Friday, 5 October 2018

Tolkein Treasures

Earlier this week I finally got to the wonderful Tolkein Maker of Middle-Earth exhibition at The Bodleian. You can't take photographs inside the exhibition so all the pictures here are taken from the book Tolkein Treasures by Catherine McIlwaine, the curator of the exhibition and the Tolkein Archivist at the Bodleian - now there's a job title to conjure with.

As someone who has only read The Hobbit and the first book of The Lord of the Rings, I wasn't sure how much I'd appreciate this exhibition but it was really, really good. The captions and interpretive text accompanying the art were well written, detailed and very informative. I learned so much from them and felt that they really captured Tolkien as a man, not just as the author of some of the most popular books in the English language.

First and foremost Tolkein was a creator of languages from his early days. As an undergraduate at Exeter College, Oxford he studied Old and Middle English, Old Norse and Medieval Welsh and went on to teach these subjects throughout a long academic career at Oxford. While still a student, he began working on the two Elvish languages that would become Quenya and Sindarin.

As time went on, he felt that languages without history and myths were dead things and so he began to create the complex fantasy world from which he took the characters and plots that would become his books. The languages, maps and world came first, the books followed later.

You might by now be thinking that Tolkein was something of a solitary man, living in his created middle earth, rather than the real world but the exhibition made clear that this was not the case He was an outgoing, 'clubbable' man with lots of friends and very much involved in his times ... which included the First World War. One of the most moving pictures I saw was that of his matriculation class at Exeter in 1911, with all those who died in the war blacked out. There were very few left, including Tolkein, now standing alone amongst shadows. One college from one University and so many dead.

Tolkein took his finals in 1915 before enlisting and was in France in time for the Battle of the Somme the following year.  Invalided home, he was then able to live with his new wife and baby son. This page from his sketchbook shows how special that time was.

The story of Tolkein and his wife Edith was beautifully told. They met as orphans in what would now be called their teenage years but were forbidden to meet for three years by Tolkein's guardian who didn't want his school career interrupted. They waited and were married in 1916. Theirs was a happy marriage, lasting more than fifty years.

Edith at 17

Edith was the inspiration for the Elven princess, Luthien Tinuviel, whose love story with the mortal Beren lies at the heart of The Silmarillion and, when she died in 1971, Tolkein had Luthien's name engraved on her headstone. He deisgned heraldic emblems for both Beren and Luthien, this is one of  the two for Luthien.

The couple had four children and Tolkein seems to have been very much a family man. The children weren't banished from his Oxford study as many would have been; indeed, they used to gather there in the evenings for stories. One of those stories was later to become The Hobbit

For many years Tolkein wrote and illustrated letters to his children from Father Christmas in the North Pole, telling of his latest adventures. This is from the first one in 1920.

You can now buy a book of these letters, Letter From Father Christmas, which would make a lovely Christmas present. 

On holiday in Filey in 1925, one of the children lost his toy dog, Rover. To console him, Tolkein told him the story of Roverandom and his adventures, all about a real dog transformed into a toy. This is one of Tolkein's shorter works now available as a lovely, small hardback, complete with his illustrations.

The first tale to be published from Tolkein's world was of course The Hobbit which sold out in a few months when it was published in 1937. His friend and fellow Oxford academic C S Lewis said in his review "Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic". How right he was.

The tale of Bilbo Baggins, the not very brave Hobbit and his quest for treasure in the company of a band of dwarves has become the favourite book of countless children and adults. 
Some of Tolkein's colour illustrations for the second edition of 'The Hobbit'

I first heard of this book when my older brother came home from primary school, full of this wonderful book that his teacher was reading to the class. Our Mum searched it out and we both went on to read and re-read it. Here's my paperback from the 1960s (my brother's is older and tattier, he must have re-read his many times).

I particularly loved the map at the start of the book, complete with runes. Why is it that so many of the best children's books have maps as endpapers?

Anyway, after the success of this book, Tolkein's publishers were hoping for more Hobbit stories. Instead of which he gave them the story of the Lord of the Rings, told in thee long volumes and not really aimed at children. They published it, no doubt with their fingers firmly crossed, and it went on to be one of the best selling works of fiction ever.

This is the first, one volume edition that I remember my brother reading and reading and ... If you're reading this Stephen, get to the exhibition!

I haven't really talked about the maps of middle earth, of which there were many wonderful examples at the exhibition. Here's the first map of The Shire from 1938 with the Brandywine River running through the middle.

There were so many different types if art to see. This drawing, called 'The Tree of Amalion' has many different leaves and flowers growing together; I think it would make a beautiful embroidery.

I'll leave you with Tolkein's illustration of one of my favourite parts of 'The Hobbit', when Bilbo (protected by the invisibility the ring gives him) talks to Smaug the dragon. The exhibition continues until the 28th of this month; do go and see it. Tickets are free but must be booked in advance to stop it getting too crowded.


  1. Hi Frankie I can not master the w&t can I just use my normal way to decrease? Love your work.

  2. I'm a bit confused as w&t (wrap and turn) isn't a decrease but a way of avoiding holes when working short rows. Glad you like my work though!