Writing convincing fantasy fiction is harder than it looks, argued J.R.R. Tolkien in an essay in 1947. Any old writer, he said, could describe a “green sun”. Many of them could even imagine it. But building a fantasy world “inside which the green sun will be credible…will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft.” Tolkien himself was undoubtedly born with that “elvish craft”, as an exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York makes clear. To help him create a believable “Middle-earth”, the setting for “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit”, Tolkien produced hundreds of drawings and maps. They grounded his stories and helped him to keep track of thousands of years of history, sprawling geographies and complex languages.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, who was born in South Africa in 1892 and moved to England when he was four, began dreaming up fantasy worlds as a child. His mother Mabel, who died when he was 12, had instilled in him a love of art and language, and taught him Latin and Greek. As a teenager, Tolkien added Old and Middle English, Old Norse, and Gothic to his repertoire. At Oxford University, where he studied English, he began inventing a language (which would later form the basis of “Elvish”) and sketching imaginary landscapes, although as far as we know, he didn’t write any stories until after he graduated in 1915. A decade later, by which time he was an academic and father, he would tuck himself away in his study at the end of the day to work on his evolving “Legendarium”, writing stories and poems and drawing ever-more intricate landscapes. His debut novel, “The Hobbit”, some of which first appeared in his children’s bedtime stories, was published in 1937. Its maps, endpapers and dustjacket were illustrated by Tolkien himself.
This exhibition is a slightly more compact version of last year’s at the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford, where Tolkien studied and taught, and where the bulk of his archive is stored. It brings together original manuscripts of “The Hobbit”, “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Silmarillion” with illustrations and maps that take you right inside his Legendarium. Walking through it, you feel as though you’re peering over his shoulder in his study, watching an elvish conjuror at work. In Tolkien’s hands, fantasy has never seemed more real.
“Fantasy Landscape” (1915)
Tolkien studied art at school, but it wasn’t until his undergraduate years at Exeter College, Oxford, that he began exploring different styles and mediums. He was particularly interested in Art Nouveau, Japanese ink drawings and Expressionism.
This work appears in one of Tolkien’s sketchbooks, which he began in January 1914 and titled “The Book of Ishness” (a possible nod to a line from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “did you ever see a thing as a drawing of a muchness!”). Bursts of light explode over a distant mountain landscape, which Tolkien renders in vibrant purples and pinks, a surreal approach to colour that was characteristic of his early abstract works. A man-made structure divides the landscape and juts into the border, pushing out of the bounds of the page. Paths are a motif of his art and writing – journeys are integeral to both “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”. Here, an arrow-like pattern on the road provides a clear sense of direction and the path takes on a mysterious energy of its own as it winds into the mountains.
“The Tree of Tongues” (1930-7)
“The Silmarillion”, published posthumously in 1977, is not Tolkien’s best-known work, but he considered it his most important. It tells the history of the Elves from the creation of the world to the end of the First Age, a period of several thousand years known as the Elder Days. He worked on it throughout his life and claimed he “did not remember a time when I was not building it.” Compared to “The Silmarillion”, “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” were, as he saw it, mere side-projects he did to please his publishers. In a letter on display in the exhibition, he writes: “I don’t much approve of “The Hobbit” myself, preferring 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.”
Tolkien developed a complex geography and history for “The Silmarillion” which provided the context for “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”. The most important element of his mythology was Elvish, a language he refined throughout his life. The stories and languages developed in tandem: as the Elves became divided geographically, their languages evolved in different ways. A professional philologist, Tolkien used his expertise to trace the many inter-related Elvish languages in this chart. It shows that each subsesquent language was derived from Valarin, the language of the Gods, and that six remained in use: Qenya, Eldarin, Telerin, Noldorin, “the Gnome tongue of those that linger in Middle-Earth”, and “the speech of the few descendants of the Teleri and Laiqendi on earth”.
“Drawing by Father Christmas of the Aurora Borealis” (1926)
Every Christmas Tolkien’s children received a handwritten letter and drawing from Father Christmas. He addressed the envelopes with North Pole postage stamps and wrote in the shaky handwriting you would expect from a man who has been doing his job for more than 1,000 years. The letters often told stories of the escapades of North Polar Bear, Father Christmas’s rather clumsy helper. This illustration from 1926 (when his sons were aged nine, six and two – his daughter, Priscilla, was born in 1929) shows what happened when the North Polar Bear accidentally caused “the most monstrous firework there ever has been” and “turned on all the Northern Lights for two years in one go.”
Tolkien created many drawings for his children, who also heard versions of his published stories at bedtime long before they were committed to paper. When his second son, Michael, was having recurring nightmares about armless figures and sinister owls, Tolkien took a novel approach to calming him down. “I tried to draw them from his descriptions – which seemed to rob them of terror,” he later reflected. Years later when Michael was filling out a form to join the army, he listed his father’s occupation as “Wizard”.
“The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the Water” (1937)
Just before “The Hobbit” was published, Tolkien submitted a series of black-and-white illustrations that he thought “might serve as endpapers, frontispiece or what not.” His publisher, Allen & Unwin, recognised their value and, despite a tight budget, agreed to print them. This drawing was used as a frontispiece. It shows a view of Hobbiton, the village where Bilbo Baggins comes from. There aren’t any written descriptions of Hobbiton in “The Hobbit” – for that, readers will have to go to “The Lord of the Rings”. The depiction of the rural idyll was inspired by the countryside outside Birmingham, where Tolkien grew up.
When his American publisher, Houghton Mifflin, insisted on colour illustrations for the American edition, and said they could get an artist to make them if Tolkien was unwilling to do so himself, Tolkien was torn “between knowledge of my own inability and fear of what American artists (doubtless of admirable skill) might produce.” In the end, his fear was so great that he supplied them with five watercolours, including this one.
The first map of “The Lord of the Rings” (1937–1949)
The legends of Elves and Men take place across vast distances, “from the frozen seas in the north to the desert lands of the south, and from the Dwarf kingdoms in the east to the Blessed Realm beyond the western sea.” Maps were essential tools for Tolkien and he began mapping Middle-earth early on in the writing process. Over the 12 years it took him to write “The Lord of the Rings”, he produced numerous maps of Frodo’s journey at various scales, from sketches of the Shire to detailed depictions of stretches of Middle-earth. He studied the maps carefully as he wrote, paying careful attention to scale so that each day’s journey would be attainable for every character – whether they were tall Numenorean men or short-statured hobbits.
This was Tolkien’s main working map for “The Lord of the Rings”, and one which he expanded and annotated as he went along. It actually depicts a larger area than is described in the text, suggesting that there is still more to Middle-earth than can be encompassed in any story. You might notice a small burn-hole just west of the Misty Mountains, probably caused by Tolkien’s pipe, his constant companion while he worked.
Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth Morgan Library, New York City, until May 12th