Tolkien art exhibition at the Bodleian

Sometimes it’s hard to tell which comes first: is it the illustration and then the text, or does the text come first and then the illustration?

That’s a question posed by Catherine McIlwaine, the Bodleian’s Tolkien Archivist, as she reviews some of Tolkien’s artwork with illustrator Alan Lee. And that’s exactly the question that my co-author Jeff MacLeod and I asked in our recent article published in Tolkien Studies (“Visualizing the Word: Tolkien as Artist and Writer“), which I’ve written about here.

You can see Catherine McIlwaine and Alan Lee looking at some of Tolkien’s paintings in the video below, celebrating the Bodleian Library’s new exhibit, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth.  The conversation about Tolkien’s art occurs from around 0:52 to 2:22, but the entire video contains enticing glimpses of what is now on display at the Weston Library (one of the Bodleian Libraries).


Those who were lucky enough to attend the launch and visit the Library in these first few days have published excited reports that seem to confirm what we’ve been reading in the reviews: that this is, as John Garth put it, “a once-in-a-generation” exhibition of artifacts, documents, and artwork. There’s lots to see, but one part that I am especially looking forward to is the original artwork, something that only very few people are normally allowed to examine in the Tolkien Archive.

Jeff and I have written about one example that demonstrates how Tolkien used his sketching to draft his text and the general interplay between image and text in his work. We only had room to discuss one manuscript example, but there would be many others. We also discussed, among other points, how Tolkien’s prose style and the expression of his theories are shaped by his visual practice. In other words, we argue that image does not necessarily come after text but that both image and text are integrally related in Tolkien’s creative imagination.

I’ll be in Oxford next month when I’ll be fortunate enough to see Tolkien’s original work, from doodles to finished art pieces. In the meantime I’ll be posting occasionally some reviews and information about the exhibit and Tolkien’s art.

How to find our article:

Jeffrey J. MacLeod and Anna Smol. “Visualizing the Word: Tolkien as Artist and Writer.” Tolkien Studies, vol. 14, 2017, pp. 115-131. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/tks.2017.0009.

Tolkien Studies is an annual publication that can be purchased from West Virginia University Press. If your library has a subscription to Project Muse, you can get a copy that way. If you don’t have the means to get a copy of the article, please let me know.


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