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It’s Time to Gather the Fellowship — Tolkien Manuscripts are on Display

By MJ Wilke


Tolkien scholars, fans and Wayward Nerd travelers gather in fellowship for a rare and unique opportunity to view original manuscripts, handwritten notes, maps and sketches from J.R.R. Tolkien. Just eight times a year, Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI, offers special access to the general public for a viewing of selected pages from Tolkien manuscripts.


J.R.R. Tolkien, a professor at Oxford University (1925–1959), created some of the 20th century’s most memorable works of fiction, including “The Hobbit” published in 1937 and “The Lord of the Rings” published in 1954–55. In 1957, just two years after “The Lord of the Rings” was published, Marquette University purchased the original manuscripts of “The Hobbit,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Farmer Giles of Ham” and “Mr. Bliss.” The university’s J.R.R. Tolkien Collection has now amassed over 11,000 pages, of which 9,000 are from “The Lord of the Rings.” Original handwritten pages of manuscripts, typescripts, page proofs with handwritten notes, sketches and maps are included in the vast collection—which is part of the Raynor Library Special Collections at Marquette. And although Marquette University owns the manuscripts, the Tolkien estate retains the copyrights. The library and the collection are not open to the general public, with the special access viewing being the exception.


The special access event is more of an intimate academic experience than a simple viewing. Reservations are required (in most cases, months in advance), and the group size is limited to only 25 people. On the appointed day, at the appointed hour, guests gather in the foyer of the library where the curator greets the group and escorts them to the private board room of the Special Collections & University Archives. The showing itself begins with the archivist’s presentation on the histories of J.R.R. Tolkien, the university and the collection. Then the archivist describes each selection on display for that showing, including its importance in the collection and why it was selected from the vast amount of pages available. Once the archivist’s presentation concludes, guests can then view the selection up-close. Ample time is allotted for those who want to read or study the pieces. Guests are not allowed to touch the items (so, sadly, no white gloves are needed) and no photography is allowed.


Pieces of particular interest that were included in the display on the evening this author attended were items that showed Tolkien’s attention to detail, including handwritten mathematical calculations for events occurring in the books as well as handwritten linguistic notes regarding his invented languages. Also on display were pages from the publishing page proofs with notes scribbled in the margins, sketches by Tolkien and prints of maps. This author was also able to study an outstanding array of notes, thoughts and sketches all in his own hand. In addition, the opportunity to read a copy of the unpublished “Epilogue to The Return of the King” was truly a thrill.


For any Tolkien fan, this is an opportunity to peer into the inner workings of Tolkien’s creative process through his own handwriting. The original manuscripts not being open to the general public, except for a limited number of people, a handful of times each year, makes it a rarified, even brag-worthy experience.

The Department of Special Collections at Marquette University’s Raynor Memorial Library has a project devoted to documenting Tolkien Fandom. The goal is to record 6,000 fan testimonials, one for each of the Riders of Rohan. For more information on how to participate:

Travel Notes

Marquette University

Raynor Memorial Libraries

Department of Special Collections

1355 W. Wisconsin Ave.

Milwaukee, WI 53233


Be aware that purses, backpacks and coats are not allowed in the room. There are lockers and a coat rack outside of the Special Collections & University Archives board room.


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MJ Wilke is the founder of Wayward Nerd. She is a road warrior. A nerd. A trekkie. A whovian. A Star Wars fanatic. She will go where no one has gone before, come back and post it here.

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