The Creative Brilliance of J.R.R. Tolkien

'Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth’ exhibition at The Morgan Library & Museum
March 18, 2019 Updated: March 19, 2019

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s fantastical world of Middle-earth may be make-believe, but for Tolkien it had a real purpose: It was a land where he could create a rich tapestry of myths and legends for England—specifically, for an England that he felt had been robbed of its cultural heritage by the Norman Conquest.

Red dragon by Tolkien
“Conversation with Smaug,” July 1937 by J. R. R. Tolkien. Black and colored ink, watercolor, white body color, pencil. Bodleian Libraries. (The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937)

In fact, Middle-earth is a world complete with its own geography, time, languages, and history.  Everything in Middle-earth was created by Tolkien, the Oxford don (similar to a U.S. professor) and renowned scholar of Old and Middle English, and the author of “The Hobbit” and the epic “Lord of the Rings.” 

Man writing in his study
J.R.R. Tolkien in his study, circa 1937. Black and white photograph. Tolkien Trust. (The Tolkien Trust 2015)

“I do not remember a time when I was not building it,” Tolkien said of Middle-earth. Indeed, he spent nearly 70 years creating his ancient world based on our own at a far earlier time.

“The world in which these stories happen is so real—it’s completely true within it—you have a sense that you’re not just reading a story, but you are seeing part of this world,” said John McQuillen by phone on Feb. 20. He is an associate curator in the printed books and bindings department at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York.

McQuillen is also the curator of “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth,” an exhibition that explores Tolkien’s ideas, ideals, and life’s work.

The exhibition is on display at The Morgan Library & Museum through May 12, 2019. Exhibits include Tolkien’s family photographs and mementos, along with Tolkien’s original illustrations, maps, and draft manuscripts for his major literary works: “The Hobbit,” “The Lord of the Rings,” and “The Silmarillion.”

The exhibition was organized by the Bodleian Libraries, at the University of Oxford, in collaboration with The Morgan Library & Museum and is supported by The Tolkien Trust.

But what motivated Tolkien to create such an intricate legendarium full of hobbits, dwarves, elves, and wizards?

Tolkien’s Early Influences

Tolkien was born in 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa, after his parents, Arthur and Mabel, emigrated from Birmingham, England, in order to better their lives.

Sadly, for the Tolkien family, life took a tragic turn.

In April 1895, Tolkien went back to England with his mother and brother, Hilary, to visit family. It was a journey Tolkien’s father was unable to make due to his job. Aided by his nurse, the then 4-year-old Tolkien wrote to his father, “I am so glad I am coming back to see you.” Visitors can see the note in the exhibition, but Tolkien’s father never read it. It wasn’t even mailed. On that very day, news arrived by telegram that his father had a serious illness, and the following day he died.

After losing his father, he and the family stayed in England, in the Birmingham area in the small town of Sarehole, which Tolkien later described as “a kind of lost paradise,” reminiscent of the Shire in “The Hobbit.” “I took the idea of the hobbits from the village people and children,” Tolkien once said.

Mabel educated the boys at home for a period, and that’s what piqued Tolkien’s interest in poetry, alphabets, handwriting, etymology, and comparative philology (the comparison of two languages in order to find a common root language). Tolkien went on to study at the prestigious King Edward VI School in Birmingham, where it was noted that he had a particular talent for languages.

In 1904, tragedy struck again. Tolkien became an orphan at just 12 years old, after his mother died. Both Tolkien and his brother were then taken under the guardianship of Father Francis Morgan, a Roman Catholic priest and close friend of Tolkien’s mother who had converted to Catholicism.

Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and a lot of the themes in “The Lord of the Rings” are based on Christian ethics and morals. Bilbo showing mercy to Gollum is one example, and Gollum helping to destroy the ring is the outcome of that mercy, said McQuillen. Although, he adds, the language is not as overtly Christian as in C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia.”

Portrait of a lady
Edith Bratt, aged 17, 1906 by The Victoria Studio, 201 Broad Street, Birmingham. Black and white photograph. Tolkien Trust. (The Tolkien Trust 1977)

In 1909, Tolkien fell in love with Edith Bratt, who was also an orphan. Father Morgan knew that Tolkien was easily distracted, and that as an orphan he had limited prospects. So to protect Tolkien’s future, Father Morgan forbade him to speak to Edith until he was 21 years old, which was nearly three years away, so he could fully concentrate on his studies.

Tolkien as a young man
J.R.R. Tolkien, January 1911 by the Studio of H.J. Whitlock & Sons Ltd., Birmingham. Black and white photograph. Bodleian Libraries. (The Tolkien Trust 1977)

On the eve of his 21st birthday he wrote to Edith, who by then was engaged to someone else. But Tolkien’s patience and perseverance prevailed, and they married in 1916.

Adulthood and War

At Oxford University, Tolkien started to learn the classics, but then he switched to study languages. Besides his studies, he taught himself Finnish, as he liked its sound, shape, and structure, and that strongly influenced his linguistic inventions such as the Elvish language. Language was extremely important in Middle-earth. “The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse,” Tolkien said.

While Tolkien was at Oxford, World War I broke out and he was sent to France in 1916 as a second lieutenant. The war didn’t stop Tolkien’s creativity. From the war emerged Middle-earth’s Morgoth and the history of the Gnomes, with inspiration flowing even under shellfire.

A bout of trench fever may have saved his life, as he was recalled to England to recuperate while many of his friends died on the battlefield.

The exhibition features “The Book of Lost Tales,” which contains the stories Tolkien dictated to Edith while he recovered.

The lost tales by Tolkien
“The Book of Lost Tales,” 1916-1917, by J. R. R. Tolkien. Lined exercise book, ‘The High School Exercise Book.’ Bodleian Libraries. (The Tolkien Estate Limited 2017)

For the Love of Family

Despite his busy workload as an Oxford don, Tolkien always had time for his four children. He was “the only grown-up who appeared to take my childish comments and questions with complete seriousness,” said his son Michael after his father died.

Tolkien’s study was always open to his children. He worked from home, marking papers, writing lectures, seeing students, and creating Middle-earth.

Photographs in the exhibition show family afternoon teas in the garden, and summer holidays spent at the seaside or harvesting fruit at Tolkien’s brother Hilary’s fruit farm.

Father Christmas by Tolkien
Father Christmas drawing of “Me” and “My House,” 1920 by J. R. R. Tolkien. Watercolor, white body color, silver powder, black ink. Bodleian Libraries. (The Tolkien Estate Ltd 1976)

For 23 years, Tolkien designed Christmas cards and stories from Father Christmas for his children, some of which are in the exhibition. As the years went by, the content of those tales darkened to stories of goblins and elves, perhaps in line with the development of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Tolkien originally wrote “The Hobbit” for his children, and he read it in installments to them when they would gather in his study at night.

“Tolkien always thought that children’s literature was a very bad misnomer, that kids shouldn’t just be given insipid, very sugary, and weird little stories; they had an interest in topics as broad as any adult. It was just the scale of the vocabulary that had to be scaled down for younger readers,” said McQuillen. That’s why nothing is sugarcoated in “The Hobbit,” he added.

After Tolkien’s friends and colleagues read “The Hobbit,” they urged him to publish the manuscript. It was never intended for publication, and his children were none too happy that their very own bedtime story was to be shared with the nation.

When “The Hobbit” was published in 1937, reviewers deemed it a children’s classic; the publishers wanted to hear more about the hobbits and their adventures.

Book cover for The Hobbit
Dust jacket design for “The Hobbit,” April 1937, by J. R. R. Tolkien. Pencil, black ink, watercolor, gouache. Bodleian Libraries. (The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937)

The book was a success, but Tolkien thought otherwise.

“I don’t much approve of ‘The Hobbit’ myself, preferring my own mythology (which is just touched on) with its consistent nomenclature … and organized history, to this rabble of Eddaic-named dwarves out of Voluspa, newfangled hobbits and gollums (invented in an idle hour) and Anglo-Saxon runes,” he wrote in a letter to Geoffrey E. Selby, a colleague at Oxford. Here, Tolkien refers to the Old Norse poem “Voluspa,” from which the name “Gandalf” was taken, and where some of the dwarves’ names originated.

But Tolkien did manage to weave more of his myths into “The Lord of the Rings,” including his reimagined version of the Atlantis myth, which he called Numenor, and which became the second age of Middle-earth.

In 1949, the hobbits resurfaced in “The Lord of the Rings,” a tale that took 12 years to emerge due to the fact that Tolkien had to take snippets of time to write between his many commitments, which included committee meetings, air raid duties, and of course family.

Tolkien reflected that “writing stories in prose or verse has been stolen, often guiltily, from time already mortgaged.”

The Art of Tolkien

The exhibition draws together many different styles of Tolkien’s illustrations: There are his rather abstract renderings from when he was a student at Oxford; then there are some early black-and-white images (10 were originally included in “The Hobbit”). There are also watercolors, such as a rather picturesque one of Hobbiton; and later drawings of botanical art in a style similar to traditional Japanese or Chinese black-ink paintings. And then there are the alphabets, and the lettering that spills out in flourishes of beautiful script of wonderful, otherworldly languages.

And of course the maps.

Tolkien’s first map of Middle-earth is on display at The Morgan and was essentially a working map that was never intended for the public.

“I wisely started with a map and made the story fit,” Tolkien said. The map therefore created the storynot the other way roundthe map led the narrative, McQuillen explained.

First map of Lord of the Rings by Tolkien
“The first map of The Lord of the Rings,” 1937–1949, by J. R. R. Tolkien. Black, red, and blue ink, pencil, colored pencil. Bodleian Libraries. (The Tolkien Trust 1992, 2015)

This well-loved and well-used map gives us insight into Tolkien’s working practice, as he navigates the narratives. Here, pieces of paper are taped together in an almost higgledy-piggledy fashion as new terrain outgrew the confines of each page, and the edges of the pages have curled over time. The map even has burn holes from Tolkien’s pipe tobacco.

Apart from those incidental marks, nothing on this map is accidental. Tolkien produced meticulous scale drawings of the contours of his imagined land and annotated some of the places with real places that inspired them.

McQuillen believes Tolkien made the geography specific in order to maintain the truth of Middle-earth as a complete world. He even created ancient flora for Middle-earth based on his love of botany.

The maps that were published in the books were often details of certain areas taken from the working map, and it was Tolkien’s son Christopher who helped complete them.

But what would Tolkien think if he knew this working map was on show? “I think he’d be horrified that any of this would be going on—the popularity of the story, and the books, the material, and the movies—all the inspirations that have come from him.” Tolkien was very good at self-deprecation, McQuillen explained: “He really didn’t like his illustrations for ‘The Hobbit,’ and yet those are the most iconic images in English literature.”

Bilbo up the river by Tolkien
“Bilbo comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves,” July 1937 by J. R. R. Tolkien. Watercolor, pencil, white body color. Bodleian Libraries. (The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937)
Hobbiton watercolor by Tolkien
“The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the Water,” August 1937, by J. R. R. Tolkien. Watercolor, white body color, black ink. Bodleian Libraries. (The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937)

As early as the 1960s, Tolkien was approached by a graduate student who wanted to do her master’s thesis on Middle-earth, but Tolkien thought it was the worst idea ever; he thought it was ridiculous, McQuillen said.

Tolkien, the Legend

Tolkien’s publisher recognized “The Lord of the Rings” as a work of genius, yet there was little expectation of profit due to the length of the fantasy novel.

Both Tolkien and his publisher were surprised, then, at the success of “The Lord of the Rings.” 

It was “like lightning from a clear sky,” said C.S. Lewis of “The Fellowship of the Ring.”  

Tolkien’s tales endure as they’re full of “ubiquitous emotions and ideas, so people are drawn into the reality of the characters. They’re not people without problems; they have to deal with the same issues many of us face,” McQuillen said.

In “The Hobbit,” the hobbits have to return home after being away for some time, but they realize that they cannot stay at home because they’re not the same as they were before. So there’s that idea of being grateful for what you have, and not always wanting more, or better, McQuillen explained.

Tolkien’s intent for England was to create a mythological landscape in which legends and myths played out. His dream—and more—may have been posthumously realized.  Although the films and merchandise may not be what Tolkien envisaged, the popularity of his work has reached far beyond England’s shores: Middle-earth is a global mythology.

To find out more about “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth,” visit