I stood at the foot of the ramp leading up to the Morgan Library for a few minutes, drawing deep breaths and staring up at the heavy, tinted glass doors. This is it, I thought. I’m finally going to see Tolkien’s work in person.
I’d been trying to make my way to this once-in-a-generation exhibit for quite some time–since last semester (Fall 2018), to be exact, when it opened at the Bodleian in Oxford, England. But funding for international travel for graduate students is slim, especially when that travel doesn’t involve giving a presentation, and even more so when the graduate student is a lowly MA candidate. Needless to say, I didn’t make it to Oxford last year.
You can imagine my excitement, then, when I heard the exhibit was going to travel to New York City in the new year, and remain open until the first full week of May. I jumped at the chance. There was no way on this middle-earth of ours that I was missing it. (True, it’s going to be in Paris next, but who’s to say I’d be able to snag funding for that trip?) After a few hitches along the way — including S—– Airlines charging me for both a carry on and a checked bag, neither of which I needed — I had my airfare and a room booked at the only, the infamous, that uncanny treasure of Manhattan: The Jane.
All that and a cramped flight in the wee hours of the morning brought me to the doors of the Morgan Library in the early hours of the brisk, sunny afternoon of March 5.
When I finally found the courage to go in and purchase a ticket, I was directed to a lovely glass elevator that could’ve come straight out of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory (just without the fanatical, predatory capitalist, thankfully). The ride up to the second-floor Engelhard Gallery was just long enough for me to feel that peculiar, giddy wave of anticipation and terror that never fails to grip me in the lead-up to what turns out to be a life-altering event.
There’s something strange and wonderful, almost spiritual, about moments such as those. They are times of intense clarity or epiphany, times in which you’re quite suddenly and acutely aware of how the small choices and happenstances of your entire life have miraculously brought you to the exact space and time you’re now in. And, since I fervently believe they’re God things, I’ve come to consider these experiences revelations of a pilgrimage I didn’t know I was on at the time.
I neither hoped nor dreamed, nearly two decades ago when I was first introduced to Tolkien’s work, that I’d be standing where I was a few days ago, but as I walked through the beautiful circular doorway into the Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibit, I was overwhelmed by a sense of “rightness.” In that moment, I was exactly where I was meant to be, though I wouldn’t have guessed it beforehand. As Legolas says, “‘Few can foresee wither their road will lead them, till they come to its end.'”
The experience was everything I’d hoped, and more. Tolkien’s intricate timelines and maps, his whimsical watercolors in their experimental splashes of color, his meticulously executed title-pages and covers, his notes and manuscripts, often dashed off in nearly illegible haste, his DLitt robe shining in its crimson and star-silver splendor, even his fantastic and spontaneous designs doodled beside crossword puzzles–each had its place of honor and each had a word in a tale that continues to grow and flourish. Each spoke to me of the genius, the faith, and the beautiful humanness of the man whose life brought them into being.
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Nearly every religion on earth has some sense of the significance of pilgrimage. It is a sign of the utmost devotion. Jews gather at least once a year and promise each other “Next year in the Holy Land.” The Hajj, the journey to the shrine of the prophet Mohammad, is one of the pillars of Islam. Christians travel to Jerusalem and to shrines of various saints and martyrs. Others go to Bodh Gaya or to Char Dham. These people become pilgrims for many different reasons. Some do so from of a sense of duty, some in hopes that they will receive blessings or gifts in exchange for their effort. Some go out of curiosity, and some seek mystic revelation. A few find themselves there because a thousand little pieces of their lives converged suddenly in that time and place: because in those moments the reality of faith is never clearer.
A wise man once wrote that “Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.” Inspiration is a mysterious thing: it lifts us out of the circles of the mundane, the every-day, the terrestrial, and sets us upon the heights of hope and possibility. We need our heroes, for they are women and men who have, by their words and deeds, made life more beautiful. Their examples challenge us to become more than we are, and perhaps there is a small part of each of us that believes we could be like them. Perhaps reminders of their humanity give us hope and lessen the distance between us and their lofty triumphs. Perhaps that is why we seek out such reminders: pubs and work-worn desks and headstones and libraries. To be perfectly honest, I suspect we will never be able to adequately explain our reasons. Rather, in such times as we come face-to-face with the knowledge that our heroes are one with us, we understand that faith and inspiration are close sisters, and we begin to see why they are necessities. We begin to grasp that a true pilgrimage has occurred only when we have become something we otherwise could not be.
What I began to understand more fully as I looked at Tolkien’s work is that he gave his life over to celebrating the convergences of life’s small moments which, under his loving workmanship, became revelations of pilgrimage. We’re constantly growing and changing because of our experiences, but what Tolkien seems to have seen particularly clearly is that we’re always becoming people we otherwise could not be. We’re always pilgrims on a journey. And those flashes of clarity that come, those moments in which we’re suddenly aware of how the past has laid the road to the future? Those are gifts, divine responses to faith and endurance. But they’re also promises: promises that we’re becoming into people and worlds that are more in every way than we could ever have imagined from where we’re standing now.