• An unexpected journey: Hobbits in the heartland
    December 10,2012
     

    Thirty years and 300 leagues separate me from that wintry day and place, yet how well I remember. Wearing a blue goose-down jerkin over my doublet, and boots, I descended the stairs to a library chamber and beheld with my own eyes the grave and thrilling history of Middle-earth, in its earliest form — page after page of the words, runes and drawings of J.R.R. Tolkien, the original texts, with corrections and annotations in his own spidery hand. How long I tarried there I do not know, yet even a scant minute would have justified my long journey across barren prairies to the city of men beside the Great Lake where the precious hoard had come to rest.

    Milwaukee.

    Yes, Tolkien fans: the stories belong to the ages, but the manuscripts belong to Marquette University. It has been so since 1957, thanks to a very smart librarian, William Ready, who had been hired the year before to help fill a then-new Memorial Library. He approached the not-yet-famous Professor Tolkien through a British rare-book seller, struck a deal for less than $5,000, and in 1957 and 1958 the boxes from Oxford arrived: “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit,” in longhand drafts, typewritten manuscripts and page proofs, with revisions and rejected fragments, along with minor and then-unpublished texts and other papers. After the professor died in 1973, his son Christopher sent more papers still, until Marquette came to hold the vast machinery of Middle-earth in all its original parts, along with thousands of pages of articles, commentary and fan fiction — the vast forests and foothills of secondary scholarship now girding Mount Tolkien.

    Not since Bilbo found an Elvish knife in a troll hoard, or Frodo inherited a certain ring, has such a treasure been acquired by so unexpected and responsible a guardian. One does not simply walk into the collection: since 1983 Marquette has locked the original manuscripts away, and no spell releases them unbidden, though you may examine the microfilm. The library says I was among the last mortal men to freely handle the originals, in late December 1982. The memory gladdens me — I could fill the day retelling it, and I see there are many hours till nightfall.

    But first, a song!

    The road goes ever on and on

    and on and on, and on and on,

    Hobbits and wizards and orcs and elves

    fill the books that strain the shelves.

    One could be buried by tales as these

    if not by the appendices.

    The road, this over-beaten track,

    begins not far from Fond du Lac,

    in the land of Milkfat where the cheeses lie.

    In the land of Milkfat where the cheeses lie.

    “This tale grew in the telling,” wrote Tolkien, accurately and perhaps abashedly, in his foreword to “The Lord of the Rings.” Edmund Wilson said the same thing, but dismissively, calling it a children’s story that “somehow got out of hand.” I doubt even he could have imagined the Tolkien-industrial-scholarly complex that has since grown around the oeuvre. Tolkien geekdom was more of a do-it-yourself proposition when I was a teenager; fan fiction amounted to “Bored of the Rings,” the Harvard Lampoon’s story of Frito, Dildo, Legolam and the rest, which is still snort-your-milk funny, if you’re still 14. There wasn’t much else, but the books themselves were plenty to fill an entire adolescence, and then some.

    Full immersion in Middle-earth has since been made effortless, if not unavoidable, by Peter Jackson’s three “Lord of the Rings” movies, and now “The Hobbit,” which arrives Friday. Two more “Hobbit” movies will follow. The inevitable question — three “Hobbit” movies? Really? — is a fair one, perhaps easily explained as an example of Hollywood juggernautism, where hits begetting sequels is an immutable law of profit-taking.

    Yet it only takes a moment of revisiting the texts, gazing at the maps and alphabets and glossaries, or browsing Marquette University’s online catalog, to realize that Middle-earth exists on a vastly different scale even from the worlds of Harry Potter, Narnia and “Star Wars,” perhaps the best example of saga-bloat. Tolkien dreamed big enough, scribbled long enough and stuffed his cosmos full enough to occupy the rest of us forever. Six movies could not begin to contain him.

    William Fliss, interim curator of Marquette’s Tolkien collection, said Tolkien packed as much Middle-earth history, legend and lore as he could into “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit,” using notes, glossaries and appendices when the narrative got too full. All of that bonus material is “fair game for the moviemakers,” he said, suggesting that Hollywood could be wandering through the boundless brainchild of one Oxford don for a long time to come. John Rateliff, a Tolkien scholar, noted in a recent lecture that unlike Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis, who could work out stories in his head, Tolkien “found out what he had to say by writing it, and rewriting it.” This, he said diplomatically, “took lots and lots of paper.”



    Lawrence Downes is a columnist for The New York Times.

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