In a 1937 letter to an Oxford colleague, Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien confessed that he didn’t much care for The Hobbit, one of his already popular works that was about to go into its second printing.
He wrote: ‘I don’t much approve of The Hobbit myself, prefering my own mythology (which is just touched on) with its consistent nomenclature … and organized history, to this rabble of Eddaic-named dwarves out of Voluspa, newfangled hobbits and gollums (invented in an idle hour) and Anglo-Saxon runes.’
That manuscript letter is on display now at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City, where an exhibit on J.R.R. Tolkien, the author, artist and scholar opened on January 25.
Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, which will run until May 12 is split into six sections, covering Tolkien’s background, family, art and of course the writings he is most famous for: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.
Just as readers enter Middle-earth through a ‘perfectly round door like a porthole’ in The Hobbit, so visitors enter the Morgan’s Tolkien exhibit through a circular entryway with an enlarged watercolor by Tolkien himself of ‘Hobbiton-across-the-water’ to greet them. The walls of the 117-item exhibit are brightly colored by section, with other magnified watercolors filling the walls, alongside their smaller, original versions, detailed maps, intricate doodles and drawings, manuscripts and family photographs.
Around a corner from the main portion of the exhibit, in the section dedicated to The Hobbit, is Tolkien’s letter to Geoffrey Selby where the author admits he doesn’t care much for his children’s book.
The Morgan Library purchased the letter in the mid-80s along with their first edition of The Hobbit, according to Associate Curator of the Printed Books and Bindings Department John McQuillen.
‘For him, The Silmarillion, the history of the elves, was always the most important work,’ McQuillen tells DailyMail.com. ‘The Hobbit was a side project, a story he told to his kids that was for them. It was only later that it finally was published. And The Lord of the Rings also is a publication demand. It’s not anything he actually wanted to do.
‘But The Silmarillion was always his heart. The creation of the elvish languages, the history of the elves, it was always a major disappointment in his life that that was never published in his lifetime, because The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were complete side projects. So he’s referring to that in this letter. He doesn’t really care much for this work. It’s not what he considered his most important thing.’
McQuillen curated the Tolkien exhibit at the Morgan Library, the largest Tolkien collection assembled in the United States, organized in partnership with the Bodleian Libraries of Oxford University, which displayed the exhibit in a larger format, with 200 objects, in Oxford last year.
‘A lot of the material kind of focuses on his process of creation, how the stories sort of shifted while he was writing them,’ McQuillen says. ‘[Tolkien’s work] wasn’t ever planned out from the beginning. His process of creation and writing was not having the end-goal in mind, but as he called it, more sort of discovery. Characters would come around a corner whom he hadn’t met yet.
‘It’s a very different sort of authorial process than I think most… How the stories developed, how characters changed as he wrote, I think will be interesting for a lot of people to understand and learn about.’
Tolkien’s letter to Selby is one of two pieces specific to the Morgan’s exhibit that were not on show at the Bodleian. The other piece, from a private collection, is a seven-page letter from Tolkien to Naomi Mitchison, a children’s author who was reviewing The Lord of the Rings before writing a blurb for the dust jacket.
She had written to Tolkien asking him questions about the languages, history and people in The Fellowship of the Ring, so he wrote back with some of the information that would later go into the appendices of The Return of the King and the complete work.
‘It’s nice to sort of include that with all The Lord of the Rings material so you can see how he’s thinking about the entire three volumes as one entire story and how the whole relates to the different parts,’ McQuillen says.
This is also the first time his letter to Mitchison has been put on display for the public, though the words of the letter have been included in collections of Tolkien’s correspondences before.
Though the Morgan’s exhibit had to be made slightly smaller than the Bodleian’s because of limited space, McQuillen says he didn’t cut anything from the sections dedicated to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, because he ‘knew those would be the most popular, where most of the interest was going to be’.
What was more difficult was deciding how best to show the rest of who Tolkien was. McQuillen, whose background is in medieval studies, is a fan of Tolkien’s academic work in Old English literature and Medieval English literature. However, he decided it was more important to paint a picture of Tolkien’s background and familial influences instead of focusing on his academic successes.
‘I think it’s very important to know who he was, particularly [because] there’s always so much speculation and talk that like, oh, you know, Mordor and Sauron are kind of like pulled out of his experiences during World War I and there’s so much argued about biography in the story, even though Tolkien never really stated that it was, except that the Shire is sort of the English countryside where he grew up, that very idyllic, rural landscape.
‘Wanting to show the roots of where he came from still gives you a little sense of who the man was, what developed his love of nature when he was young. His love for Edith Bratt whom he married inspired the tale of Beren and Luthien in The Silmarillion and their great love. So there’s so much of his personal life that’s related to the stories and not a direct antecedent.’
Some of the most touching items in the exhibit are in the Home and Family section, where letters and watercolors he made for his four children as Father Christmas are on display.
‘It shows how completely… involved he was in his children’s lives,’ McQuillen says.
There is also a small ink drawing of an owl Tolkien made for his son Michael, who had been having nightmares about a large owl in his bedroom. According to the exhibit, Michael later said his father was ‘both father and friend, ‘a unique adult, the only ‘grown-up’ who appeared to take my childish comments and questions with complete seriousness.’
The exhibit also displays Tolkien’s map he created and used for The Lord of the Rings. It is well-worn and folded, taped together in multiple places with a few spots where paper was taped over to correct something beneath.
‘It’s pieces of paper that are taped together into this sort of strange geometric puzzle, but you can see how sort of Middle-earth grew as Tolkien’s story grew, as he sketches out the landscape,’ McQuillen says. ‘He always said that he began the stories with a map because he needed to know the geography, the place of where the action was taking place. You don’t just start writing with nothing.’
Another fascinating piece is a poem beside a watercolor from 1915, when Tolkien was an undergraduate, on display in the last section about The Silmarillion.
‘It’s sort of the first text about Middle-earth and drawing he really intentionally ever made. So it really is sort of the starting point for all of this… early conception of the building of The Silmarillion,’ McQuillen says. ‘I just think it’s so rare for an author and an artist – you so rarely have… [their] first thing. This is the moment of birth for all of this. And the fact that it’s in a little notebook, the poem is on the left, the drawing is on the right. It’s clear from the beginning for Tolkien that textual and visual production go hand in hand and are completely equal in the creation of Middle-earth. It’s a nice little moment to see.’
As the organizing curator of Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, McQuillen says he hopes people will come into the exhibit and learn more about who Tolkien was as a person and his artistic process.
[It’s] important to show everything, all of the work that went into his literary production and his life, being able to really showcase both sides of who he was a father, husband, author, artist, professor.’
‘The show is a little bit more about the man and his process. It’s not about the minutiae of plot points and what are the stories. It’s the background and the creation of the stories.’
Tolkien’s life and times
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. His parents, Arthur Reuel Tolkien and Mabel Suffield, moved to South Africa in the 1890s in hopes of better job opportunities for his father, who was a banker.
In February 1896, Arthur died, so Tolkien’s mother took Tolkien and his younger brother Hilary back to England, just outside Birmingham. Mabel died from diabetes in 1904, leaving 12-year-old Tolkien and 10-year-old Hilary orphaned and in the care of first the parish Catholic priest, then their aunt and finally the boarding house of a Mrs. Faulkner.
It was there that Tolkien met a young woman named Edith Bratt, also an orphan. When they met he was 16 and she 19 and their friendship quickly grew into something more, but he was forbidden by his priest to marry her until he had at least turned 21.
He studied at Exeter College, Oxford starting in the fall of 1911 and at first studied Classics, though switched to English Language and Literature for his knack of linguistics and philology, the study of literary texts and written records.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Tolkien continued his undergraduate degree until he completed it in 1915, after which he enlisted as a second lieutenant. He was on active duty at the Somme until he developed a typus-like infection and was sent back to England.
After the war ended, Tolkien got a job working on the Oxford English Dictionary, where he worked until he was appointed as an associate professor of English Language at the University of Leeds in 1920, where he worked on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
In 1925 he applied to be a professor at Oxford and got the position. Though he didn’t have many scholarly publications, the ones he did have were influential, particularly his work on Beowulf. Tolkien retired from Oxford in 1959.
Tolkien and his wife Edith had four children: John Francis Reuel (1917), Michael Hilary Reuel (1920), Christopher Reuel (1924) and Priscilla (1929). Tolkien was also part of a group of friends known as ‘The Inklings’, alongside C.S. Lewis.
Throughout his lifetime, starting with developing his own languages as a boy and writing poems as an undergraduate, Tolkien created and built Middle-earth, where his famous works The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954 and 1955) take place, though his preferred work was his Legendarium, the history of Middle-earth.
Tolkien passed away in 1973, two years after his wife Edith died. The couple are buried in an Oxford suburb in the Catholic section of the Wolvercote cemetery, according to the Tolkien Society.
SOURCE: Daily Mail, by Ann Schmidt