Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Bodleian Tolkien Exhibit Catalogue

So, Thursday we found a note on the door that FedEx had failed to deliver a parcel but wd try again. The next day a heavy (6kg) package arrived from Oxford, being the two catalogues for the just-opened Tolkien Bodleian Exhibit. One, TOLKIEN: MAKER OF MIDDLE-EARTH is a four hundred page work showing the more than 180 items that make up the exhibit (an 'item' sometimes being multiple pages, such as several closely related maps or letters. The second is TOLKIEN TREASURES, a smaller a hundred and forty-four page softcover filled with gems from the displays; this one concentrates mostly on the art work with fewer manuscripts, letters, and photographs.
Both are by Catherine McIlwaine, the Bodley's Tolkien Archivist. It'll take time to absorb the riches contained in these books, but a few things do pop out on a first page-through.

First off, this is a beautiful book. It doesn't just reproduce a stunning array from Tolkien's papers but also has a lot of information. The first eighty pages of the book contain six essays by Tolkien luminaries:

J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biographical Sketch by Catherine McIlwaine
Tolkien and the Inklings by John Garth
Faerie: Tolkien's Perilous Land by Verlyn Flieger
Inventing Elvish by Carl F. Hostetter
Tolkien and 'that noble northern spirit' by Tom Shippey
Tolkien's Visual Art by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull

There's much here, and in the pages that follow, that I'll enjoy going through and absorbing, esp. since it now looks like I'll be able to see the exhibit after all sometime near the end of its run. I've already been struck by the first page of THE NOTION CLUB PAPERS, by Terence (later Terry) Pratchett's thoughtful fan letter re SWM, by the news that Tolkien was part of the Cretaceous Perambulators (I have to go back now and compare the text given in the little 1983 pamphlet of the same name with Tolkien's draft text on Catalogue p..245), by the realization that Tolkien kept a good deal of his fan letters, or at least a judicious selection of the cream of the crop (e.g.,, the one he got from Iris Murdoch -- didn't spot the one from Mary Renault, alas).

All in all, a wealth of material, highly recommended to anyone interested in Tolkien's life and interested in this extended glimpse into how his mind worked as an author (and artist and linguist).

One particular highlight for me is conclusive evidence that Tolkien had already started work on THE HOBBIT before summer 1930, which I had argued was the no-earlier-than-by date.  Thanks to a mention in Fr. John Tolkien's diary for 1930 we know know JRRT was several chapters into the book by New Year's Day, a few months earlier. So I was wrong about Tolkien's start date, a topic important enough that I'd like to devote a separate post to it.

But for now, and between now and when I'm over there, I'll be reading and re-reading this major acquisition too my Tolkien Library.

--John R.
--current reading: BEYOND NEW HORIZONS

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