The idle doodles of JRR Tolkien

The idle doodles of JRR Tolkien

The Bodleian Library in Oxford retains 500 boxes of doodles and other drawings by JRR Tolkien in a fireproof room.

For 30 years as a university professor, the English writer and the father of modern fantasy drew on everything from newspapers, advertising collateral, and menus. In fact, Tolkien doodled the first line of The Hobbit as a welcome distraction from grading exam papers.

Writes the Financial Times:

JRR Tolkien built a universe on a scrap of paper. On yellowing pages of broadsheet newspapers, next to completed cryptic crosswords, advertisements for houses for sale and small-scale stories of human tragedy (“Boy, 7, sat on baby sister”), the author of perhaps the most influential fantasy novels ever written made swirling designs in ballpoint pen — fronds of unknown plants, teardrops of paisley and geometric patterns.

The idle doodles of JRR Tolkien
Illustration: ‘Bilbo Comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves’ (1937)

Idle doodles — except that the ones he liked most would be transferred to better paper, and identified as the decorative elements (ceramics, carpets, belt clasps) of imagined civilisations. College dinner menus, graph paper, spare exam sheets, stray envelopes: all the ephemera available to an Oxford don would eventually be colonised by maps of Middle-earth, sketches of looming fortresses and delicate Elvish devices.

The idle doodles of JRR Tolkien
Illustration: ‘The Fair Valley of Rivendell’ (1937)

These original sketches helped Tolkien write some of the most popular books of all time, including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. “Most modern fantasy just rearranges the furniture in Tolkien’s attic,” remarked fantasy author Terry Pratchett.

Most modern fantasy just rearranges the furniture in Tolkien’s attic.’

Terry Pratchett
The idle doodles of JRR Tolkien
Newspaper doodles on The Times (1960)

Tolkien never thought much about his art, much preferring to let the writing speak for itself. “Fantasy is a thing best left to words, to true literature . . . Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular.” But thankfully, he was also a hoarder and never threw anything away.

The idle doodles of JRR Tolkien
Map of Middle-earth (1960s)
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