Tolkien - creator of magical worlds, father, academic, friend... all these elements combine in this magical exhibition. The collection of illustrations, maps, letters and objects brings Tolkien to life, highlighting the elements of his legacy as an author and academic, as well as his artistic, poetic, and linguistic genius. Many exhibits come from the Bodleian's own collection, but many more have been loaned to them for this rare exhibition. Tolkien managed a spectacular feat of creating an imaginary world, complete with maps and languages. Now its building blocks have been brought together for us to see how it worked, in this spectacular exhibition.
Tolkien exhibition information
Many people will know Tolkien from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which are duly given significant space in this exhibition. A case of editions show how popular his work has been. The book covers themselves come under scrutiny, with his original jacket designs for the three-part Lord of the Rings on display. This was never intended as a multi-volume book, but his publishers felt it was so long it needed to be, and had limited hopes of success for such an epic adult fantasy. Little did they guess just how popular it would prove to be!
Lesser-known works also have their place, and help to give a greater insight into the world of Tolkien's imagination. There are pictures of the couple who at least partly inspired characters in the Silmarillion. Every year Tolkien wrote letters to his children as if from Father Christmas, illustrated, telling them about his life and preparations for Christmas. The exhibition features extracts from those letters, in shaky handwriting, dressed up for effect, alongside the sketches which accompanied them. Tolkien's affection for this family comes through clearly.
Tolkien in the Weston library shop
You do get a sense of Tolkien the man, as well as of his work. Letters both to and by him show his life in action. Items such as his chair and desk are set up, giving an insight into the place where he both marked exams and created his fantastic worlds. His original map of Middle-Earth, held together with tape as it sprawled in new directions of his creating, features a small burn mark from smoking. The reality of Tolkien in his context is made vividly present through such minor details.
Tolkien was a keen artist, and the exhibition plays great tribute to his skills. It includes some of the nine images Tolkien originally produced for The Hobbit. This was not intended to be an illustrated volume, but the publishers were sufficiently impressed by his renderings of smoke in the woods, or Smaug the dragon, to include them.
This exhibition brings in technology for a multisensory experience. The walls are illuminated with images from, or relevant to, the exhibition. Mood music has been composed especially for the exhibition, and there are even interactive displays to test your elvish, for example.
The interactivity continues outside, where there is a board inviting you to add in your responses to the exhibition and images from it.
Tickets can be booked online for free, with a £1 booking fee per transaction. Alternatively, you can get timed tickets in person at the Friends desk in the main hall. Tickets are for timed slots, however, so you need to plan to get a ticket for your preferred time into your visit.
Outside the exhibition hall, everyone is getting in on the action. The Bodleian's own shop has an excellent range of Tolkien-fan merchandise.
Blackwells book display
The bookshop Blackwell's, just next door, also has a magnificent selection of Tolkien editions reader for visitors to peruse. If you want to source his books for yourself, his official publishers HarperCollins have a bespoke website. For fans of Tolkien in general, the Tolkien Society is a great place to follow up on the exhibition and find out more.
No large bags are allowed into the exhibition, and there is no storage available, so it is wise to visit without luggage. No photography is allowed in the exhibition. Accessibility is good, with ramps into the building, and no steps inside. There are always staff to help.
While you're visiting Oxford, you can also visit places he worked such as Merton College, his grave in Risinghurst, or haunts of the literary Inklings, the two pubs on St Giles: The Eagle and Child, or Lamb and Flag.