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Sotheby’s Magazine

The Return of the King: Inside JRR Tolkien's Mythic World

By Sotheby's

M iddle Earth was not something he invented, but something that was somehow there, that he helped to reveal,” curator John T McQuillen says of the fictional world of JRR Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and the focus of a forthcoming exhibition at The Morgan Library & Museum, New York.

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JRR Tolkien, The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the Water, 1937.

Organised in collaboration with Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, this major presentation – the largest ever in the US – proves that the father of the modern fantasy genre was more than just a gifted author. Fourteen exhibits include letters, drawings, maps, manuscripts, artefacts and watercolours spanning Tolkien’s vast career.

“It is exciting to see so much material in Tolkien’s own hand. “It’s as if we are looking over his shoulder while he composes and illustrates his vision of Middle-earth."
—John McQuillen
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JRR Tolkien, Bilbo comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves, an illustration for the first edition of The Hobbit, 1947. Artwork: The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937.

Among the highlights are drawings he made as a teenager – many depicting the “solitary mountains” with which he was so fascinated – and his watercolour illustrations for The Hobbit. “He thought they were no good and wouldn’t really be of any interest to anyone,” says McQuillen of the latter works. “But they are astounding, so bright and vivid.”

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Father Christmas drawing of "Me" and "My House", 1920.
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The Victoria Studio, 201 Broad Street, Birmingham, Edith Bratt, aged 17, 1906.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, notes from Father Christmas to his children, and a portrait of his wife, Edith Bratt, reveal the personal life of a devoted husband and father. His family became the first audience for his enchanting stories, and he told The Hobbit to his children as a bedtime story. A draft manuscript of the work is on view alongside watercolors, dust jacket designs, and drawings.

“It is exciting to see so much material in Tolkien’s own hand,” say McQuillen. “It’s as if we are looking over his shoulder while he composes and illustrates his vision of Middle-earth.

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JRR Tolkien, Dust jacket design for The Hobbit, 1937. Courtesy Morgan Library & Museum.

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