Exhibitions 2: The Real Tolkien

By McDonagh, Melanie | The Spectator, July 7, 2018 | Go to article overview

Exhibitions 2: The Real Tolkien


McDonagh, Melanie, The Spectator


To no one's surprise, the Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition at the Bodleian in Oxford, where J.R.R. spent so much of his time, has been a huge success. Were tickets on sale, it would be a sell-out, but the Bodleian has made it free. The visitors book is peppered with observations such as: 'It made me cry with joy... sensationally splendid'.There's also a less hyperbolic view, in a childish hand: 'It was interesting to see how he made TheHobbit and Lord of the Rings.'

It is rather a small show, a remarkable feat of compression on the part of the curator, Catherine McIlwaine, who had to pare down 500 boxes of Tolkien holdings to produce it, and was instructed by advisers that her captions mustn't exceed 70 words each. In fact, the catalogue of the exhibition (Bodleian, £40), which she edited, containing contributions from other Tolkien scholars, is better than the show itself, with all the things she wanted to include in the show but couldn't, and proper captions.

The centrepiece of the display is a replica of Tolkien's study at his home in Oxford, with his pipe, his Windsor chair and his writing desk with green baize. I'm glad they got in the smoking. This was where his children, as well as his students, would come to see him. Famously, he chanced upon a blank page when he was marking School Certificate exams, and on it, out of nowhere, he wrote the opening sentence of The Hobbit: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit...'.

The story was told to his children, and here are some of the charming Christmas cards and letters from Father Christmas that he wrote for them year after year, with splendid lettering and envelopes and a special stamp from the North Pole, and sketches for Roverandom, the dog story he made up for them. …

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