Magical Books – From the Middle Ages to Middle-earth is the rather wonderful title of the latest exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The exhibition is of the texts and drawings that the Bodleian holds of the writers C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Philip Pullman, along with some of the books which inspired them.
I was in Oxford recently, so popped along to the Bodleian to have a look at the exhibition. Let’s be honest, with a title like that, how could I resist?
Entering the small, dimly lit exhibition room I could sense I was in for a treat: I was not disappointed.
The very first thing I saw was Tolkien’s handwritten copy of The Fall of Arthur. This poem was one of several projects left unfinished on Tolkien’s death and was, in fact, only published for the first time on 23 May 2013. The manuscript has not been on public display before and it really is a work of art in itself. This may be me being fanciful, but just the style of the handwriting evokes pictures of jousting knights and medieval pavilions. I found it hard to take my eyes off it but knew I must, as there were other treasures to be seen.
The next case had Tolkien’s maps of Middle-earth. I had visited an exhibition of Tolkien’s good friend, the illustrator Pauline Baynes‘ work, a few months ago, so was interested to see the original maps.
After that I looked at Tolkien’s illustrations: Bilbo in an eagle’s nest; Bilbo smoking a pipe outside of his round hobbit-hole door; Gandalf approaching Bag End; and the death of Smaug which shows Lake Town burning, with Smaug overhead, smitten by an arrow. There was also Owlamoo, which Tolkien drew to allay his son Michael’s fears, after he had nightmares about an evil owl.
I wasn’t sure if there was anything in the last case in the exhibition as it was barely lit. I peered inside at the single object there, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. And then I saw it: the awe-inspiring Book of Mazarbul!
I felt the hairs on my neck raise as I looked at the manuscript, partly because I hadn’t expected to see it in the exhibition but, mainly, because of what is written there, in Tolkien’s hand.
The Book of Mazarbul is a record of the last five years of the dwarf kingdom in Moria. It is written by a number of dwarves, with Ori writing the final entry. In The Fellowship of the Ring, the Company come across the book, alongside Balin’s tomb, in the Mines of Moria.
“It had been slashed and stabbed and partly burned, and it was so stained with black and other dark marks like old blood that little of it could be read.”
The book is written in runic script and Gandalf deciphers it,
“We cannot get out. We cannot get out…The end comes…drums, drums in the deep…” . It ends, “with a trailing scrawl of elf-letters: they are coming.”
Tolkien made his own facsimile of the book, making the burn marks by placing the manuscript over the lighted bowl of his pipe and setting it alight! There is a picture of the manuscript in this link.
The exhibition is at the Bodleian Library in Oxford until 27 October. It is open daily and admission is free.
Catch it if you can.