Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth … looking back in wonder

Tolkien Exhibition 2018
No photography was allowed inside the actual exhibition space due to light-sensitive documents

As you walk up the steps of the Weston Library in the heart of Oxford, anticipation sets in at the sight of a large sign with the word Tolkien printed on it, and wrapped around one of the columns adorning the building’s facade. Heading inside, you find yourself in a large foyer, reminiscent of the British Library, and greeted by that same thought when visiting such places: “There is knowledge here that surpasses all earthly gold and treasure”.

You venture forward across the foyer and see two vertically standing digital screens, each displaying the exhibition poster and other related material, overshadowed by a large wall display of one of Tolkien’s most recognisable artworks — an Eagle poised on the edge of a precipice and the small figure of a weary Bilbo at its talons. The colours and the details are staggering on such a large scale, and a far-cry from some of the reproductions found in some editions of The Hobbit. On the other side of the foyer, you head towards the entrance of the ST Lee Gallery and present your ticket to the staff present there.

Once you step over the threshold, you plunge into a dark tunnel where, at its far end, the silver outline of the doors of Moria is projected onto the wall. Meanwhile, the floor turns into a mesmerising collage of the famous red and black inked maps of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, while you literally walk across the lands, making your way further in towards the exhibition space itself.

The passage opens up into a large room with a variety of showcases and glass cabinets aligned around the sides and at the centre, and illuminated by dim lights to help protect the delicate artefacts on display.

I will never forget the thrill I felt as I paused in front of a manuscript page from The Fall of Arthur. Tolkien’s exquisite handwriting was clearly legible and the verses just resonated all the more in that dimly-lit chamber. Or even The King’s Letter, a letter crafted in the gorgeous Sindarin Tengwar script which Tolkien wrote as part of an unpublished epilogue to The Lord of the Rings, in which Aragorn informs Samwise Gamgee of his intention to ride North towards The Shire.

A large screen was placed face up at the centre of the room, showing a beautifully-rendered, three-dimensional holographic representation of the map of Middle-earth, allowing you to select and see an animated trail wading across the map as it tracked the journeys of important characters.

Extracts and paintings from Tolkien’s Book of Ishness or the early drafts of The Silmarillion, half-drawn and developed maps of Middle-earth on exam papers, or Númenórean illustrations around crossword puzzles, are just some of the riches one can find there.

However, it is not just an exhibition about the works of Tolkien. Personal photographs, diaries and even the Professor’s own study desk, chair and smoking pipe are on display. Indeed, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth does justice to the author and more. Not only does it demonstrate Tolkien as a brilliant artist, storyteller, writer and creator, but also a human being.

It is honestly difficult to describe in words the emotions of experiencing this exhibition. I found myself understanding, and nodding in complete agreement, with those visitors whose comments I had read of their own trips to the exhibition.

To a keen Tolkien reader, this is an absolute must.

I thought I knew a substantial amount about the life and works of Tolkien, but my feeble amount of knowledge was put to shame by the vast extent of information on display — information that, as I was told, comprised just a small percentage of what actually exists. It was staggering to comprehend.

Reading Tolkien’s works changed my life. Visiting this exhibition inspired it.

The exhibition is open until 28 October. If you get the opportunity to visit Oxford, this should definitely be your first call. As to the majority of those who, unfortunately, cannot do so, Catherine Mcilwaine’s companion book to the exhibition is the next best thing.

Till next time …

6 thoughts on “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth … looking back in wonder

  1. I am delighted to hear that you had such a wonderful experience. How wonderful to see first hand what I have only seen in reproduction. My family hopes to visit the exhibit when it opens in New York City in late January 2019.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the exhibition! You captured beautifully my own excitement at discovering the Professor’s manuscripts and illustrations. One of the (many) highlights for me was Princess Margrethe’s letter with her illustrations for The Lord of the Rings. It is not often reproduced in books but I love her interpretation and style.
    I also wrote a blog post on my professional blog ( but it is nowhere near as well-written as yours!

  3. The Swedish Tolkien podcast went to see Oxford and the exhibition earlier this year and did interviews with various people, including one person who worked with the exhibition. They released one special episode in english with the interviews! If you are interested in hearing some thoughts on some more information about the exhibition and Bodleian collections.

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