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The Tolkien Archives at Marquette: A Glimpse At His Original Manuscripts

J.R.R. TolkienThrough a stroke of luck and the foresight of their one-time curator, the Marquette University libraries house the original manuscripts for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. We’re talking original type-written and hand-written items, donated by Tolkien himself (and some later items donated by his son, Christopher Tolkien). I’m lucky enough to have the university in my backyard. As an alum and now an adjunct, I’d seen portions of the collection on display before, but it had been several years, so I asked archivist Bill Fliss if I could join his public showing in July.

It was, in a word, incredible! I want to share a glimpse of that experience with you here, so following are several of the highlights, insights and stories we learned about and saw from Bill.

The Hobbit’s Original Dust Jacket Design

The design on file at Marquette captures Tolkien’s original vision for The Hobbit. While it’s similar to the version below, the original featured a more prominent dragon on the front panel and included the color red—a fact that would have made its printing more expensive by adding a third color to the blue and green. Another fun fact: the runes around the edges of the design really do state the name of the book, the author and the publisher’s name (both original and subsequent publisher).

The Hobbit (full cover)

Original Hand-written Leaves from The Hobbit and the “Bladorthin Typescript”

We also were able to see two of Tolkien’s initial hand-written leaves from The Hobbit. It was amazing to see those first words and ideas in his own hand, beside doodled maps and other notes in the margins. Perhaps even more interesting, though, was a very early type-written version of the first chapter known as the “Bladorthin Typescript”, in which Bladorthin is the name of the wizard we now know as Gandalf, and Gandalf is the name of the dwarf leader. Yes, it boggles the mind! Luckily, Tolkien made the switch to Gandalf and Thorin as we know them today.

My favorite portion of the “Bladorthin Typescript” that we were able to see captures the exact moment when Tolkien decided on the name Smaug. As with Gandalf and Bladorthin/Thorin, he’d originally selected another name—Pryftan (Not quite as fear-inducing, right?!)—but on this particular page, Tolkien had crossed off the type-written name and written above it in ink, “Smaug.” I loved seeing his writing and thought processes in action.

C.S. LewisTolkien’s ARC List for The Hobbit

A fun bit of the collection related to The Hobbit was Tolkien’s personal list of those he wanted to receive an ARC (advanced reader copy) of the novel, including someone with the initials “CSL”. C.S. Lewis, of course.

Later, curator Bill Fliss explained another fascinating detail: In the 1930s, Lewis and Tolkien agreed there weren’t enough of the kind of stories they wanted to read, so they made a deal. Each would write a sci-fi story. One of them would write about space travel and the other about time travel. The space travel side of the deal developed into Lewis’ Space Trilogy. Tolkien started a time travel story called “The Lost Road.” He never finished it, but ideas from the story found their way into The Lord of the Rings.

LOTR: Changing Names and Titles

Marquette’s collection boasts a wide variety of Lord of the Rings-related manuscript items, one of which is a beautifully calligraphed original title plate with the words The Magic Ring uppermost on the page, yet crossed off, and below it, the final title, The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien must have played with names quite often over the 17 years he spent working on his great sequel. In the original pages, Frodo Baggins starts out as Bingo Baggins (Yikes!) and Strider is known as Trotter (Double yikes!).

The Development of the One Ring Lore

As I’ve mentioned already, the single most incredible aspect of this exhibit is the ability to get a glimpse into Tolkien’s writing process, his story development. This is seen perhaps most eloquently in his thinking around the one ring. On a scrap of paper, in his own hand, Tolkien made what seemed to be stream-of-consciousness notes and wonderings about the ring. What was its purpose? How exactly would it work? The word necromancer, with a question mark jotted above it, provides an eerie foreshadowing to the character that would become Sauron.

One ring to rule them all...Remember, at this point, Bilbo’s ring was a construct to transition from the success of The Hobbit to a not-yet-written sequel. It had been largely a magical device in The Hobbit. In the collection, we can see Tolkien playing with the backstory and mythological expansion that would give it the weight of what we know throughout The Lord of the Rings.

From these early notes, the collection sequences to its most beautiful piece—the final epic poem we all know so well: “Three rings for the Elven-kings…One ring to rule them all…where the shadows lie.” The first five stanzas are calligraphed in black ink by the author in English, while the last—the one that would actually appear on the ring—is calligraphed in red Elvish script, just as it appears in the fire. The amount of detail Tolkien put in to envisioning this world and bringing it to life is nothing short of astounding!

Sketches and Artwork

Door of MoriaTolkien was a skilled artist as well as author and, among the sketches in the Marquette collection, are his original sketch for the Door of Moria (it morphed a little to become what’s included in the published books), as well as pencil drawings of Minas Tirith, Isengard and the Tower of Orthanc, and Cirith Ungol.

More doodles and maps often appear in the middle of hand-written chapters, when Tolkien wanted to better develop the landscape in order to determine where the story went next, as is the case with a map he drew for the Ride of the Rohirrim.

Another one of my favorites was the meticulous and gorgeous rendering he did of the Book of Mazarbul (the book the Fellowship finds and Gandalf reads from after they arrive in the halls of Moria). On three pieces of paper, he drew what looked like weathered, worn parchment, colored to show fade and complete with mock holes where the parchment was missing. The runes Tolkien wrote match the actual words Gandalf reads, culminating in the scrawled line, “They are coming.” He even switches to Elvish for the portions written by Ori.

Tolkien’s Creative Selection of Writing Paper

The Song of Boromir was originally written on the back of a student essay. Tolkien apparently did this often, using scraps of college papers and bluebooks to jot notes and chapter sections. Because those essays are dated or because student records show when a certain student was enrolled in Tolkien’s course, these scrap papers have become a key clue to help scholars determine more closely how the content of the book came together over those 17 years. His detailed notes on the break-out and explanation of “Hobbit Long Measures” were written on the back of an Oxford café menu card.

Galley Proofs

The Fellowship of the Ring (cover original)A galley proof is typically a rough proof sent by the publisher to make sure things are laid out correctly on the pages prior to final printing. Marquette has several galleys from The Lord of the Rings and, on one, Tolkien had taped a hand-written addition to describe the manner of Saruman’s death.

Synoptic Timelines

Those of you who are writers have probably seen or heard of J.K. Rowling and other authors using timelines like these to keep character movements and dates straight.

I use something similar…and apparently, so did Tolkien! His included dates, notes about the travels of various members of the Fellowship, and moon phases, as well as calendar comparisons for the cultures within his fictional world. I loved seeing him apply the same techniques writers are using today. If something works, right?

Outline by JK Rowling

The timelines also led to another fun story. Remember how I mentioned that Tolkien often wrote on the back of old school papers? Well, while figuring out his traveling calendar, he tracked phases of the moon on the back of an air raid warden report. Small details like that serve as a reminder that Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and others did their work amidst the chaos of World War II.

So that’s it, in a slightly long nutshell. Because the estate still owns the copyright, no photos or quotations from pre-published works are allowed. I want to thank Bill Fliss for his fantastic explanation of the collection. It is absolutely an indescribable one-of-a-kind experience to see this breadth of Tolkien’s work in one place, and if you’re ever in the Wisconsin-area, I highly recommend it.

You can find more details on the public showings schedule here.



  1. Wow. I so wish I could see all of that one day. It’s nice to know that it’s actually on my side of the ocean, too. That makes it infinitely more likely to happen!

    Thanks for sharing your experience! It was a definite joy to read – and to see that any of us fantasy writers really aren’t so different from Tolkien.

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