Weston Library to host extensive Tolkien exhibition in 2018

The Bodleian Libraries will be home to a major new exhibition on the life and works of J. R. R. Tolkien in 2018.

The exhibition, entitled “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth”, will explore not only Tolkien’s work in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but also his achievements as an artist, poet, medievalist and scholar of languages. It will seek to examine the “scholarly, literary, creative and domestic worlds that influenced Tolkien as an author and artist”, according to the Bodleian’s representative.


The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937
A watercolour painted by Tolkien in 1937 as an illustration for the first American edition of The HobbitImage credit: The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937

The Libraries, which hold a total of more than 12 million printed items, have the largest collection of original Tolkien manuscripts and drawings in the world. The latest addition to their Tolkien Archive was a rare map of Middle-earth annotated by the author himself, acquired in May 2016. Some of the items in the exhibition will be on display for the very first time.

The exhibition’s highlights will include manuscripts of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion; photos and letters from Tolkien’s childhood and student days; letters of appreciation from admirers such as poet W. H. Auden, artist Joni Mitchell and author Iris Murdoch; personal objects like boxes of paints, coloured pencils and sealing wax; and a specially-commissioned 3D map of Middle-earth.


The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937
Bilbo comes to the huts of the Raft-elves, a watercolour that Tolkien painted as an illustration for the first edition of The Hobbit in 1937. Image credit: The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937

Emma Woodcock, President of the Oxford University English Society, greeted the exhibition with excitement: “From his previous homes on Northmoor and Manor Roads and Holywell Street, long-vacated offices at Pembroke and Merton, and the Inklings’ corner of the Eagle and Child, Oxford is very much Tolkien’s city.

“It’s fitting that this landmark exhibition should take pride of place within the library to which he left many of his archives. It’s going to be really exciting to see the university and city come together to celebrate one of its most famous residents and to reveal some never-before-seen archives to Tolkien’s countless fans, for many of whom I’m sure Tolkien’s legacy was a major draw to the University and indeed something which first inspired their passion for literature.”

Tolkien Trust 1992
The Gardens of the Merking’s palace, a Tolkien illustration completed for Roverandom, a bedtime story he originally told to his children in 1925 about the adventures of a young dog. It was submitted for publication in 1937 after the success of The Hobbit, but was not published for another sixty-two years. Image credit: Tolkien Trust 1992

The new exhibition will use material from the Bodleian’s own collection, institutions in the USA and private collections. It will also be accompanied by an illustrated book of the same name, to be published in May 2018, which will feature images of Tolkien’s manuscripts, drawings, maps and letters.

While he may now be revered as an author, Tolkien was chiefly known as a scholar of Old and Middle English during his lifetime, and as a philologist concerned with the creation of language. He was also a devoted husband and father of four – some of the stories he wrote specially for his children will be included in the exhibition.

Tolkien Trust 1995
The Shores of Faery, a watercolour illustration completed by Tolkien for The Silmarillion, his very earliest work on the legends of the elves. It was painted during his Finals exams in May 1915. Image credit: The Tolkien Trust 1995

Tolkien spent most of his adult life in Oxford, coming to the University aged nineteen to study Greats (Classics) at Exeter College. He switched to English partway through his degree, and left with a First before serving in World War One. He went on to work on the New English Dictionary (later the Oxford English Dictionary), and taught as an English professor in Oxford between 1925 and 1959. It was during his time as a Fellow of Pembroke College that he wrote The Hobbit and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings, completing the trilogy as a Fellow of Merton College in 1948.

In his retirement, he worked on the stories in The Silmarillion, which were published posthumously in 1977. He died in 1973, and is buried next to his wife in Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford.