Back in the 1970s it seemed that almost every student had a well-thumbed (if not falling apart) one-volume paperback of The Lord of the Rings. It was the cult book of the era. There had been “high fantasy” writers before JRR Tolkien – George MacDonald, William Morris, Lord Dunsany and others – but they were in a niche genre; it was Tolkien who brought fantasy to popular attention.

The Bodleian in Oxford is currently hosting “the biggest Tolkien exhibition in a generation” at the Weston Library. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth includes manuscript pages, maps and original artwork for the books. Tolkien was an astonishing artist as well as an innovative writer. His beautiful illustrations bring Middle-earth to life.

There are pages written in the intricate script Tolkien devised for his Elvish language. There are startling revelations from his notes: the wizard Gandalf’s original name was Bladorthin; the dwarf Thorin was originally called Gandalf. And there’s a selection from Tolkien’s fan mail – including a letter from a young Terence Pratchett about reading the novella Smith of Wootton Major “with awe … a feeling almost of recognition”.

Although The Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien called “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”, is his masterwork, he was arguably even better as a short story writer. He was also, first and foremost, an academic – he was a professor of Anglo-Saxon for 20 years and a professor of English language and literature for a further 15 – and his essays are a joy to read.

What is it about The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and Tolkien’s other work that still catches our imagination, even in our realist, hi-tech age? Why do we so enjoy reading fantasy, by Tolkien, his Oxford colleague CS Lewis and other writers? What is it about the fantastical, about elves and wizards and magic, made-up stories about impossible things, that draws us in so seductively?

Imagination, of course, is at the heart of it – and a rollicking good adventure. But there’s a lot more to it than that. In some ways it could be argued that all fiction, by definition, is fantasy. But genre fantasy, with its close links both to science fiction and supernatural fiction, helps us to see and explore our own society and its quirks by looking at it obliquely.

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