Tolkien Goes to School

Marquette University Archivist Bill Fliss arranges some of the 11,000 J.R.R. Tolkien papers the university owns in the library of the Milwaukee school; home to the largest Tolkien collection in the world.  Photo courtesy Carrie Antlfinger, Associated Press.

Marquette University Archivist Bill Fliss arranges some of the 11,000 J.R.R. Tolkien papers the university owns in the library of the Milwaukee school; home to the largest Tolkien collection in the world. Photo courtesy Carrie Antlfinger, Associated Press.

We J.R.R. Tolkien fans will rejoice that Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin has created a class devoted exclusively to the writer’s works.  Tolkien is best known, of course, for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings – both of which set the standard for literary fantasies – but he composed a number of other pieces.  Marquette implemented the Tolkien course this past fall, in celebration of the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit’s publication.  Thirty-two students enrolled and studied Tolkien as a whole; not just from the viewpoint of his two most popular works.

Marquette is one of the main repositories of Tolkien drawings, writings and various drafts – more than 11,000.  It has the original manuscripts for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, along with lesser-known Farmer Giles of Ham and Mr. Bliss, a children’s book.  Marquette was the first institution to ask Tolkien for the manuscripts in 1956 and paid him about $5,000.  The university had acquired the collection after it hired William Ready to build its literary collection.  Ready hired Bertram Rota, a London rare book dealer, to serve as the agent for Marquette.  Rota wrote to Tolkien and asked for his original manuscripts.  Tolkien was concerned about his retirement finances and agreed to the sale.  He died in 1973.

Marquette isn’t the first university in the U.S. to offer a class on Tolkien.  But, in this case, Marquette students can actually view Tolkien’s detailed drawings, notes and other items on site at the school’s archive.

“One of the things we wanted to impress upon the students was the fact that Tolkien was a fanatical reviser,” said Bill Fliss, Marquette’s archivist.  “He never really did anything once and was finished with it.”

Tolkien was a true writer’s writer and not just for the fantasy set.  He took complete control of his works, designing even the book cover for the first edition of The Hobbit.  His detailed art work helps the reader envision the world of “Middle Earth” as he saw it.  Few others can match is creative prowess.

A sketch of “Middle Earth” from Tolkien’s “The Art of the Hobbit.”

A sketch of “Middle Earth” from Tolkien’s “The Art of the Hobbit.”

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