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Marquette's J.R.R Tolkien Collection Working To Create A Fan Oral History

Curator William Fliss handles pages from the original manuscript for "The Lord of the Rings".
Marquette University Archives
Curator William Fliss handles pages from the original manuscript for "The Lord of the Rings."

In 1957, newly hired Marquette University Director of Libraries William Ready was on the hunt for material to fill the Memorial Library, which had opened in 1953.

Ready began aggressively purchasing author manuscripts. When he read the recently released The Lord of Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, he immediately recognized the three volumes as a masterpiece and he set out to try and acquire the manuscripts.

After negotiation, Tolkien agreed to sell his entire collection of writing manuscripts, including those for The Lords Of Rings, The Hobbit and Farmer Giles of Ham, to Marquette for about $5,000. The documents were delivered throughout the next two years and have lived in Milwaukee ever since.

“It’s a remarkable thing that this collection is here because the author J.R.R. Tolkien was not an American, he was English. He never stepped foot in the United States,” says William Fliss, the current curator of the J.R.R. Tolkien collection.

Fliss says that Ready was just in the right place at the right time and happened to be the first person to ask Tolkien about selling the manuscripts.

The collection at Marquette doesn’t just include the original manuscripts but many additional documents that the author created in order to bring his stories to life.

“The manuscripts are the heart of the collection, those are the actual original papers that he wrote the story out on — all the different drafts, handwritten, type scripted, notes, the galley sheets, page proofs, almost everything for conception for The Lord of the Rings, especially, everything from the original concept through publication,” he explains.

Through the years, the library has continued to acquire material, including secondary work published about Tolkien’s work. And, the library also began to document the fandoms surrounding The Lord of the Rings and has now started a project to record the oral history of Tolkien’s fans.

“I was trying to think of other ways to collect the fandom and I came upon this idea of trying to gather brief, I call them interviews, but they’re really more like testimonials from fans,” Fliss says.

Fans are given the opportunity to speak for up to three minutes in response to three questions:

  • When did you first encounter the works of J. R. R. Tolkien?
  • Why are you a Tolkien fan?
  • What has he meant to you?

Fliss is hoping to record 6,000 testimonials, a reference to the number of Riders of Rohan that Théoden brought to the aid of Gondor in the last volume of The Lord of the Rings.

The library has already published over 400 interviews, along with written transcripts. Fliss says he is working on a way for the public to analyze the similarities and differences of each fan’s response.

Anecdotally, he says, the most used word across all the interviews is hope.

“There’s something about [Tolkien’s] stories that give people hope and I think that certainly in this past year, a lot of the interviews I have been listening to, his ability to provide hope has been important to people in this past year going through the pandemic,” he says.

As more people get vaccinated and hopes that the end of the pandemic is drawing closer, Fliss says he excited to resume showing the manuscripts and recording more testimonials from fans.

Currently the J.R.R. Tolkien Fandom Oral History Collection can schedule recordings both in person or remotely. Find out more about how to contribute your own testimonial here.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.