Los Angeles Times
Copyright 2004 The Los Angeles Times

COLUMN ONE; Elvish Is Studied Here; For ‘Lord of the Rings’ pilgrims, the journey to Middle-earth ends in Milwaukee, the home of many of J.R.R. Tolkien’s best-loved works.
P.J. Huffstutter

MILWAUKEE To complete the ultimate quest of “The Lord of the Rings,” Carl Hostetter has left his home in Maryland to navigate roaring rivers and cross vast plains — all to stride bravely through looming masoned gates in search of a nearly hidden glass door.

As he seeks to step closer to the mythical world created by J.R.R. Tolkien, Hostetter ends his journey at a place where few expect to find Middle-earth: Milwaukee.

For here, inside Marquette University, rests the world’s preeminent collection of J.R.R. Tolkien’s best-known literary works.

The original text for “The Hobbit,” his first published book, is here. So is the manuscript of “The Lord of the Rings.” There are hand-drawn maps. Rejected epilogues. Abandoned chapters. Elvish songs. Mounds of paper scraps. More than 11,500 items written by his hand.

Acquired at a time when fantasy was considered trash by many academics and literary critics, Marquette’s collection of the Oxford professor’s writings, poetry and drawings now is considered priceless.

“To see these papers is the closest thing you can get to sitting in the same room with him,” said Hostetter, 38, head of the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship, an international nonprofit organization that studies a number of Tolkien’s invented languages. He has visited the collection twice.

“You can see, examine — almost feel — not only his work, but his genius,” he said.

Public fascination with the British author and his legacy at Marquette has swelled in recent years because of the incredible popularity of the film trilogy based on “The Lord of the Rings.” The final movie, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” won 11 Academy Awards last month.

“It used to be we got academic researchers and the occasional visitor wearing a cloak and Hobbit feet,” said Matt Blessing, head archivist for Marquette’s special collections. “Since the movies came out, the phone’s been ringing constantly. Everyone wants to see where it all began.”

For nearly half a century, “The Lord of the Rings” has mesmerized readers with one of the most compelling fantasy stories of the 20th century. Written as a single and massive tome, the book was broken into three for marketing purposes, and published in 1954 and 1955. The tale follows the trials of an unlikely group of hobbits, elves, dwarfs and men as they attempt to destroy the One Ring, the ultimate icon of evil. Virtually every fantasy novel, science-fiction computer game and swash-buckling adventure film of modern times has been inspired by the saga of Middle-earth.

“This isn’t someone knocking out the latest fantasy by the pound to make a buck,” said Edith Crowe, a research librarian at San Jose State University and a member of the Mythopoeic Society, a nonprofit international literary and educational group that studies fantasy books. “This was a life work.”

Millions of people have been consumed by the esoteric world Tolkien created. Researchers across the globe study and speak Tolkien’s invented languages, while others bring the trilogy to life through music, painting and live-action role-play — where fans dress in costume and act as if they live in Middle-earth.

Since the first film’s release in 2001, through the end of last year, Americans bought 26 million copies of Tolkien’s epic tale. And the number of visitors to Marquette’s collection has grown sixfold, averaging about 3,000 people a year.

By scouring the Internet, wading through reference books or simple word of mouth, inspired fans track down the secret at Marquette and come to cherish the Tolkien artifacts tucked away inside the Raynor Memorial Libraries, the university’s high-tech research facility.

Nearly everything here speaks of the digital age. Computers are steadily overtaking the dwindling number of books. The floors, raised and covered with carpet tiles, are designed to allow access to data and electrical lines. Elevators with brushed steel doors lead to conference rooms that open only by electronic keycards.

But at the end of a winding staircase, in a back corner of the third floor, one room hearkens to another era, to a time of literary magic. The hallowed, wood-paneled room houses the library’s special collections.

Most visitors come to the Jesuit college’s reading room for research, and spend hours poring through piles of microfiche and dusty books. Tolkien followers come to gaze raptly at a glass display that takes up one entire wall, floor to ceiling.

“It’s atypical to have any sort of exhibits inside a reading room like this, let alone one this prominent,” Blessing said. “But so many people are interested in the collection, there’s never been any question. We need to show at least some of what we have.”

A letter Tolkien wrote to a supporter in 1963 rests near the ornately decorated dust jackets from the first edition of “The Lord of the Rings,” in which dragons and dwarfs intertwine with the trees. Handwritten sheets from the opening of Tolkien’s 9,250-page “Rings” manuscript are mounted for viewing.

At the beginning of each page, the calligraphy is meticulous and magnificent. As the tale unfolds, the words begin to shrink. The writing becomes tiny ants marching across the sheet. Letters smash into one another, and the ink bleeds into an indecipherable mess.

“He was notorious for writing late at night. Two o’clock, three o’clock in the morning,” archivist Blessing said. “You can tell when Tolkien got tired, or was in such a rush to get the words down on paper that it spills out. At that point, you just can’t read what he’s writing. We have to bring in people who have studied his penmanship and medieval literature to figure out what he’s saying.”

Fans and academics alike come here because they want to know how Tolkien did it — and maybe, if they dig deep enough, find an intimate connection to a world that has long lived in their imagination.

“If you’re a fan, you go to Marquette. If you’re a serious literary researcher, you go to Marquette,” said Richard West, 59, a librarian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

West, a fan and scholar, makes the trek to Marquette a couple of times each year. “If you have any free time, you go,” he said. “You sit. And you absorb.”

For the most devout, Marquette is one of three stops on the path to Middle-earth. Another is Wheaton College in Illinois, which owns an extensive collection of books written about the Oxford don and the dark-wood writing desk where Tolkien penned “The Hobbit.”

The third is the Bodleian Library at Oxford, which holds most of Tolkien’s original artwork and several manuscripts — most notably “The Silmarillion,” which details much of the back-history of Middle-earth. Oxford also has many of Tolkien’s academic works, including his research on literary classics such as “Beowulf.”

“The average fan can’t go in there, because you need a letter of recommendation to get into the collection at Bodleian,” said John D. Rateliff, who is editing “The Hobbit” manuscript for the author’s estate for a new book. “If you’re interested in ‘Lord of the Rings,’ and most people are, Marquette is it.”

The collection dates to 1957, about the time Marquette hired a librarian named William Ready.

Ready, who had earned a reputation as a manuscript hound while at Stanford University, was handed the keys to a new and then-empty library, and told to build up the collection. While buying books for the stacks and reference room, Ready began exploring ways to collect original works by authors both well-known and obscure. Tolkien was on that list; Ready and his family had enjoyed “The Hobbit” and had been drawn to the complex world the author created with his follow-up books.

“The only thing I remember Dad reading to us was Tolkien,” said Patrick Ready, 56, the eldest of William’s six children.

William Ready recognized that Tolkien’s work was “a classic waiting for time to pass,” Blessing said. With the help of a British rare-books dealer, Ready contacted Tolkien and asked if he would be willing to sell his original manuscripts.

To Tolkien, a family man living on an educator’s modest salary, extra money was always welcome. He had picked up side jobs through the years, such as grading college placement exams of high school students.

At the time Marquette approached Tolkien, and offered to pay for the author’s manuscripts, his windfall from the trilogy was just trickling in.

For 1,500 British pounds, or about $4,900, the school got the original manuscripts for “The Hobbit,” “Rings” and two other works, including a children’s book called “Mr. Bliss,” which Tolkien wrote and illustrated.

Other gems arrived over the years, sometimes from fans donating their own collections. Christopher Tolkien, the author’s son, sent several parcels free to the school in the 1980s and ’90s, adding never before seen drafts of “The Lord of the Rings.” Books, magazines and newspaper clippings about the author — even Tolkien’s letters to his admirers — are carefully stored on bookcases in a temperature-controlled vault near the special collections library.

J.R.R. Tolkien — whose initials stood for John Ronald Reuel — came from a genteel but poor family. Born in South Africa in 1892, Tolkien was an orphan by age 12. He was raised in England’s West Midlands by a Catholic priest who was a friend of the family. Living in a land surrounded by medieval architecture, he very quickly embraced ancient tongues and old tales.

By his late teens, Tolkien had mastered Greek and Latin, and had moved on to learning languages ranging from Gothic to Finnish. Fascination with language and the classics led him to the academic world, where he taught at Oxford and elsewhere for 39 years.

Throughout it all, he wrote. Research. Lectures. Short stories. Long poems. Over time, Middle-earth crept its way onto paper.

“The Hobbit,” born out of a bedtime story Tolkien made up for his four children, had a small first printing in 1937. Children and adults alike were drawn to these chubby little people with leather and furry feet, stout heart and good nature.

By Christmas break in 1937, Tolkien had begun work on what was supposed to be a short sequel to the children’s book. Seventeen years later, the first book of the trilogy was released in Europe. “Tolkien’s passion for precision and fastidiousness meant that he wouldn’t stop writing and editing until every little thing in this world [Middle-earth] was perfect,” Blessing said.

“The Lord of the Rings” didn’t take off in America until the 1960s, when Ace Books, a science-fiction publisher, put out bootleg versions. A fierce debate over copyright issues drew media attention to the 75-cent paperbacks, and it helped readers discover the trilogy.

Radio stations broadcast readings of the tale. John Lennon talked about making “The Lord of the Rings” into a film after the Beatles finished the movie “Help!” Lennon had cast himself as Gollum, the foil of the books who was warped by the evil One Ring — which he called “my precious.”

By the mid-1960s, a subsidiary of Houghton Mifflin had distributed its own paperbacks and had begun selling hundreds of thousands of copies each month.

The success brought wealth and unwanted attention. Fans traveled to Tolkien’s home in Oxford to stand and stare in hopes of catching a glimpse of him. Americans, forgetting about the time change, called in the middle of the night to talk about the failures of Frodo and the plight of the fellowship.

Tired of the fuss, Tolkien and his family moved to England’s south-central coast and made sure their phone number was unlisted. Tolkien died in 1973.

Marquette doesn’t charge admittance to the display. Anyone can access the documents from the vault by setting up an appointment and paying $5 a day. The school expects to be inundated with fans and academics in October, when it will sponsor a three-day conference on Tolkien.

On a recent evening, four aficionados — all men — gather inside the reading room to worship. All are from a local engineering school.

Blessing gathers up a modest stack of letters, drawings and manuscript pages.

Sitting ramrod still in a straight-back chair, Nick Seidler stares as, sheet by sheet, Blessing unfolds the mystery behind the creation of Middle-earth. In the mountain of Tolkien papers that the library holds, this was merely a taste.

On average, Tolkien overhauled each chapter of “The Lord of the Rings” four or five different ways. Some chapters have as many as 18 versions. With each change came detailed timelines, creative notes, mathematical equations, elaborate sketches and tiny paintings — all on any sheet or scrap of paper the professor could find.

Blessing pulls out an Oxford faculty menu, places it on a table in front of Seidler and turns it over. On the back, Tolkien had carefully mapped out a list of Hobbit measurements. “1 nail = 1/2 in. 3 nails = 1 toe. 6 toes = 1 foot. 3 feet = 1 step.”

Seidler, 35, leans forward to gaze at the small rectangular sheet. He sees erase marks and little scribbles where Tolkien changed his mind. Seidler clenches his hands to stop himself from touching the artifact.

Then Blessing brings out a letter to an admirer. In it, Tolkien writes of grieving over Gollum failing to seek redemption. The black India ink is slightly smeared by Tolkien’s hand.

It’s him. Tolkien. On the paper. Seidler reaches out and, with a feather-light touch, slides the letter an inch closer.

It’s precious. And for this one moment, the precious is all Seidler’s.