Tolkien Exhibit: Where History and Fantasy Meet for Tea

I am not a die-hard Tolkien fan, but I am a die-hard linguistics fan. Especially linguistic science fiction and fantasy books. Tolkien is one of the star examples, who created not just one language, but language families for his Middle Earth world. Nonetheless, I’d have encouraged anyone with an inkling of interest in Tolkien to visit the exhibit at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF).

Although I’ve seen the movies countless times, watching the extended versions, with my oldest friend while eating Reeses Peanut Butter cups, this exhibition was not about the movies. The movies were not even mentioned. Oddly enough, I never finished reading the trilogy. I read the Hobbit on one of my first visits to the Netherlands. I read and adored the Fellowship of the Ring during a beautiful Californian summer. I borrowed the Two Towers from a couple I was visiting in a small town in Israel known for its massive crater. I read a quarter of it sitting next to the crater, and another quarter immersed in a landscape that I liken to being Mars. Not that I’ve ever been. I returned the book to my Israeli friend before I could finish it, and that was that.

Exhibition Design

The Tolkien exhibition from the BnF is “designed as a journey in Middle-earth,” which is honestly not entirely true. I’d more accurately describe it a series of rooms that mostly focus on different places in Middle-earth leading up to Mordor, but then when you finish the Mordor room and think you’re done, there are several rooms dedicated to Oxford, which, no matter how magical England may seem, isn’t a city in Middle Earth.


The exhibit reinforced one of Tolkien’s missions: to serve as a guide for mythology on the verge of being forgotten and to create a world that is fantastical, yet believably real. The exhibition triggered my imagination neurons, inspiring child-like awe and wonder the two times I visited it.

Tolkien professed to be able to “visualize” Middle Earth, where he could “see” the landscape and the historical events taking place. This isn’t hard to believe, considering the dedicated, if not obsessive detail he went into creating his world. The exhibit’s mission seems to reflect this: immersing its visitors in Middle Earth. While the heart of it consisted of Tolkien’s original manuscripts and drawings, most of which are on loan from the Bodleian Library in Oxford and Marquette University Libraries in Milwaukee, external, non-Tolkien pieces and original content were also used to tie the exhibit together. In the entry room, there was an overwhelming chronology of key dates in Middle Earth history. In the subsequent room, a map of Middle Earth was projected on the wall, which systematically overviewed the different races of Middle Earth, placing them one by one on the map. What made this exhibition so “successful” for me was the innovative and mixed media, such as audio recordings?—?even of an Elvish language, projections, and Earth’s historical pieces, which maintained the visiter’s focus through the dense exhibition. The curation team matched Tolkien’s work with curated content from BnF’s collection and various museums in Paris and England. They claimed these works provided a “context” for Tolkien’s inspiration, as he was greatly influenced by Norse and medieval literature and culture. I think it does more than that: it blurs Tolkien’s world with the “real” world. At first glance, it seems as though certain pieces of the collection were film props, but on closer look, they were 15th-century swords from Norway or leather-bound Hebraic books from the 17th century. The supplementary objects keep us tethered in Tolkien’s world, even if they come out of our own. Not limited to historical tales and legends, these historical documents seem just as magical as objects found in Middle Earth.

Part of an original manuscript

Tolkien thus took pieces from medieval life and weaved his world out of it. I mean this somewhat literally as well since Tolkien went so far as to design tapestries that would have been laid in Middle Earth homes or castles. And this is, I believe to be the key behind Tolkien, and therefore Middle Earth’s success: although a very complex and detailed world, it is convincing because Tolkien himself seemed to believe it. He created pieces essential to visualizing it, down to Elvish jewelry and tapestries that would have been found in Rohan’s castles. He wrote a phonology of Quenay, one of the 15 Elvish languages. He even forged documents, rendering them to appear burnt and colored from age, not unlike the historical art projects I did in elementary school. He created dozens of maps. He even drew up whimsical pen and ink illustrations and their watercolor counterparts that are unfortunately left out of the books (because illustrations are “child-like”?).

The story of Beowulf

The exhibition blurred the line between Tolkien’s world and fantasy, illustrating how “fairy-tales” can be more than just escapism. Based on the real world, they can nonetheless be related to our own. Tolkien professed that fantasy gives us a “clear view” of the world. Although that statement is a debatable topic, it’s evident from his work that our history can be just as magical. It is, in fact, the inspiration that brings forth fantastical worlds.

For more information on the exhibit, go here.

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Maxene Graze