After a 40-year-old woman from Milwaukee discovered she had a brain tumor and then endured a breakup with her fiancé, she fell into a depression. She felt alone and feared she wouldn’t wake from the surgery needed to remove the growth.
To calm her fears, this woman turned to something that had long stoked her imagination and been a presence in her life: the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. As a child, she’d immersed herself in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a young adult, she became enthralled by the movies directed by Peter Jackson. She even played the parts of elves in internet role-playing games.
Struggling with her prognosis, she began listening to meditative music inspired by the stories of Middle-earth. The melodies helped pull her through. Before her surgery, she placed a photo of the character Thranduil, king of the Elves, in the intensive care unit so that it would be the first thing she saw when she regained consciousness. She will likely bring Thranduil along for future procedures. “I will have radiation for a second brain tumor, but I am counting on Tolkien’s influence to get me through the hardship,” she says.
The woman’s story of finding hope and strength through the works of Tolkien is one of hundreds of anonymous narratives that have been audio-recorded, transcribed, numbered (hers is #216), and put online as part of Marquette’s new Tolkien Fandom Oral History Project. In these recordings, collected by Raynor Memorial Libraries archivist Dr. William Fliss, fans speak about how Tolkien’s works have inspired them to overcome adversities, make new friends, learn new languages, seek out life-affirming careers, and reconnect with God.
“Tolkien provides a means for people to get perspective on their lives,” Fliss says. He launched the project not only to archive the hows and whys of Tolkien fans, but also to make searchable, downloadable text and audio available to scholars of fan studies, a relatively new area of research.
A collection grows
The oral history project builds, of course, on the Raynor Memorial Libraries’ famed J.R.R. Tolkien Collection. It owes its existence to William B. Ready, who was hired as director of libraries in 1955 to stock the newly built Memorial Library. In 1956, Ready made a shrewd call after reading “The Hobbit,” then in an unheralded period between its debut in 1937 and its explosion in popularity in the mid-1960s. Ready reached out to Tolkien through a rare book dealer to inquire about the manuscript. He negotiated a price of $4,700 to acquire it, as well as the original manuscripts of “The Lord of the Rings” and “Farmer Giles of Ham,” including the latter’s unpublished illustrations. After Tolkien’s death in 1973, his son Christopher sent Marquette more of his father’s writings. The collection became important enough that its holdings were highlights of the biggest exhibition of Tolkien material “in several generations” — 2018’s “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth” in Oxford, England.
Marquette’s collection has swelled over the years, with additions of books on Tolkien, press clippings, journal and anthology articles, audio and video recordings, and dissertations. Marquette also stocks a rich collection of fan-generated content, including poems, songs, dramatizations, and more than 270 fanzines dating back to the 1960s.
And these artifacts representing so-called fandom are sparking the interest of scholars — a bit belatedly, says Gerry Canavan, associate professor of 20th and 21st century literature at Marquette. “Scholars were so hung up on the idea of the creative genius for so long that it took a while to realize that readers had interesting relationships to texts too,” he says.
When Fliss became curator of the Tolkien collection in 2012, he wanted to position the archive as one that fan studies scholars could tap for their research. The collection had the fanzines, but those mainly represented fandom up until the end of the 20th century. After that, the content normally found in fanzines moved to the internet. Fliss could periodically archive webpages, but wondered if there might be some new way to harness fan expression. The answer was right under his nose.
About 800 Tolkien fans visit Raynor Memorial Libraries each year. They see scanned copies of those original manuscripts, view drawings Tolkien made, listen to audio and video recordings about the author, or peruse the fanzines. On occasion, Fliss would stop and talk with the fans. Sometimes he’d learn that they’d come all the way from Europe or Asia. They’d talk about their deep affection for Tolkien and how his works resonated with them.
“I came to be really impressed by how diverse the fans were, by their stories and by how much this author has affected their lives,” Fliss says. He realized that to really document fandom, he should try to capture the voices of the fans he regularly encountered. That’s what he did.
Fliss has set a goal of collecting 6,000 recordings — a number that not coincidentally matches the number of Tolkien’s Riders of Rohan, who play a pivotal role in the Ring trilogy’s climactic battles. So far, Fliss has uploaded three “éoreds,” a word used to describe the Riders’ companies of 120 horse-mounted soldiers. Aiming toward his goal, he is partnering with translators to include the voices of fans who do not speak English and will be setting up a booth at Tolkien-themed events and conferences, enlisting volunteers to help schedule and translate recordings. The project’s narratives are available online as text and audio that can be downloaded and analyzed by digital humanities scholars.
For many, the trials, tribulations and triumphs of Tolkien’s fellowship led by Frodo Baggins and his trusted hobbit sidekick Samwise Gamgee help them create their own narratives. “They ask, ‘What would Samwise do?’” Fliss says. “It gives them a moral lens with which to navigate the world.”
To record your Tolkien story for Marquette’s archives, please register at marquette.edu/tolkienfandom.
Article contributed by the Office of University Relations at Marquette University.