J.R.R. Tolkien Exhibition at the Morgan Library. Opening Speech.

Feb 7th, 2019

I would like to thank you all for coming today – many from faraway - to celebrate the first exhibition in America of my grandfather’s life and work. For me personally – as far as I know I am the first Tolkien to emigrate to this great country – it is a very special moment and I am grateful to the Bodleian and Morgan Libraries for making it possible.

I hope that most of you have now had the opportunity to tour the exhibition and see my grandfather’s wonderful pictures on display. He was a gifted artist. The picture of Bilbo and the dwarves hidden in their barrels as they come to the huts of the Raft-Elves that was on your invitations is a masterpiece of deep blues and greens subtly varied in tone as the forest gives way to the welcoming sunlight. No other great writer was a painter too and my grandfather’s pictures give us a unique opportunity to see his imaginary world through his eyes rather than those of his interpreters. And they also remind us of the well spring of his inspiration in the English countryside of his childhood. The intricate, beautifully constructed painting of Hobbiton Hill rising from the water mill past intensely cultivated fields divided by carefully tended hedgerows to Bag End and the famous Party Tree near the top, recalls the idyllic days of his childhood with his mother and his brother, Hilary, at the village of Sarehole where there was also a mill and a pond on which swans swam, and two millers nicknamed the White Ogre and the Black Ogre who fascinated and terrified the small boys in equal measure. My grandfather had a deep love of the natural world formed under his mother’s tuition at this time and he conveyed this in his art. The picture of Lothlorien in the Spring with the mallorn trees in flower is a vision of loveliness, but he knew too that nature could be threatening and cruel, as in the picture of Old Man Willow whose heart was rotten but whose strength was green, and who almost put an end to the ring bearer’s quest with his clutching roots and branches before it had even gotten under way.

My grandfather’s life changed forever when his mother died in 1904 when he was twelve and he had to leave the countryside for the ugliness of industrial Birmingham; a violent upheaval that was echoed a little more than a decade later when he exchanged the dreaming spires of Oxford for the horrors of the trenches in France where two of his great friends from school died. These violent moves from beauty into ugliness accompanied by the loss of those he loved infuses his vision in The Lord of the Rings where the natural world is under constant threat: Sauron and Saruman bring an industrial desolation to the land they take over, destroying trees and poisoning rivers and smashing all that is beautiful. This struggle in Middle Earth between the natural and the unnatural; between the fertile and the barren, the free and the enslaved, appealed to the many young Americans in the 1960s who began the Earth Day movement and is more inspiring than ever today when our planet is facing an existential threat from man-made climate change.

In the 1920s my grandfather painted pictures of landscapes and events in The Silmarillion on which he was hard at work when the rigorous demands of his academic work allowed. Perhaps the most famous of these shows the mountain of Taniquetil in Valinor, the land of the gods, where Manwe, King of the Valar, dwelt on the snow-capped summit in halls from which he could see across the seas to distant Middle Earth and so guard against the threat of Morgoth. In the picture the high mountain straddles night and day: from the star-studded black sky and brightly lit Hall at the peak down to the elves’ swan-prowed ships in the sea at the base lit by the light of the sun and the moon. It is a beautiful picture, a vision of a far-off land which is what The Silmarillion remained throughout my grandfather’s life. In 1937 my grandfather’s publisher, Sir Stanley Unwin, turned it down because he wanted another Hobbit (which became of course The Lord of the Rings) and in 1952 he wouldn’t countenance publishing both as The Lord of the Rings was an enormous financial risk just by itself. ‘Better something than nothing’, my grandfather wrote, and downhearted, he stopped work on a wonderful retelling of his 1917 story, The Fall of Gondolin, which appears in my father’s last book of my grandfather’s writings published last year. The First Age on which my grandfather had labored for longer than the Third remained like “the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist” as he described it, and this caused him untold sadness and disappointment. Since my grandfather’s death my father has worked for many years to edit and publish all his writings, but this has been a bittersweet experience, given that my grandfather was gone and could never see this happen.

My grandfather’s pictures and artefacts resonate with different aspects of his life and experience, and none more so than the facsimile leaves of The Book of Mazarbul which the Fellowship finds in Moria just before they are attacked by the orcs and the Balrog. The charred remains of the book are all that is left of Balin’s ill-fated attempt to restore the dwarf kingdom there and my grandfather worked hard to create three leaves that would replicate the original final pages of the book. He burnt the paper at the edges with his pipe and washed it with red paint to resemble bloodstains and looking at them, we can see Gandalf reading out the last lines scrawled by the terrified, doomed dwarves: ‘We cannot get out. The end comes … drums, drums in the deep … they are coming.’ Elsewhere in the Exhibition we experience this intent to create authenticity when we read the elaborately detailed maps of Middle Earth or see the postmarks and painted North Pole postage stamps on the letters from Father Christmas. These are manifestations of my grandfather’s ambition – so admirably accomplished - to forge a union of the believable and the imaginary. The extent of his achievement is measured by the fact that so many readers of The Lord of the Rings experience a world that is magical – populated by talking trees and wizards - and yet is also paradoxically more real than our own. What creates this? What is the secret of my grandfather’s alchemy? A genius for storytelling certainly, combined with a perfect internal mechanism: the ring that is the most powerful object in the world but also the smallest and which must be carried by the most insignificant person because he is the most invisible and which must be destroyed and never used. But beyond the storytelling there is that sense of unfathomable depth that is unique to my grandfather’s writing. This is engendered in part by the untold history - the unvisited island seen far off to which I have already alluded - that is an ever-present backdrop to the events in The Lord of the Rings, but it also arises from the well-known but extraordinary fact that my grandfather knew the languages that his characters spoke. In fact, he began with language and made stories to provide a world in which the languages could live. In The Lord of the Rings everything has a purpose; as much is left unsaid as what is said; and there are no facades without interiors, even if those interiors often remain hidden. 

Examples of Elvish script are to be found throughout the exhibition including in the sections related to calligraphy and heraldic devices. My grandfather would make these beautiful designs in colored pens while he was solving the crossword, and looking at them now takes me back 50 years as if on a time machine to when I was a small boy sitting opposite him at the Miramar Hotel in Bournemouth, impatiently waiting for him to finish so we could go down to the beach and skim pebbles into the English Channel: a game at which he was always much better than me.  And it was only a few weeks ago that my aunt, Priscilla who would have loved to be here today, told me of a similar but even more intense experience induced by the Exhibition in Oxford that I would like to end by sharing with you. She went to the Bodleian on the Exhibition’s last day for a final visit and the guide suggested that she might like to listen to the audio recording of the Professor reciting Namarie: Galadriel’s lament in the Elvish language Quenya that she sang to Frodo and the Fellowship as they departed Lothlorien. And so my aunt put on the headphones and heard her father’s voice again speaking to her from across the years, while all around she could see the last visitors utterly absorbed in looking at his work in the exhibit cases. It was as she described it to me a moment of great happiness.

I hope that other visitors in the weeks and months to come will enjoy the Exhibition as we have done, and through it come to a greater appreciation and understanding of my grandfather’s extraordinary work.

There've been long waits between seasons before but we've always known that sooner or later Lost would return to tantalize us again with its unanswered questions. Not so now. On May 23rd the final episode will air and that will be that. Or will it? Will we understand the nature of the mysterious light that transformed Jacob's brother into a smoke monster? Will we be told who built the mysterious four-toed statue? Will we ever know what the island really is?

Probably we will remain dissatisfied. The mysteries of Lost are too dense and complex to be easily explained. But beneath the dissatisfaction will be a lingering sadness. My son, Nicholas, has gone through his teens with Lost, and through all the ups and downs of our father-son relationship we've had Lost to fall back on as an endless topic of discussion. I remember vividly how three years ago we spent hours gazing at freeze frames of Jacob's cabin trying to make sense of shadows in the gloom. Tuesdays are Lost days - we've never missed an episode.

So how has a TV series managed to keep us so enthralled? The secret, I think, has been the strength of the characters. Each of them has had to struggle against inner demons and personal loss. Jack couldn't win his father's love and ended up losing his father's body. His efforts to lead have led him down a series of cul-de-sacs. Sawyer learned early to harden his heart in order to survive but his true humanity keeps breaking through in his relationships with Juliet and Kate. Hurley is cursed by the mysterious numbers that have brought him untold wealth, but on the island he refuses to give into his fate and saves his friends from the Others by running over Ryan Pryce in the Dharma bus - perhaps the most satisfying moment in the whole of Lost. With the exception of the murderous Keamy, all the main characters are multifaceted, at war with themselves as well as each other.

The emphasis on character development is what distinguishes Lost from its imitators. Special effects have never been an end in themselves. Sometimes the plotting has been over-complex, particularly when time travel has been involved, but the characters have remained down to earth, and the story soon regains its footing with wonderful, unforgettable scenes. Who can forget the moment when Sayid turns on the electricity in The Pearl station and we suddenly see Mikhail's angry face flickering for a moment on the screen? Or when the boy, Ben, goes outside the Dharma fence and meets Richard in the jungle and we see for the first time that Richard has never aged?

At its best there have been moments of lyrical sadness - Jack staring off at the airplanes at the end of Season Four hoping against hope that one day he will crash again and find the island that he tried so hard to leave; the deaths of Charlie and Charlotte; and the scene on the beach at the end of the last season with Jacob looking out to sea with the man who had once been his brother, as the Black Rock ship approaches and they ready themselves for yet another round in their centuries-old struggle.

Over the years Lost has peeled away its layers like a series of Russian nesting dolls. The struggle between the crash survivors and the Others was superseded by the fight to the death between the Others and the Dharma Initiative, and the war between Ben and Widmore has given way to the timeless struggle between Jacob and the Man in Black. For a long time Jacob and the Smoke Monster seemed half real sideshows in the story, but now in Season Six they have become its most important characters. And still we don't know what the island is.

In this last season we have also followed the characters through an alternate reality in Los Angeles in which their wishes appeared to have all come true. And yet recently we have watched this reality fragment as Charlie forced Desmond to look beneath its surface and Hurley began to remember who Libby was when he knew her in another life. Who knows where the writers are going with this brave new world, but perhaps the lesson behind its fragmentation is that the characters will never escape the island. They will always be struggling against their fate, doing their best even if they're doomed, trying to make sense of the incomprehensible. This is ultimately why we care about them like old friends, and why I for one will miss them so much when they are gone.

'Lost Without Lost'

Posted May 19 2010