Marquette exhibit shows creation of Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’

JRR Tolkien never quit his day job.

Instead, his work as a philologist and professor of Anglo-Saxon and English at the University of Oxford nurtured the brilliantly detailed, myth-saturated fantasy worlds he created in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, ‘The Hobbit’ and other books.

“JRR Tolkien: The Art of the Manuscript”, a new exhibit at Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum of Art, will be a place of pilgrimage for scholars and fans alike through Christmas week. Its 147 items include 85 excerpts from the manuscripts “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” from Marquette’s collection, as well as material on loan from the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford.

Marquette bought these manuscripts and other documents from Tolkien in 1957; decades later, Tolkien’s son and literary executor, Christopher, sent Marquette further related writings after consulting them for his 12-volume work “The History of Middle-earth”.

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Exhibition co-curators William Fliss, curator of the Tolkien de Marquette collection, and Sarah Schaefer, assistant professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, refer to Tolkien’s legend, the enormous body of writing behind and under “LOTR” and “The Hobbit.” Visitors to the Haggerty exhibition will see examples of how Tolkien gradually elaborated passages from the published books, usually one handwritten or calligraphic page at a time.

For example, visitors will see several versions, handwritten, typed and calligraphic, of the Ring Verse, the famous inscription which includes the signature line “One ring to rule them all”.

An insight into how Tolkien created Middle-earth

The frugal Tolkien used the blank side of a student essay to write the text for the chapter “The Departure of Boromir”. On the side of the essay itself, the curators note, Tolkien scribbled down words and phrases, some in English, some in Cyrillic script.

The Ring Verse, from the 1940s, is part of

Even a cursory look at these manuscript pages shows how Tolkien approached letters and words not just as carriers of meaning, but also as art in themselves. He penned versions of a passage called “The King’s Letter” in invented Elvish script. He also drew maps of Middle-earth and created scenes in watercolour, ink and pencil for his current work, sometimes incorporating text into these works.

You may never have read a word of Tolkien or watched a minute of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of “LOTR” or “The Hobbit.” But if you read “Beowulf,” in or out of school, you can thank Tolkien, whose 1936 lecture “Beowulf: Monsters and Critics” galvanized the study of this epic poem as literature.

The Haggerty exhibit includes several manuscript pages from Tolkien’s study and translation of “Beowulf”, including his watercolor and ink drawing of the dragon fighting old Beowulf to his death at the end of the epic. Tolkien patiently outlined the many green scales of the coiled dragon.

And to immerse yourself in the nitty-gritty of Tolkien’s everyday scholarship, feast your eyes on his handwritten chart of vowel changes in the Vespasian Psalter’s glosses. Fortunately, there will be no exam at the end of the exhibition.

How to See the Marquette University Tolkien Exhibit

The Haggerty sells timed admission tickets to this exhibition, limiting the number of people who can view it during each two-hour window. For a short-sighted or weak-eyed person like me, it can be daunting to look at pages of small handwritten text from a distance. Fortunately, the Tolkienista who wants to spend a lot of time with these materials can purchase the exhibition catalog, which includes all images from the exhibition as well as essays by the curators.

In the middle of these aged and sometimes altered manuscript pages is a very large screen which allows visitors to access part of Anduin, a computer system still in progress that will eventually allow scholars to track every version of a paragraph in Tolkien’s manuscripts.

The tale grew into the narrative, indeed.

A stunning final one is some 14 pages of synoptic time-schema, or blueprint, that Tolkien created to keep track of his massive history. The Haggerty displays this in a way that spans most of a wall. He invites the visitor to marvel at what the patient work of one man has created.

Contact Jim Higgins at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jhiggy.

If you are going to

“JRR Tolkien: The Art of the Manuscript” continues through December 23 at Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum of Art, 1234 W. Tory Hill St. Tickets for timed entry are required. Visit

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