Entering Middle Earth … and Staying There: The J.R.R. Tolkien Exhibit at The Morgan

Going to the Tolkien exhibit at The Morgan Library was for me a bit of time travel. My dad had read me The Hobbit and all of the The Lord of the Rings as bedtime stories when I was in second grade. My childhood was dotted with references to Middle Earth—an Eowyn halloween costume, a short-lived endeavor to teach myself the Tengwar (Elvish) writing system, and an eighth grade research paper on Tolkien himself. When the movies based on The Hobbit came out, I refused to see them on the principle that their images would replace the ones of my childhood imaginings. I hardly remember many of the plot details but my impressions of the characters stick with me: good-hearted Tom Bombadil, the great and gentle Ents, Frodo in the cave with Shelob, …

I went to the exhibit with my parents and sister. When I first told my dad over the phone that The Morgan was doing a special exhibit on Tolkien, it was quickly decided that a visit to it was necessary and would become the focal point of a family weekend. Those books were, after all, a love that my father had passed on to his daughters.

We came to the Morgan on a Saturday afternoon. When we entered through the second row of glass doors, the whole entryway of the museum was filled with people, much more than I had ever seen than when the Charlotte Brontë or Emily Dickinson exhibits were there. The line for the Tolkien exhibit itself took thirty minutes, and even when we entered the exhibit, it was crammed with people. Evidently, they were letting in as many people at once as possible.

The Brontë and Dickinson exhibits had had no line, and the comparative busyness of this exhibit irked me. I imagine it has to be that The Lord of the Rings was such a great commercial success when it was made into movies and that the entire world of Middle Earth has such a wide appeal, but I can’t help but bemoan the fact that a novelist writing the story of woman’s life and a renowned innovative poet  seemingly had drawn much smaller crowds.

The exhibit itself is in a small, one-room space, the same one used for the special exhibitions on Brontë and Dickinson, but this time the space was divided up with new walls at various angles to guide the visitor clockwise around the exhibition, with another separated space focusing on the Silmarillion.

It was odd walking through the exhibit and coming back to all these things I half-remembered. Upon entering, you come to face a wall with a giant, blown-up image of the Shire that Tolkien had painted, the same one found on the cover of the old 1970s paperback edition of The Fellowship of the Ring that I had read. The exhibition is beautiful. Several other paintings of Tolkien’s adorn the walls as vibrant, detailed murals, and the other walls are painted in colors drawn from these images, as if the curators had used the PhotoShop eyedropper tool.

The ring of the exhibit follows the course of Tolkien’s life–the influence of his mother, his childhood in the English countryside, falling in love with a fellow orphan, his days as a student at Oxford, and his time as a father, professor, and writer. It tells a well-rounded story of a man who had an inexhaustible interest in languages and the worlds of ideas and legends they inhabit, so much so that he made up his own. His hand-drawn maps hanging on the wall are a testament to the elaborate depth of his Middle Earth, and a several-page letter answering questions of an early reader of his work attests to the seriousness with which he approached his creation. There is so much to look at, from book jackets Tolkien designed to letters from Father Christmas he had written for his children. Each item is presented so it can be closely examined; a typed response from Tolkien to a reader’s serious questions about his world is laid out in full, spanning several feet. It is, in all, an exhibit attentively and thoughtfully curated.

The exhibit offers a wonderful window into Middle Earth and its origins in Tolkien’s own experiences and in other mythologies such as the Finnish Kalevala, yet it provides few opportunities to step out of this created world and back into our own. The influence of these worlds on each other works both ways, and Tolkien’s legacy, as the attendance to the exhibit suggests, is vast. He was so much part of my childhood, and certainly part of the childhoods of many of the people there. I particularly remember a young father leading his two children around the exhibit, explaining to them the significance of The Silmarillion, the stories Tolkien wrote that detail events predating those of The Lord of the Rings. There is something so wonderful about Tolkien’s characters and his imagination, and as a child, I was especially enamored of them.

In the decade and a half since I first met the Prancing Pony and Galadriel, I’ve read many other stories and learned a lot more about the world that I live in. As my family discussed after visiting the exhibit, it’s troubling that such a captivating and vast world included so few developed women characters. There are Eowyn, Arwen, and Galadriel, but no members of the fellowship of the ring. And who is the most developed female character apart from those three? Shelob? The idea of entire realms of evil that have no pure-hearted inhabitants is also concerning to me as someone who studies Russia and gets particularly annoyed when people conflate government and inhabitants. Like in the exhibit on Dickinson (who was by far at her most productive poetically during the years of the Civil War), there is little space devoted to war, though Tolkien fought in World War I himself, and his books depict many wars and battles as their most salient events. I can, of course, pick out things that don’t sit well with me from any work when looking back at it from today’s contexts, but the whole exhibit is devoted to looking back at Tolkien as a world-maker who started world-making, who catapulted fantasy into its central place as a genre. Should we consider his other influences? Tolkien was, to a rather large extent, a socially conscious writer, bemoaning environmental destruction in the tale of the Ents and, throughout the trilogy, underlining the corruption brought about by power. Should a retrospective exhibit pay more homage to these connections?

None of this will prevent me, however, from bringing as many of my friends as I can muster back to the exhibit so I can pore over its contents again. The exhibit offers a treasure trove of papers and objects that tell a rich story about Tolkien and his Middle Earth within the limited space The Morgan has, though the curators might have benefited from taking another step away from their subject matter and highlighting more of Tolkien’s resonances with today’s world. Fantasy is deeply intertwined with our own realities, and I’d hope that in the future, a reflection of Tolkien’s legacy might address that further.

The exhibit is running through May 12th. Entrance to The Morgan Library is free with a Columbia or Barnard Student ID.

Clare Jamieson is a senior at Columbia College majoring in Comparative Literature & Society with French and Russian languages.