By Andy Ffrench

WHEN she was a teenager in Manchester in the 1980s Catherine McIlwaine sneaked into her brothers’ bedroom and discovered a copy of The Lord of the Rings.

After reading a few chapters of JJR Tolkien’s famous trilogy she was hooked.

The illicit book borrowing led to a lifetime’s fascination with the Oxford author and his work, which is still bearing fruit today.

Fifteen years ago Mrs McIlwaine became the Bodleian Library’s Tolkien Archivist and she has been in charge of curating the biggest exhibition on the author in a generation.

Thousands of visitors have been flocking to the Bodleian’s Weston Library to feast their eyes on Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth.

The display cases in the dimly-lit room contain more than 200 precious items, and about half of them have never been displayed before.

“The Lord of the Rings is still my favourite,” said Mrs McIlwaine, who has worked on the Bodleian’s Tolkien archive since 2003.

“Sometimes my husband comes in and says ‘you’re not reading that again!’”

Such enthusiasm was a vital prerequisite for uniting a team of staff at the Bodleian, to prepare the exhibition containing manuscripts, artwork, maps, letters and artefacts gathered from across the UK, the United States and France.

Highlights include draft manuscripts of The Hobbit, showing the evolution of the children’s story, displayed alongside striking watercolours and dust jacket designs.

The original manuscripts for The Lord of the Rings are also on show, and there is fascinating fan mail from a wide range of admirers, including novelist Iris Murdoch, poet WH Auden and singer Joni Mitchell.

While the Bodleian houses the largest collection of original Tolkien manuscripts in the world - the Tolkien archive has been based at the library since 1979 - archivists have also borrowed items from Marquette University in the United States.

The exhibition opened at the beginning of last month and, so far, the response from visitors has been very enthusiastic, said Mrs McIlwaine.

She added: “It took a long time to plan the exhibition so it’s very rewarding to see people enjoying it.

“What people are drawn to at first is the big 3D map of Middle-earth - that really attracts people and they can gather round it because it is fairly low down and it is not behind glass.”

The archivist revealed that planning for the exhibition shedding light on Tolkien as a writer, scholar and family man took about five years.

At the same time Mrs McIlwaine has written two accompanying books, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth and Tolkien Treasures.

While the first title is effectively an exhibition catalogue, the lavishly illustrated hardback gave the archivist more room for manoeuvre when it came to showing off various artefacts.

“It took a while before it dawned on me that the exhibition would have to be treated separately because of the constraints of the room - there was more material that I could feature in the book.

“You can’t overload the display captions in an exhibition like this - I wanted to put everything that features in the exhibition in the book but it didn’t turn out like that.

“Tolkien Treasures costs less - it’s a cheaper publication selling for £12, which means that people can buy it as a souvenir if they want to.”

Mrs McIlwaine said the free exhibition has received the full support of the Tolkien family, the Tolkien Trust and the Tolkien estate.

“It was wonderful when the family and the estate said they wanted to support the exhibition,” she added.

“There have been no red lines - it was total free rein, which was very exciting for me as I have worked on the archive for the past 15 years.

“There is a lot of material in the exhibition that is still not open to researchers.

“We have to restrict access to the artwork for conservation reasons - the Hobbit watercolours are so beautiful and vivid and we don’t often have the chance to get them out - our duty is to preserve them forever.”

Tolkien taught Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University and despite the success of The Lord of the Rings in the 1950s he still found himself as a family man and father short of money.

So in the late 1950s he sold the manuscripts of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings for £1,500 to Marquette University in Milwaukee.

At the time it seemed like a good decision as he was approaching retirement and began to worry about his pension.

But it meant a key element of the author’s work was on the other side of the Atlantic and Mrs McIlwaine was determined the documents should make the journey home so they could feature in the displays.

She added: “I went over there to discuss it. I thought if this is going to be a major Tolkien exhibition I want to bring them back to Oxford so they can go on show.

“It’s a shame when collections get split up - Tolkien sold the manuscripts to a private university and the Bodleian acquired the archive after that.”

Mum-of-one Mrs McIlwaine said museum staff have tried to reflect the different stages of the author’s life, including his role as a father, drawing special Father Christmas letters for his children over many years.

The original manuscripts of The Silmarillion are also on show, unveiling Tolkien’s earliest work on the legends of the elves.

The author died in 1973 and The Silmarillion remained unfinished but was then completed by Tolkien’s son Christopher, who became his literary executor.

“The work that went into The Silmarillion is quite incredible and it’s possible that Tolkien never wanted to complete it,” said Mrs McIlwaine.

What also remains unfinished is her work as Tolkien Archivist at the Bodleian.

When Maker of Middle-earth concludes on October 28 at the Weston Library it will transfer to the Morgan Library in New York in January, before it switches to the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in late 2019.

Meanwhile Mrs McIlwaine will keep on crate digging, as there are boxes in the Tolkien archive which still need to be properly investigated.

She added: “I love Tolkien so this is my dream job.

“We are getting an increasing number of researchers coming to the Bodleian to look at the archive - we have seen a huge spike in that.

“People come to browse through the catalogue and I am sure the exhibition will completely reinvigorate Tolkien scholarship - it’s part of my job to facilitate that.

“Once this exhibition finishes I need to get back to more cataloguing because there are new discoveries to be made - there are still boxes of Tolkien material that have not been looked at in total.”

Mrs McIlwaine has no regrets about filching the intriguingly thick volume from her brothers’ bedroom.

“I spotted this big thick book with Pauline Baynes illustrations and thought ‘this looks good’,” she confided.

“I took it away and started reading and didn’t stop until I finished it.”

Tolkien: Maker of middle-earth is on show at the Bodleian’s Weston Library in Broad Street.

Entry to the exhibition is free but ticketed and can be booked at

Tolkien fans can also turn up throughout the day and request tickets for the next available slots.

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