Sunday, June 3, 2018

Tolkien in Oxford

The Bodleian Library's new Tolkien exhibit, which opened on Friday and runs for 5 months, was the goal of my trip to England. The Bodleian holds many of Tolkien's papers (and they borrowed for this exhibit some items from Marquette University, which holds many of his manuscripts, and old records from Oxford's Exeter College, his undergraduate college), but this is their first Tolkien exhibit in 25 years and far more extensive than its predecessor.

It's in a gallery in the Weston Library, which has been much refurbished and cleaned up from the dingy "New Bodleian" that it used to be. You walk in through a foyer in which enlarged images from Tolkien's maps of Middle-earth have been projected on the floor, so you're walking across Middle-earth, a clever touch. Then you turn into the exhibit itself, one large room full of things - "wonderful things," as Howard Carter would say. Like King Tut's tomb, the room is murkily-lit and not very clearly organized. It's full of glass cases in which are suspended the artifacts, with captions mostly down at around waist level. But they are wonderful to see.

There are cases on his childhood, his university and war service years, his physical creative environment as an adult (including a desk and chair he used), and a whole series mostly around the perimeter on his creative work: his early artistic Book of Ishness, The Book of Lost Tales (yes, the original school notebooks in which he wrote it), The Hobbit (mostly the illustrations) and The Lord of the Rings (mostly the maps). After a case of the elaborate paisley-like doodles he drew on newspapers in his later years, there's a case of editions and translations of his books plus fan letters (including one from a teenager named Terence Pratchett, and another from an old man named Sam Gamgee who'd heard his name was in the book), and that's it. You go out another door, and the gift shop (a whole story in itself, believe me) is over to the right beyond the cafe.

Now, much of this material has been published before, the art in reproductions and the written material in transcriptions. But much of the material is hard to reproduce adequately - a map might have both the deepest India ink and the faintest of pencil markings - and there's also the human need to see the originals. What gets me at this exhibit, and on previous occasions when I've seen Tolkien's art displayed, is the vividness and intensity of his craft and the minute tiny details he fills it with. It has the same appeal as a lot of Chinese art.

Tolkien's creative craft in geography is also illustrated not just by his maps, but by a couple more original tech items the exhibitors dreamed up themselves, which as they're not archival material are at least brightly lit. They're map displays with moving lights showing the travels of the characters in The Lord of the Rings. One's a vertical comparative map, and the other is a table with a 3-dimensional relief map of the imaginary landscape, on which are serially projected the various stages of the journeys.

As for the artifact aspect, seeing original handwritten texts I'm long familiar with from scholarly book texts is itself a wonder. I have no doubt as to what was the most moving single item in the exhibit, and it's not by Tolkien himself. Tolkien served in WW1 on the Somme along with one of his closest school friends, Geoffrey Bache Smith, another budding poet. Smith scribbled Tolkien a letter which ends, "May God bless you my dear John Ronald and may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them if such be my lot."

It was his lot. Not long afterwards, Smith was hit by shrapnel, the wounds became infected, and he died at the front. And there, suspended in the case, is the last page of that last letter ... hastily scribbled ... in pencil, yet. One turns in tears.

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