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One Exhibit to Rule Them All

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Review: 'Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth' at The Morgan Library & Museum

Emily Ferguson
March 10, 2019

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Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition entrance / The Morgan Library and Museum

ohn Ronald Reuel Tolkien's fantasy world Middle-earth had been decades in the making before The Hobbit was published in 1937. An orphan by age 12, Tolkien cradled a pure, child-like imagination his whole life. He began creating the language of his Elves when he was a teenager, he illustrated fantasy worlds in striking watercolor paintings that would influence his vision for Middle-earth's landscapes, and he began writing lore for the nascent world in a unique, arabesque script that closely resembled that of his deceased mother. Until May 12, these manuscripts, paintings, and other personal items of the author are on view at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, in its captivating exhibit "Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth." It has drawn crowds of fans eager to see the genesis of The Lord of the Rings—last century's most influential and beloved fantasy series described by Tolkien's friend C.S. Lewis as "a lightning bolt from a clear sky."

The exhibit proves that most Middle-earth fans are as invested in Tolkien the man as the lore itself. You're unlikely to find a more polite museum crowd. Quiet visitors patiently waited in lines until their turn to get a close look at photographs from Tolkien's childhood, to read love letters he wrote to his wife, or to get a look at his artwork and manuscripts. No one took photos of the displays, as is common in museums these days—it was as if the papers with sprawling script were delicate relics of Middle-earth itself.

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The most powerful pieces in the entire exhibit showcase Tolkien's talent as an illustrator. He insisted on painting illustrations and the original dust jacket for The Hobbit, and his publishers were delighted with the results. An ink drawing of "The Trolls" is exquisitely detailed, with curling wisps of fire lighting up a thicket of trees. An illustration of the city Rivendell glows with bright color and light—a suitable nestling place for elves in a valley. The drawing of Bilbo floating on a barrel down the river to the "Huts of the Raft-elves" beguiles with its color and composition; the drawing is reminiscent of stained glass.

The exhibit also comes with surprises: Readers of manuscripts will learn that the beloved tree-ent Treebeard was originally cast to be evil, while Gandalf the wizard was almost named Thorin.

 

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First Map of the Lord of the Rings / The Morgan Library and Museum

 

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