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John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, The Fire-Writing, 1953, ink and pencil on paper, 10 × 8".

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, The Fire-Writing, 1953, ink and pencil on paper, 10 × 8".

“Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth”

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892–1973) was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, to British parents, and from the age of three was raised in Middle England, moving between the industrial city of Birmingham and the surrounding environs of rural Warwickshire. His lifelong interest in Germanic lore and languages—Finnish, Gothic, Old English, Old Norse—was the genesis of his mythological cosmos, Middle-earth, and the staggeringly complex millennia of histories, races (of gods, elves, dwarves, and men), dialects, and crusades that he created. From an encyclopedic “legendarium” of Elvish civilization called The Silmarillion—a fragmented text that Tolkien started as a young man and obsessively revised throughout his life—he developed his most beloved tales, The Hobbit (1937) and, across three volumes, The Lord of the Rings (1954–55). These sagas form the locus of the Morgan Library & Museum’s exhibition, which includes illustrations, letters, sketches, diagrams, and photographs. All reveal the painstaking architecture and unending development of a magical astronomy so consuming and famous that it has turned the author’s very name into a mystical talisman.

Tolkien studied Old and Middle English at the University of Oxford. After his service in World War I, he found work as a lexicographer for the New English Dictionary (which he referred to as “the brownest of brown studies”) before becoming, in his early thirties, a professor of Old English at his alma mater, where he taught for thirty-four years. Despite his heavy academic and familial obligations, Tolkien doggedly constructed fictional realms and atmospherics, or “Faërie.” But before he forged epic narratives, he devised maps of extraordinary detail, incorporating scaled distances and contoured topographies. These cartographic marvels are among the most captivating artifacts in the show, particularly The Second Silmarillion Map, ca. 1930, and The First Map of The Lord of the Rings, ca. 1937–49, which for roughly ten years was the trilogy’s principal working plan. It carries the patina of age: creases from ceaseless handling in the course of many a smoky, late night, and amendments over the lines as he tinkered with the names, breadths, and depths of forests, citadels, mountain ranges, and rivers. Its frayed leaves, full of exquisite chirography, are taped together. Tolkien’s maps aren’t guides to treasure—they are treasures.

His Elvish lexicons were drawn from his philological fascination with the souls of ancient tongues and legendary texts—including the thousand-year-old Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf and The Kalevala (1835), a Finnish odyssey. Yet he was doubtful of his artistic prowess, and rightly so—his drawings are merely weak reflections of his phenomenal words. The watery pencil marks of Barad-dûr: The Fortress of Sauron, ca. 1944, depict the titular edifice as a pleasant, gently rendered, Renaissance-style palace with Mount Doom faint in the distance—not as the “black, immeasurably strong,” and fearful tower that caused Frodo such utter despair. There are some delightful exceptions: Halls of Manwë on the Mountains of the World Above Faërie, 1928, shows the incandescent dwelling of the Valar king, Manwë Súlimo, atop a sublime peak that reaches into the heavens. The willowy curves of Bilbo Comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves, 1937, accentuate a lazy river’s lulling bend. The lone figure, his back to the viewer—a melancholic device Tolkien frequently used to suggest the beginning or conclusion of a trepidatious journey—meanders downstream in his barrel, lending the entire scene a slow, rhythmic wistfulness.

Yet Tolkien excels as a graphic designer: Take the orphic symmetry of his grimoire-like binding for The Hobbit (1937), featuring onyx-colored dragon-and-mountain motifs upon a dusty-green ground, or the whispering, serpentine “fire writing,” the script that appeared on the One Ring when it was heated by flames.

This incredible trove, accumulated over more than a century, confirms that Tolkien’s beautiful and byzantine legacy is secure—a gift of breathtaking imagination, darkling light, and spellbinding adventure.