J.R.R. Tolkien's Archives Come Alive in This Stunning Book and Exhibition

By Cheryl Eddy on at

J.R.R. Tolkien fans need to know about Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, a new exhibit in The Weston Library, Oxford containing an incredible collection of papers, paintings, and other archival material from the author’s vast career. If you can’t attend in person, you can pick up the exhibit catalogue, a hefty book packed full of gorgeous, fascinating images.

Here’s a little bit more about the book from the publisher, University of Chicago Press:

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth explores the huge creative endeavour behind Tolkien’s enduring popularity. Lavishly illustrated with three hundred images of his manuscripts, drawings, maps, and letters, the book traces the creative process behind his most famous literary works — The HobbitThe Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion — and reproduces personal photographs and private papers, many of which have never been seen before in print.

We’re thrilled to share three exclusive images from the book, starting with Tolkien’s first sketch map of the Shire.

First sketch map of the Shire, 1938. Bodleian MS. Tolkien Drawings 104r. © The Tolkien Estate Limited 1988
Image: Bodleian Library

Here’s a watercolour painted by Tolkien for the first American edition of The Hobbit in 1937. You can see Bilbo, made invisible by his very special ring, speaking with Smaug the dragon, who’s lounging across his giant pile of treasure.

Conversation with Smaug, July 1937. Bodleian MS. Tolkien Drawings 30. © The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937
Image: Bodleian Library

In addition to illustrating The Hobbit, Tolkien also designed the binding and the dust jacket, which you can see below. According to the exhibit notes, the author really wanted to use four colours — green, blue, black, and red — but that was deemed too pricey by the publisher. (You can just make out, in the left-hand margin below, the handwritten notation to “ignore red.”)

The final design of The Hobbit dust jacket. Bodleian MS. Tolkien Drawings 32. © The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937
Image: Bodleian Library

You can check out all of the images from the exhibition in the official catalogue for Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, which has colour reproductions of letters both official and personal, photographs, notes, manuscripts, hand-drawn maps, and artwork, among tons of other artefacts — plus detailed explanations contextualising each piece — packed into its 400 pages.

The book cover incorporates a 1937 Tolkien watercolour titled Bilbo comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves.
Image: University of Chicago Press

If you’re anywhere near Oxford, you can check out the exhibit in person; it’s free, but you need to get tickets in advance (information on how to do that here). It runs through October 28, 2018 in the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford.

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