NEW YORK — There are two ways to review “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth,” which runs at the Morgan Library & Museum through May 12.
The Tolkien in question is John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973). How much different would J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary career have been if he’d insisted on the formidability of his full name, rather than going with those intriguingly cool initials?
That career was ostensibly a sideline. Tolkien’s day job was professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. The show’s been organized in conjunction with Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, where it ran last year. Perhaps the oddest item on display (though it wouldn’t have seemed odd to Tolkien) is one of his academic robes. It’s an example of the nice balance that the exhibition maintains between life and art.
Even so, it’s the making rather than the maker that’s the chief interest of “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth.” His books about that imaginary world have sold millions of copies and enlarged the imaginations of millions of readers. Even if you haven’t read the books, you recognize the titles: “The Hobbit”; the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, comprising “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers,” “The Return of the King”; and the posthumously published “The Silmarillion.”
Well, maybe not “The Silmarillion,” whose lesser status owes as much to the lack of a movie as it does to literary considerations. It’s important to note that there is nothing in the show relating to the Peter Jackson film adaptations. For a certain type of visitor, this is as it should be and will come as a relief. Count me among them. For many more, this will constitute a real omission. There’s no accounting for Middle-earth taste. One man’s ent is another man’s Balrog.
All right, so one way to review the show is as your standard exhibition. Understood that way, “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” is varied, informative, accessible, and agreeable. It’s also nicely manageable in size: 117 items in one large-ish gallery, the space for temporary exhibitions on the second floor. Those items include letters, family photographs, drawings, books, manuscript pages, even a collection of Tolkien’s colored pencils and a tobacco tin full of pen nibs. Might that tin have originally contained pipe-weed?
So a visitor who wanders in unawares, having gone to the Morgan to see another show, will likely enjoy it. Tolkien’s watercolors have real charm, he was a natural colorist, and even someone who needs GPS to locate the River Anduin — and the River Anduin is big — will find the maps Tolkien drew of Middle-earth a finically detailed visual treat. One of Rohan, Gondor, and Mordor — it could be the name of the law firm representing Roger Stone — is drawn on graph paper.
Of course the probability of someone just wandering in is pretty much nil. Waiting in line tends to have a seriously dampening effect on wandering. On a recent Saturday morning, the line to get to the elevator stretched halfway through the lobby, and this was barely an hour after opening. Overall attendance at the library is up 25 percent since the show opened last month. “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” is also a maker of crowds. If possible, try to go on a weekday (it was no less crowded on a Friday night).
That brings us to the second way to review the Tolkien show. Call it the pilgrimage factor. People who like these books tend to really, really like them. Those persons waiting in line aren’t likely to be spillovers from “Plein Air Sketching in the North” or “The Extended Moment: Photographs from the National Gallery of Canada,” both currently on at the Morgan. They’re a lot likelier to be people who’ll appreciate the fact that the entrance to the exhibition has been made to look like the opening of a hobbit-hole. It’s an amusing concession to initiates. Civilians presumably won’t mind, assuming they get it.
You know that saying, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic”? There is a (very distant) corollary: “Once in Middle-earth, always in Middle-earth.” I know, I’ve been there, figuratively speaking. When I was 14, I read the whole thing through — from the opening of “The Hobbit” to all those damn appendices to “The Return of the King” — three times in five months. I probably would have read it a fourth time, six or seven weeks later, but “Dune” came along. There is a certain Mordor aspect to Arrakis, after all.
The comparison to Frank Herbert’s series is telling, and to Tolkien’s advantage. An imaginary literary world ultimately consists of nothing but language. As a gifted philologist, Tolkien knew and appreciated the intricacies of language construction as no novelist (of any sort) ever has.
That matters a lot, not least because that uniqueness has a lot to compensate for. Tolkien is a terribly wooden writer. The derivatedness of various plot and thematic elements are readily apparent. Characterization is not a strength (except for Gollum — Gollum is one of the great minor characters in 20th-century literature — Dostoyevsky by way of herpetology). But where Tolkien has no peer is in his construction of imaginary languages for an imaginary world. They have a richness and consistency that undergirds their authenticity in a way that no other fantasy writing can match. They feel right, and in fantasy — as in love — feeling is all.
Tolkien’s concern with authenticitiy extended beyond the linguistic. There are the several maps in the show. A page shows him figuring out how hobbits measured distances (what, you think you they used kilometers?). Another has him working out a timeline for the breaking up of the Fellowship of the Ring. Royal family trees should be so extensive. Tolkien wanted Middle-earth to be as real to his readers as it was to him. Those long lines attest to his success.
TOLKIEN: Maker of Middle-earth
At Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Ave. (at 36th Street), New York, through May 12. 212-685-0008, www.themorgan.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.