A Massive Collection of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Manuscripts Is in Milwaukee

How these papers ended up at Marquette University – and when you can see them for yourself

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are the most famous fantasy novels in the world. It might surprise you, then, that one of the most significant collections of Tolkien’s literary work – a dragon’s hoard worth – resides here in Milwaukee in the archives of Marquette University

It started with Marquette’s Library Director William Ready (1914-81), who actively sought out Catholic authors. Ready approached Tolkien through an intermediary in 1956 and negotiated the purchase of his manuscripts for The Hobbit and the three volumes of his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings (as well as lesser-known works), just a year after the last of those books were published. 

“Ready was in the right place at the right time and had the good sense to pursue those manuscripts,” says William Fliss, an archivist in the department of special collections at Marquette. Fliss curates the Tolkien collection and is co-curator with UW-Milwaukee art historian Sarah Schaefer on the new exhibit “J.R.R. Tolkien: The Art of the Manuscript,” which opens this month at the Haggerty Museum of Art.

Fans will have a chance to marvel at Tolkien’s manuscripts – handwritten, typewritten “or as is quite common, a combination of the two,” Fliss says. These include hand-drawn maps and other illustrations and range from “iconic pieces for the fans and some items that have never been published or shown before.” The 147 items have been pulled from Marquette’s archives, with some on loan from the other tower of the author’s archived work, Oxford University, where he was a professor.

“You’ll also see Tolkien’s work put into dialogue with the kind of works from the medieval period and Tolkien’s own time that were influential for him and informed a lot of his world-building.” says Schaefer.

Among the displayed pages are Tolkien’s drafts and complete illustrated pages from the Book of Mazarbul, the chronicle found in the Mines of Moria that Gandalf translates in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien illustrated these to look like damaged medieval manuscripts, but to his disappointment, his publisher didn’t include them in the finished book due to expediency and cost. 

Another page on display is perhaps a literal tearjerker. “It’s a manuscript that we believe has Tolkien’s tear stains on it from when he wept reading a certain part of the story,” Fliss says. “I won’t say what the scene is, but it’s on display so people can have that powerful realization that at some point Tolkien sat down and wrote this and wept onto the page. It really adds a power to seeing the manuscript.”

Golden Rings

MARQUETTE PURCHASED the Tolkien materials shown in “The Art of the Manuscript” for about $4,900 in 1956 – a significant chunk of money for the time. We don’t know exactly how much that collection might be worth today – it’s Marquette policy not to comment on such matters – but a single handwritten letter by Tolkien sold for over $59,000 last year. “The Rings of Power,” a new series based on Tolkien’s work premiering on Amazon Prime Video on Sept. 2 and set roughly 1,000 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, cost about a billion bucks to create. 

The Tolkien exhibit runs Aug. 19-Dec. 12 at the Haggerty Museum of Art. More info here


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s August issue.

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