On the exhibition Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth

Texto de Tomás Ferreira.

On the 15th of October last, while on British soil on several academic and personal missions, I found myself in Oxford, where I had the opportunity – which was, indeed, a pleasure – of seeing the newest Tolkien exhibition put on display by the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries. And I think it is remarkable for various reasons, which I will try to explain as briefly as possible in what is a mix of review, essay, biography and autobiography.

© The Tolkien Trust 1995. The Shores of Faery.

First, an attentive and careful look at this exhibition, at items such as the family photos or the photo of Tolkien at the age of 19, brings home to us some very serious realisations about where it all began. This amazing world – and interpretation of the world – that expressed itself in art that spans a lifetime of ceaseless creative endeavour sprang from the mind, the feelings and the inner life of a young orphan boy that was like so many other boys of his age and ours, who became a man not so unlike other men we know, have known, and may know. An ordinary man that, notwithstanding his ordinary life, was absolutely extraordinary, of which kind we need more.

© The Tolkien Trust 1977. Photo of JRR Tolkien aged 19.

And that is important, because it reminds us of the very human – and, also, we might say, humble – origins of much beauty that is in our world. It tells us something that perhaps Plato didn’t realise, and that his disciple Aristotle seems to have grasped a bit better: sometimes, the most precious flower is found in the desert of the Arctic, in a wasteland, and that beauty and tragedy walk hand in hand and are found in the imperfect lives of ordinary people. Some would say that it shows beauty does not need to come of God, but, on the contrary, it shows that sometimes beauty comes from the lives of men touched and wounded by the imperfection of a Humanity that is the painful exiled girlfriend-image of a perfect God whose beauty it partakes in, in the confusion and bewilderment of its earthly pilgrimage. One needs not the world of Ideas, but yet we need the supreme Idea, and all this enthralling art stems from the wanderings of small people in search for return to a great, perfect and unique reality in which they have their origin. So, in that sense, Tolkien’s art, like Tolstoy’s later works – or Dostoievsky’s in its apogee – is an evidence of the veracity, reality and immediacy of the faith they professed, sensed or grappled with. Nothing more akin to the beauty of God than the beauty of man’s art in search for that selfsame God – the filiation of longing, love, or faith.

© Williams College Oxford Programme & The Tolkien Estate Ltd, 2018. Annotated map of Middle-earth.

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth takes us through the stages and process of composition of his best-loved books like The Hobbit, from their earlier stages…

© The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937. Bilbo comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves.

…through to their final episodes…

© The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937. Conversation with Smaug.

…to the stage of publication, into the process of which we are allowed a glimpse.

© The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937. Hobbit Dust Jacket.

It also allowed us to see some hints of stories that were not fully told or that were not told at all. It includes three pieces of artwork that were never before published (which are shown in this article in The Guardian): a painting of «grass in the wind» in Japanese style with a caption in Quenya, an abstract with elvish lettering of the 1950s and an abstract painting dating to the fateful year of 1914 and thus his years as an undergraduate at Exeter College. But there are also numerous other interesting items. I would like to draw attention to a drawing of Owlamoo, an monster resembling an owl that haunted the then infant Michael Tolkien’s nights, which his father drew to dispel his fear, which again The Guardian article of 24th March 2018 shows, and to the beautiful watercolours made to illustrate Roverandom – a story whose origin is also connected to his son Michael and a holiday at the beach in the 1920s.

© Tolkien Trust 1992. Roverandom illustration.

Those interested in Tolkien’s scholarly pursuits were not disappointed either, for the exhibition includes numerous items relating to those. There was a page, typed but with handwritten corrections, of his prose translation of Beowulf, among other things. And I also remember fan mail from readers and from students who particularly enjoyed his captivating and enthusiastic lectures, classes and tutorials.

© The Tolkien Trust 2018. Beowulf typescript.

In conclusion, this exhibition adds significantly to our enjoyment and knowledge of Tolkien’s work in its many facets and reminds us of much that deserves to be treasured in the dragon-hoard of memory.

© The Tolkien Trust 2018. Bodleian reader oath letter.

Having been a Tolkien fan ever since my early teens, when I read all those of his works that were at the time translated in Portuguese – the venture into the English originals and the many volumes that were not translated began a few years later, with the heroic alliterative verse of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún –, I can hardly begin to describe my emotions on being in the same room as, say, one of his autograph manuscripts – or Tolkien’s working chair, for that matter. Such a presence, in his very own city of Oxford, could only evoke the strongest paradoxical feelings of nostalgia for a lost world and past lives and, at the same time, real intimations, both of memories real and imagined, as well as of the meaning of an artistic achievement that is very much alive. Such intimations, however, were not the usual kind, but stronger. For anyone who has delved deep into Tolkien’s fictional universe – and also into his biography –, a stroll through Oxford’s High Street or through the several old backstreets around the Bodleian’s oldest buildings, even in this 21st century and in this mechanized and technocratic time in which we live and which he would have abhorred, can easily make us have visions of Tolkien, walking or cycling on his way to a lecture or a college meeting. But an exhibition such as this brings home to us that, however changed it is, we still are same species, and we live in the same world in which such beauty was created – which is rather heartening as to the possibility of there being space for beauty still in such a dark world.

© The Tolkien Trust 2015. The Fire-writing.

I spoke of Tolstoy and Dostoievsky. In fact, in terms of power of imagination and depth of meaning, I can see no rivals for Tolkien other than the two great Russian masters – not even Joyce, whom I love as well; not even the very medieval poems and stories from which he drew, for somehow Tolkien’s work subsumes all of them and their many trains of thought: as an example, in many ways, Tolkien himself could be said to be our very own Sir Gawain from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in his search for heroism and honour in a world where society constantly fails to match those values professed. Maybe Proust can achieve such a status, though I have little firsthand knowledge of him and cannot be yet certain. I would not shy from pairing some moments in Tolkien’s writing with Tolstoy’s later work and stories such as Resurrection and «Aliosha the Pot», or characters like Gandalf with someone like the starets Zossima in Dostoievsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. And I certainly agree with C. S. Lewis in that, if on the one hand Halldór Laxness fully deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature he received in 1955 – the year of the publication of The Return of the King –, on the other hand, Tolkien himself should have been given the same honour in 1961, when he was proposed as a candidate.

Like it always happens when I plunge into Tolkien’s creative world, this exhibition left in me the impression of a soft and gentle pain of the good kind of pain that is always associated with nostalgia, loss and memory – triggering something akin to that very Portuguese saudade – but also with the deep meaning of looking at the world with a wide-eyed receptive look, ready to discover its magic and enchantment. These feelings have another side, that of the realisation that indeed things like goodness, heroism, nobility of character and truth do exist, even though we might not have hold of them, even if we might have lost them in a nameless past, in the hope that, one day, we will stumble upon them again, like upon a magic ring in a dark cave or a rare flower in a beautiful green and lively meadow; or that, at last, when our pilgrimage is finished, we will be returned to the universe from which they stem. And, as I left the Bodleian, part of a famous sentence in The Lord of the Rings echoed in my ears: ‘…here, at the end of all things…’. Or at the beginning.

© The Tolkien Trust 1977. Photo of JRR Tolkien in the
Botanic Gardens, Oxford.

Parts of the exhibition Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth will be displayed at the Morgan Library, in New York City, from January 25 to May 19, 2019, and then at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in late 2019. 

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