My dad called me up a few weeks ago, and said, “We’ve not seen one another in a while. Come down to the house, and let’s do something. I want to take you to dinner, and a show in New York.”
I said, “OK, but I also want to see this gallery exhibit at the J.P. Morgan Library on 37th and Madison, the artwork of J.R.R. Tolkien. Maybe we can do that in the afternoon?”
There was a long pause, of course. Dad is nearly 80, and The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were not on his reading list in the early 1950s — but he agreed, because he sometimes goes to concerts at the Morgan’s new performance hall downstairs, and maybe there’d be a different exhibit he’d like to look at.
My own partner looked at me the same way. I don’t think that Tolkien’s Middle Earth and related works grabs girls and young women the same way that it grabs boys and young men (usually by the scruff of the neck or the coat-collar, with a push down the stairs from Bag-End or a shove from behind by the business end of a staff into the mines of Moria — often with writhing tentacles seeking in the dark not far behind). But both of them swallowed whatever contrary thoughts they may have had, and we three went together. There were at least four different security guards on station and a few walkabouts in the gallery, and in general I honor warnings about no photography in the galleries in museums, particularly in guest exhibits — I didn’t want to get thrown out, and I wanted to SEE.
So we went.
On the other side of the gallery entrance was a round door, and beyond that was a giant mural of the view of the mill and the road toward The Hill and Bag-End, as painted by Tolkien. The original was on the opposite end of the gallery from this doorway, and quite small — no more than 5″ wide and 7″ tall, possibly smaller than that. You’ve seen this image dozens of times, I’m sure, as they were on the covers of the paperbacks that I read in junior high school.
Inside, you go clockwise around the gallery from 6pm back around to the front door (the exit is a weird little side door). Some of the first things there are a childhood letter from Tolkien to his father, on a scrap of card with a tiny envelope, which was never sent — Tolkien’s father died in South Africa before the family was reunited. There’s pictures of Tolkien as a baby, a photo of his mother. There’s an account-book of kisses that Edith owed him for school-work completed, and a page from their correspondence — although Tolkien’s guardian refused him contact with Edith for three years, there’s not as many youthful love-notes between “Beren and Luthien” as one might believe.
The left side of the gallery was taken up with Tolkien’s experiments in … let’s not mince words — his experiments in connecting with Faerie, or what C.G.Jung might have called “active imagination”. There’s a scrap of paper, not much larger than a pink “called while you were out” sheet, with an entire poem written on it in careful, vertical Elvish characters, such as were used in Valinor in the First Age. Here was another poem in Tengwar, the alphabet from the appendices of the Lord of the Rings — a first attempt to write the Elvish poem about the Rings of Elves, Dwarves, and Men… before Tolkien settled on three, seven and nine.
Here were arabesques and paisley patterns scrawled on newsprint. Tolkien loved crossword puzzles, and part of his process was to draw mirrored patterns on nearby pages while he thought about clues. On another scrap of paper is a complex bit of scrollwork, and a penciled note that says, “Numenorean design”. A short distance down the wall is another bit of floral design, contained in a couple of boxes rather like tile-work, also “Numenorean” And you realize, oh, so it is — and a vast chunk of ancient lore suddenly lodges itself in your mind, and you know what houses in Numenor must have looked like, with tiled kitchens; and what manuscripts in the Royal Libraries of Numenor must have looked like; and what sorts of designs you might find on the sails of Numenorean ships… and what it must have looked like to see floodwaters racing along streets and filling houses and temples with these sorts of carvings on the roof.
A glass display case holds (the cover of?) The Book of Ishness — an off-white cover with Tolkien-esque Roman lettering, once likely quite thick. However, the explanatory text indicates that the illustrations from the book are now on display along the wall. So now, maybe the master’s book is disassembled? It’s hard to know. Beside the Book of Ishness are the tools that created it: a watercolor set, a kit of colored pencils, some ball-point pens, a box of Conte crayons. Tolkien’s ishnesses on display evoke mountains, human structures, paths through the forest, an Odin- or Gandalf- like figure standing in front of a narrow road through a vast and ancient forest. But there are abstract patterns too — one suggests carving on the walls of Khazad-Dum to me, another suggests floral tiles in the bathing rooms at the houses of the healers in Minas Tirith. On the bottom of several pages, Tolkien is experimenting with making “outline letters” in the shape of his beloved and famous Tengwar characters, filling them up with patterns that resemble Zentangle as much as his own ishnesses. Among the illustrations are several variations of a design he called the Tree of Anarion — a living, branching beautiful tree, with flowers and fruits of a dozen different species flourishing at the ends of the branches.
Around the corner, we see The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again, coming to life. Here are his illustrations for the book: The Hill, as seen from Bywater; the opening in the trees where the Trolls prepare for a Dwarf supper, all straight black lines and menace; Smaug on his treasure pile; Thror’s map on a damaged and wrinkled piece of paper; a timeline on a page torn out of an examination book; and a few more. The original map of the Wilderland, showing Rivendell to the Lonely Mountain that we all recognize, is smaller than I would have guessed — about the size of a page in a Moleskine notebook.
The line around the exhibit slows down a lot here. Everything is small — the illustrations are smaller than the typical 8″x11″ American-sized paper. Some of the scraps of poetry and notes are even smaller, and Tolkien’s handwriting is even more crabbed (but yet more beautiful) than mine. You’re aware, at every step, that your turn to see each piece of paper and illustration, to read a sentence or look at a pen stroke more closely, is limited by the press of other visitors around you, each eager for their turn and just as limited as you are by time. The map of the Shire, showing not simply the roads but also the regions where the major clans and families of hobbits lived, is barely larger than the splay of my hand. Courtesy demands that you cannot stop too long to consider how small the house in Rivendell looks, compared to the vast gray cliffs that ring the house and shelter the Last Homely House East of the Sea. The sprawling mansions of movie Elrond seem a joke when compared to the vastness of the natural realm Tolkien imagined — and the almost-rustic house of red walls and a saffron roof sited so narrowly in that deep cleft in the earth.
Around the corner, as 12pm turns to 1pm in the gallery, we come to the twelve-year writing process of The Lord of the Rings. Here, in Tolkien’s own hand, is an effort to detail the measures of hobbits, and calculate their pace — is the journey from Shropshire to Ravenna on foot possible? That’s about how far it is from the front door of Bag-End to the forging-hall of Mount Doom, where Gollum finally regained the One Ring. Here is his calendar — what the orcs of Orthanc and of Mordor are doing, where Gandalf and the Fellowship are, what stirs in Rohan, and more. Here’s the map of Middle-Earth on big graph paper — a large chunk of Gondor and Rohan carefully pasted over with a new version, and one wonders what he drew underneath that, what country was imagined — and then imagined more carefully? Here is a more detailed map of Gondor, at a much larger scale, too; and his painting of the walls of Barad-Dur, all black granite and iron and the red fires of Mount Doom in the heat-haze in the distance. Here are his designs for the dust jacket, and an illustration-sketch of Sauron himself, one long arm and a black hand ending in talons, reaching out over the mountains of Mordor to find the Ring. The design for the jacket of The Return of the King, never produced for a book, bears the shape of the empty throne of Gondor, and above it seven stars and the White Tree.
It all feels a bit like coming to the palace for a tour of the State Apartments, seeing a history often read but never visited until now.
At about 5pm on this gallery walk, one comes to the Silmarilion cases and artwork — maps and notes, the crests of the major characters, letters to friends, an illustration of the dragon emerging from his mountain cave. I must admit, nothing here grabbed me with any of the force or wonder of the earlier sections on display, with the exception of one illustration that explains the world like the decks of a ship, a cosmology I’ve often felt but never seen visualized before. There’s also a return to the Lord of the Rings here, as Tolkien revisits issues like the development of the linguistic family tree of Elvish,and the origins of the Valar, and the Ages of the world: but it all feels a bit like rationalizing something that didn’t come out of the rational. Maybe the door closed, somewhere along the line, here. Or maybe, it didn’t close for Tolkien, but it closed for me.
In the center part of the gallery, between the 6 position and the axle where the hands are attached to the motor, an open space holds a glass case with Tolkien’s DLitt gown. He wasn’t authorized to wear it for very long, really — I didn’t know, but Cambridge and Oxford didn’t grant doctorates until very late, and rarely for honorary reasons. Tolkien was enormously proud of his red and gray gown (neglect not the robe, my friends), and here it is on display as part of his story as an artist, illustrator and writer.
The wall that faces the entrance, though, and blocks the view of the round door through which I came, and has the mural of Bag End so large on it, has another micro-exhibit on its wall: some of Tolkien’s letters and illustrations for his children: letters from Father Christmas, in a spidery calligraphy with ornate capitals enclosed by traceries of thin red foliate lines.
The last item on the wall is a 1928 illustration, though, for his son Michael, of a terrifying creature that plagued his nightmares — Owlamoo, an owl-like creature that appeared clinging to the backs of chairs and atop furniture, hooting and proclaiming immanent doom for everyone.
Knowing the story from a podcast or two and some reading, I found a shiver of recognition go through me as I saw it — and I fancied I could sense the spirit in the black ink lines drawn in 1928, struggling to get free and again prophesy ruin in some other child’s nightmares. But a person nearby said, “oh, it’s only an owl illustration,” and walked on — and you could almost sense the chains, the bindings, settle back into place, the spirit yet again confounded from release by dismissal with faint praise for the magus near the start of his powers, before he ever sought to Make the realms of Middle-Earth.
And even as the owl’s eyes turn to fire, and I find myself gazing into the face of of the terrible and frightful demon Owlamoo, first my father and then my partner come up beside me, and look at the drawing. “Yeah, an owl,” my father says, and then my partner, and they wander away. And I look back.
Then I, too, see only an owl illustration.
And so the monster, called into eternal imprisonment by mere pen and ink, becomes merely a first act of magic in the life of the Master of Middle Earth.