A boastful Welshman, William Ready already has a reputation as a “manuscript hunter” when he takes over as director of Marquette University’s new Memorial Library in 1956. Formerly a librarian at Stanford, Ready goes on a literary safari at the Jesuit school, contacting English authors, especially those who are Catholic, in a hunt for correspondence, manuscripts or miscellanea to inject some clout into the newly opened library. He sounds out an Oxford professor, an expert in medieval studies who has just published a fantastical series of novels called The Lord of the Rings, a follow-up to his successful children’s book, The Hobbit.
At Ready’s direction, a London book dealer offers the Catholic scholar, one John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, about $5,000 for his handwritten manuscripts of the novels. Tolkien’s not sure if he should take the money, and he consults his publisher, lawyer, accountant and even the Society of Authors in London. All say this is the best offer he’ll ever get. Quite simply, the deal of a lifetime. So Tolkien – not yet knowing the books will go from sleeper hits to worldwide phenomena in just a few years – agrees to Ready’s generous proposal.
The Marquette of today won’t disclose exactly what the collection is estimated to be worth. Guesses land in the millions. Almost a thousand visitors a year come to the new Raynor Library to see pages of Tolkien’s longhand. The vast majority are filed in acid-free folders stored in acid-free boxes stowed in a vault housed in a room controlled for temperature and relative humidity. Archivist William Fliss retrieves portions of the collection for school groups and researchers, counting the pages as he opens (or closes) each folder and handling each leaf only through the thinnest of cotton gloves.
At the bottom of a page he turns over in August, there is a sentence: “He put it in his pocket.”
“That must be the moment he found The Ring,” Fliss says.
The One Ring, in this scene from The Hobbit, is “just a magic ring,” as Tolkien scholar John Rateliff puts it. Bilbo’s plaything won’t become a dreadful source of evil until Tolkien pens The Lord of the Rings. Then he’ll go back, revise the earlier novel and transform Gollum into the ring-coveting creature we know today. But his otherness is right there from the beginning, in the sounds that echo through Peter Jackson’s movies. “Ss, ss, ss,” Gollum says in Tolkien’s slithering hand. “My precious.”
The script is beautifully calligraphic – Tolkien’s capital “T” looks like a dog’s hind leg wearing a sombrero – but few researchers can read all of it. Rateliff, one of the exceptions, published an exhaustive study of the original Hobbit manuscript in 2007.
“The only way is to keep trying,” he says, “and eventually, you become able to read his little squiggles.”