objects, I was mainly there to see the four major manuscripts preserving Anglo-Saxon poetry: the Beowulf manuscript, the Exeter Book, the Vercelli Book, and the Junius manuscript. Without these four manuscripts, we would have no record of works as monumental as The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and The Dream of the Rood, and our canon would be greatly impoverished without them. I have fond memories of these poems from my time as a student and have wanted to see the manuscripts containing them for many years. I had expected them to occupy a prime position in the midst of all the other items on display, but they were rather unassumingly assembled against a wall of a room in which a replica of the Ruthwell Cross took centre stage.

I have seen many photographs and illustrations of the Ruthwell Cross (which features lines from the Vercelli Book’s The Dream of the Rood carved in runes), but until I saw the replica at the exhibition, I had no accurate conception of its scale. Standing at more than five metres tall, it dominated the room in which it stood, and I was forced to linger there a while to fully take it in. It was only when I turned that I realised my four must-see manuscripts were gathered right behind me.

As a graduate student a few years ago, I was fortunate enough to see the Vercelli Book in its usual home at the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli, Italy, to handle it with my bare hands and transcribe from its pages a homily on Saint Guthlac (a favourite holy man of mine who also features in two poems in the Exeter Book and in illustrations on the Guthlac Roll, yet another item present at the British Library’s exhibition). To have seen the book again, albeit this time covered by a case, would have been delight enough, but to see it with its peers was an awe-inspiring treat. The four manuscripts are rather plain and nothing like the ostentatious pages of the specimens featured elsewhere in the exhibition. The illustrations of Adam and Eve in the Junius manuscript, for example, are very simply drawn, while the damaged leaves preserving Beowulf seem a far cry from the poem’s status as the greatest work of Anglo-Saxon literature. In these manuscripts, it seems that the text is more important than the look, and I could not help but admire the understated nature of their design and presentation. They are not the most exquisite books to be found within the British Library, but they have still managed to cement themselves as major players in the material culture of the Anglo-Saxon period.

A vast and sprawling exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms needs a good few hours to make the most of viewing all its treasures. I had only a couple of hours to spare, and there were so many items to look at in that time — many more than I can mention in this brief review — that I found the exhibition overwhelming. I generally prefer a much more focused exhibition, allowing as it does a much more leisurely experience and ample time to appreciate completely every object on display. That being said, it was a privilege to see so many important manuscripts and artefacts in a single place, and I will not forget the sight of the four major codices preserving Anglo-Saxon poetry sitting humbly side-by-side.

For more information about the exhibition, which runs until Tuesday 19th February 2019, visit the exhibition website at https://www.bl.uk/events/anglo-saxon-kingdoms.

A Reader Reviews: ‘Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth’

'Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth'
Photograph © A Reader Writes Back 2018

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.