Friday, February 15, 2019

Tolkien in New York

So, it's taken me a week, but here's my write-up of the second day of our Tolkien trip to the Morgan event in New York City.

Feeling somewhat drained by the events of the day before, we made a late morning of it on Thursday, February 7th, the second full day of our trip and the one scheduled to end with the big event: the reception.

We had lunch with Wayne and Christina, whom we hadn't seen in far too long (having missed the last two of our once-a-year gatherings), then the four of us went away from the restaurant noise and back in the Library Hotel's Reading Room, a large comfortable area on the second floor with all the comforts: lots of tea, a selection of cookies, chairs around small tables, lots of books, and a generally relaxed, welcoming air, where we caught up on things.

After a break to rest up for the big event -- I'm still trying to learn to pace myself as I get my stamina back -- it was time to head over to the Exhibit.  I didn't take my usual extensive notes but for once just relaxed and enjoyed the lectures.

First up was Richard Ovenden, head Librarian at the Bodleian, who spoke about the Bodleian's history, some recent acquisitions,* and their Tolkien holdings.  Then came Catherine McIlwaine, the Tolkien Archivist (yes, the Bodleian does have a dedicated position just to manage the Tolkien collection, given how large it is** and how frequently consulted); I think she said that 140,000 people came to see this Exhibition while it was at the Bodleian. I think she also spoke about the three central themes of the Oxford exhibit being scholarship, imagination, and family.  Third came Verlyn Flieger, who spoke with her usual eloquence, suggesting that Tolkien has become a lens through which to see the world, and related how Priscilla Tolkien had visited the exhibition when it was in Oxford and been struck by how her father was now far more than a popular writer but had grown to be an international figure. All three then took comfy chairs for a Q&A session, the general theme of which was Tolkien as an international figure, but the only lines that stay in memory were (1) the question from McIlwaine to Verlyn: why Tolkien? why not (say) Isaac Asimov? To which Verlyn responded "Tolkien is better"; i.e. a better writer. (2) McIlwaine describing how Tolkien had a gift for "inventing things we felt like we always knew". and (3) Verlyn describing "the essence of his genius: LOSS".

Then followed the Reception: where we had a clear mix of two groups. Half the people who were there, the conspicuously well-dressed ones, had come because it was an event at the Morgan.*** The other half were there for the Tolkien: they'd come to see the paintings and maps and manuscripts and memorabilia. Myself, I seized this opportunity for a last quick run through to look at a few favorites one more time: comparison between the LotR and Silm maps confirmed the location of Belegost and absence of Nogrod; the presence of Himling as an Iceland-like island and beyond it the Vinland-like TOL FUIN, clearly the surviving remnant of Taur-na-Fuin, the original Mirkwood. And I enjoyed one last glimpse of the 1915 & 1928 Ishnessses and mythological paintings, with their bright vivid colors so unlike his later style and palette. Had they been published in the 1960s they wd no doubt have become favorite black-light posters. I know I wd like to have had them on my walls.

One of the nice things about the occasion is that even though we were far from home there were a number of familiar faces, despite the face blindness, both at the lecture and the reception. Some I see mostly at Kalamazoo: John Holmes (a contributor to the Flieger festschrift), Eric Mueller,**** Yvette Kisor; others at Mythopoeic events like Janet Brennon Croft, and some at both, like John Houghton (with whom I worked as one of the editors on the Shippey festschrift). It was nice to have a little more time with Verlyn and Carl. I got to meet Catherine McIwaithe and congratulate her again both on the exhibit itself and the equally impressive catalogue (which ought to win all kinds of Awards). She told me that one of the criteria when selection a page of manuscript for the display was legibility: it being frustrating for a visitor not to be able to make out what the author had written. That wd explain the inclusion of a lot of examples of his most beautiful calligraphy rather than textually significant scrawls. She also said they'd picked someone who wasn't well-versed in Tolkien to do the initial sort-out of Tolkien's newspaper doodles, so they got visually appealing pieces for display that didn't rely on prior knowledge to appreciate. I looked around for Cathleen Blackburn to thank for her patient replies to many requests for permissions to quote from various Tolkien manuscripts over the years  but I think she had already left.

One really interesting surprise at the end of the evening was a talk by Simon Tolkien, JRRT's grandson, which I enjoyed v. much but cannot now recall any specifics therefrom.

Finally we wrapped up with dinner with Carl Hostetter, Marquette Tolkien Archivist Bill Fliss and his wife Kristin, and the two of us. A nice way to wind down from an eventful and pleasurable evening.

Then it was back to the room for packing up to speed our way to the airport early (v. early) the next morning. Where we in fact arrived so very early that Janice got us re-booked onto an earlier flight, which meant we got back to Seattle early, just as the heavy snow was beginning to fall, and were able to collect the cats from where they'd been boarding and convinced TARKUS and LADY TYBURN we hadn't abandoned them forever after all.

So, a quick trip, but oh so worth it, both for the chance to see these original manuscripts and maps and paintings again and for time with fellow Tolkien scholars. If you get the chance to see this exhibit don't pass it up.

--John R.


--current reading: Brand's new book on Clay, Calhoun, and Webster (a bit disappointing) and Berg's biography of Lindbergh (a book about twice the length needed about a brave and multi-talented man who was a failure as a human being). As far as read-aloud books go I've finished up SPOON RIVER, begun and finished SONGS OF INNOCENCE and SONGS OF EXPERIENCE (been too long since I read some Blake) and am now hesitating between THE FUNGI FROM YUGGOTH and Browning (some of the dramatis personae).

*for example, they recently received Robert Bridges' archive, a century past's poet laureate about whom few wd nowadays be interested, did it not contain within it the papers of his friend Gerard Manley Hopkins, which Bridges had taken into safekeeping upon his friend's untimely death.

**I believe she said it took up two hundred boxes, not to mention three hundred books from Tolkien's library. Impressive, esp. when taken together with her reminder that Tolkien was never a full-time writer.

***my wife had a conversation with two well-dressed ladies who said that having seen the exhibit they were now going to read the book.

****hope I got his name right; he's the one behind the Tolkien Art Index project, which he demonstrated at Kalamazoo either last year or the year before and which, besides being nothing short of brilliant, finally realizes one of Dr. Blackwelder's old projects.



3 comments:

David Bratman said...

It's Erik Mueller-Harder, or at least that's how his name was spelled for his talk at Mythcon.

Sounds like a fascinating event, and much more elaborate than I'd expected. I'm looking forward to the little conference at the same venue next month.

If you'd wanted a book on Clay, Calhoun, and Webster, I'd have recommended The Great Triumvirate by Merrill D. Peterson, a historically solid and rich account.

Doug Kane said...

In a recent article in the Hollywood Reporter, Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke was bizarrely quoted as saying in "early February" that "The Tolkiens are coming to New York, all those estate holders. The older ladies, who are now, I think, in their 80s and 90s. His daughters and the grandchildren, they're coming to New York, and Jeff Bezos, me, Jeff Blackburn, a team of us are going and they've invited us to a dinner and see some art, some creative work that they haven't shown the world yet." Setting aside the rather astounding fact that the head of the studio that is making this secretive new TV show apparently doesn't know how many daughters Tolkien had, it immediately occurred to me that you had mentioned that Simon Tolkien was in New York on February 7 (presumably just after she made this comment in "early February"). Were any other Tolkien family members present at the reception?

Clive Shergold said...

Here is the BBC coverage, featuring John McQuillen (Associate Curator, The Morgan Library and Museum):
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-us-canada-47312905/teenage-tolkien-s-early-glimpses-of-middle-earth
It is better than what I remember of their coverage of the Oxford exhibition, which it does not mention. (The Bodleian did produce their own video). I can only find this from the Oxford coverage:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-44306276