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Time with Tolkien

A treasury of J.R.R. Tolkien’s paintings and notes is on display in New York

Time with Tolkien

Tolkien at age 19 in 1911. The first map of The Lord of the Rings is in the background. (Studio of H.J. Whitlock & Sons Ltd., Birmingham; Bodleian Libraries, © The Tolkien Trust)

A New York moment: 

The Bodleian Library in Oxford loaned a trove of J.R.R. Tolkien’s sketches, doodles, and illustrations to New York’s Morgan Library & Museum, which calls it “the most extensive public display of original Tolkien material for several generations.” The exhibit closes May 12, and it has been packed in its final weeks, for good reason. Though the exhibit is contained in only two large rooms, I spent hours inside poring over Tolkien’s meticulous notes, maps, and paintings. 

The museum issued special rules for the exhibit: It allowed costumes but, for hobbit costumes, required shoes. The museum forbade masks, wizard staffs, scepters, axes, bow and arrows, and swords. The day I visited, costumes were mostly absent, but Tolkien nerds were in abundance, sharing their street knowledge about such details as the origin of Gandalf. 

The exhibit centers on Tolkien’s creative process rather than his life story—how he built the mythology and languages of Middle Earth before even starting to write stories about the Bagginses. Years before he wrote The Hobbit, he had painted a Gandalf-like wizard striding through a dark forest and had doodled in his original Elvish languages. I’ve seen his drawings reproduced in books before, but his art is really something in person. 

One of the stunning documents on display from his writing of The Lord of the Rings was a plain notebook page he had divided into boxes to keep track of where all the characters were. There was a section for Sam and Frodo, the Orcs, Gandalf, and so on, with extremely specific times, distances traveled, and even weather details, so he could maintain the consistency and reality of the world he created. (For example: At nightfall on one day, the Isengard orcs are 47 miles behind Aragorn, and reach the south end of the Downs at 9 p.m.) That sort of precise creativity I think reflects the image of God, and it was energizing to see his work.

Worth your time:  

A very fine piece of thinking and writing from columnist Ross Douthat, teasing apart whether Christians are persecuted or privileged.

This week I learned: 

Airbnb appears to be moving toward the traditional hotel business model in cities like New York that have resisted the vacation rental website’s original approach. One tower in Rockefeller Center is converting 10 floors into Airbnb rentals. Airbnb also plans to acquire HotelTonight, a hotel booking company. Meanwhile, hotels are also going the Airbnb direction: Marriott is going to start renting out homes.

A court matter you might not know about: 

I wrote about bail reform in New Jersey last week. Now New York just passed a different kind of bail reform, and the top narcotics prosecutor, Bridget Brennan, is alarmed. Brennan writes that the new bail measure “mandates pretrial release of hundreds arrested for top narcotics crimes.” (The New Jersey measure, in contrast, allows judges to deny bail based on a risk assessment of flight or threat to the community.)

The New York measure “requires judges to treat cartel associates the same as low-level street dealers when it comes to bail,” and the prosecutor said cartel leaders “will be long gone” if they can’t be held pretrial. She said this is a particular problem in the midst of the opioid epidemic, where the supply of drugs in New York is largely coming from Mexican cartels.

Culture I am consuming: 

Bruce Springsteen’s new single, “Hello Sunshine.” It’s pure spring warmth, with a passing shower.

Email me with tips, story ideas, and feedback at ebelz@wng.org.