Tolkien’s World: An Exhibition Transports Us to Middle-earth

If you have ever opened a fantasy novel and found a map, you most likely have J.R.R. Tolkien to thank. He probably deserves some credit, too, for inspiring future fantasy writers to create their own languages. And if you’ve ever completed a book and found that there’s an online encyclopedia dedicated to its world and mythology — that’s also thanks to Tolkien.

The author of the “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” did more than write books. He invented an alternate reality, complete with its own geography, languages, religion and an era-spanning history. “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth,” an exhibition of his artwork, letters, drafts and other material now on view at the Morgan Library & Museum, reminds visitors that the stories Tolkien wrote, however impressive, represent only a fraction of his efforts.

“I don’t want to make him sound delusional, like he thought Middle-earth was a real place, but he did believe that Middle-earth, in and of itself, was a real place,” John T. McQuillen, the curator of the Morgan’s iteration of the exhibition, said. “Internal to the story, it was a true reality, so it had everything that this world does.”

Creating maps, languages, history and a detailed visualization of this world was Tolkien’s way of honoring that reality. “I think it was this sort of duty for him to be sure that he was being true to the vision and properly recording what was there,” Mr. McQuillen said.

Tolkien’s artwork ranges from a scene of a bucolic landscape in the English Midlands, “Alder by a stream,” to nearly psychedelic depictions of fantastical vistas like “The Shores of Faery.” Somewhere in between are the drawings and paintings he made for “The Hobbit,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Silmarillion.” These meld Tolkien’s romanticism and his desire for realism with some of his more wild artistic impulses.

The exhibition, now open through May 12, highlights Tolkien’s unparalleled ability to create an immersive experience using only words and pictures. After a visit you, too, may find yourself believing in the reality of Midde-earth and the hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs and wizards that live there.

Here are four facets of the show that exemplify the depth and breadth of Tolkien’s creation.

Tolkien as Mapmaker

Cartography was at the heart of Tolkien’s most famous creation, “The Lord of the Rings,” a trilogy that chronicles the journey of Frodo, a hobbit, to destroy the ring he inherited from his uncle Bilbo. “For ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ Tolkien began with the map and made the story fit,” Mr. McQuillen said.

It is no wonder, then, that Tolkien sometimes simultaneously charted the story’s plot and sketched its geography, as he did in “Map of Rohan, Gondor and Mordor with plot notes for ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ Book V.” This helped him coordinate among characters in different settings, ensuring that no one was moving in a way that didn’t make sense for the topography they were passing over. For Tolkien, Mr. McQuillen said, “Pippin and Gandalf couldn’t ride to Minas Tirith in shorter time than someone else was traveling a similar distance in another part of the story.”

Tolkien’s maps, eight of which appear in the exhibition, are about more than verisimilitude. They are meant to remind the reader that the stories are visiting only a small part of the available terrain. There is more to Middle-earth, Tolkien implies, than any single tale could convey.

Tolkien’s True Masterpiece

It is incredible to think that Tolkien considered neither “The Hobbit” nor “The Lord of the Rings” his masterpiece. That honor goes to “The Silmarillion,” a work he began around 1915, well before both of his better-known projects. “The best way to describe it is as almost biblical in scope,” Mr. McQuillen said. Richard Ovenden, the head of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, where a previous version of “Maker of Middle-earth,” organized by Catherine McIlwaine, appeared last year, likened it to the underwater, invisible bulk of an iceberg.

“The Silmarillion,” an early cover page of which is on view at the Morgan, begins with a creation story for Middle-earth before diving into its religious cosmology. What follows is an account of the world’s first major conflict between good and evil, a history of the Elvish race, and an in-depth explanation of the events that led up to “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” among several other things.

This would be like J.K. Rowling following up her “Harry Potter” series with a book that covers the whole history of her world leading up to the adventures of Harry and his friends.

The unfinished work was published posthumously in 1977 under the direction of Tolkien’s son Christopher. As his imaginary world grew, the difficulty of ever capturing it in a full and final way also increased. Tolkien’s attention to detail here probably surpasses what he did in “The Lord of the Rings”: He went so far as to design heraldic devices for some of the characters featured in the book.

Tolkien the Artist

While Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” films are the most famous visual representations of Middle-earth, Tolkien drew and painted many images of his world himself. He created two sets of illustrations for “The Hobbit,” one in black and white and the other in color. For “The Lord of the Rings,” his artwork was primarily for his own reference and, Mr. Ovenden said, for his own enjoyment.

“He’s doing the drawings and the maps and the spreadsheets and all of that detail — the language, the calligraphy — for himself,” he said, after pointing out that Tolkien didn’t write his books to earn a living or because he considered himself to be a professional creative writer.

The visuals, he emphasized, were a way of adding yet another layer of depth and richness to his work. “It helps him paint the picture of the world,” he said. “It helps him populate the world with a reality that would be weaker otherwise.”

Mr. Ovenden said that he hoped the exhibition highlights Tolkien’s skills as an artist and shows visitors, especially those who have seen the films but not read the books, that there are several ways to imagine Middle-earth, and that going back to Tolkien’s original work is a great way to appreciate this.

Tolkien, Lover of Languages

Tolkien was an inventor of languages before he was a writer. By 1915, he had begun to devise a “nonsense fairy language” that would eventually become the tongue of his elves. At the time of his death, in 1973, it had developed into a body of interrelated languages — Sindarin and Quenya being the most advanced — with a complex history. “The Tree of Tongues” sketches a version of this history.

Mr. McQuillen suggested that it was Tolkien’s love of his own languages that spurred him to begin writing fiction. “When he was in school and in his early undergraduate years he realized that without stories, without literature, a language will die,” he said. This view of the relationship between language and literature, informed by Tolkien’s professional life as a philologist and professor of English at Oxford, was the engine that drove him both as a scholar and as a writer.

Tolkien’s lifelong love of language extended into the aesthetic realm as well. “The Fire-writing” shows him experimenting with several different forms of Elvish script for the inscription on Sauron’s infamous “ring of power” from “The Lord of the Rings.” The language of the text is another of Tolkien’s inventions: the Black Speech of Mordor.

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth

Through May 12 at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, Manhattan; 212-685-0008, themorgan.org. The show will travel to the Bibliothèque nationale de France in late 2019.

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