And Then I Read: TOLKIEN, MAKER OF MIDDLE EARTH by Catherine McIlwaine

A few weeks ago Ellen and I attended the fabulous Tolkien exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York City, and I bought this book about it. I’ve just finished reading and enjoying it. First off, if you can get to the exhibit yourself, do so! If you can’t, everything I saw in person is here as well as many other things of great interest to Tolkien fans.

One surprising exhibit was this letter written by Tolkien’s mother, and I learned that she sparked his interest in calligraphy. I can see why. I’ve never seen any style of writing quite like this, beautiful work. The book is full of personal letters by and to Tolkien, including some unexpected writers like Joni Mitchell, President Lyndon Johnson’s daughter and a very young Terry Pratchett. The correspondence relating to his work is equally interesting, like a letter to artist Pauline Baynes, who illustrated Tolkien’s “Farmer Giles of Ham.”

There’s lots of Tolkien’s own art here I’ve never seen like this line-drawing version of Hobbiton, just as interesting to me as the watercolor version he did for the book. Art intended for publication is only a small part of what’s here, many pieces were done for his own pleasure or to help him visualize a scene he was writing. Then there are pieces that are abstract or highly stylized, quite beautiful. I was amused to read that Tolkien thought his own art was quite poor, and though he did well with natural scenes, he could never draw people. I have the same problem!

Tolkien’s calligraphy is something I have loved and studied since first finding his work, and there’s lots of it here, often pieces that are a combination of English and his own unique languages, like this one about Treebeard, an early version of the character who was going to be on the side of Sauron!

Perhaps my favorite example of his calligraphy is this practice page for the inscription inside the One Ring, in red and black ink, using a wide range of styles for Tolkien’s own languages. It just makes me want to try some, as I did in my youth! And then there are the Tolkien maps, not only the finished ones, but lots of earlier versions I’d never seen. As he explained, Tolkien first created the languages of his imaginary world, then the maps and the stories. I love a book with a good map, and Tolkien’s are the best.

I could go on, but there’s nothing else I need to say other than, an amazing book about an exhibition I will always remember with pleasure. It get’s my highest recommendation.

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