Tolkien Studies at PCA 2014, part two

Popular Culture Association logoIn my previous post, I wrote about one of the roundtable discussions in the Tolkien Studies special area introduced this year at the national Popular Culture / American Culture Association conference, which was held in Chicago in April. Today I have a summary of another roundtable discussion, this one on doing research in the Tolkien archives at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Because I was one of the panellists, I didn’t take as copious notes as I might have done as an audience member, but at least I can give you a taste of the discussion. My part will look disproportionately longer than the others, but that’s because I have notes on my own presentation!

The Tolkien Collection in the Marquette University Archives

It is not unusual to be met with surprise if you happen to mention that there’s a Tolkien archive – in Milwaukee. Many people assume that all of Tolkien’s manuscripts would be held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. And while the Bodleian has a rich collection of Tolkien papers – such as his lecture notes, drafts of some of his fiction, translations and glossaries for his teaching – the J.R.R. Tolkien Collection at Marquette University is where you will find his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit manuscripts, as well as Farmer Giles of Ham and the original Mr. Bliss.

Chicago buildingOur roundtable started off with William (Bill) Fliss, the Archivist in the Department of Special Collections, describing the history and scope of this collection, starting with William Ready, the head librarian in the 1950s who was the first to inquire if Tolkien would sell his literary papers, which is probably one of the reasons why they ended up at Marquette. Bill also pointed out that the collection extends beyond these manuscripts to secondary sources, including materials donated by Tolkien collectors. To get a full sense of these diverse materials, take a look at the online descriptive inventory. Another interesting development is that it is now possible to record various Tolkien-related websites so that they too will become part of the historical record.

Amy Amendt-Raduege spoke next about her experiences as a Marquette grad student —  the first in the history of the English Department there to complete a PhD on Tolkien – and the many happy hours she spent in the archives. Amy pointed out that the archives are a lovely place to work (and they are: large tables, a wall of windows, and a place of quiet concentration with librarians bringing riches to your desk). She commented on how it was fun to see other people there occasionally working on other aspects of Tolkien’s fiction, creating a sense of a scholarly community. She advised researchers to ask the librarians for help when needed, as they are the most valuable resource in the archives. She also described the thrill of looking at the manuscripts themselves – something that all the panellists agreed with. You can read Tolkien’s drafts of Lord of the Rings in The History of Middle-earth, but only in looking at the manuscripts will you see, for example, the other side of the page, with Tolkien’s comments on exams, or his doodles, or other notes that give you a sense of what he was doing at the time. And of course, there is the challenge of reading his handwriting when he was especially inspired.

While Amy spoke about reading the manuscripts, I pointed to various topics that could be pursued in a study of pre-internet Tolkien fandom using the vast array of periodicals, fan materials, and adaptations collected in the secondary sources. There is great potential there for fan studies, film studies, and reception studies by examining how, through the years, fans have expressed their ideas and opinions in numerous zines on topics such as the following:

  • fans’ perceptions of what it means to be a fan;
  • the beginnings of organized Tolkien fandom in science fiction fandom and the perceived relationships between these two fan communities;
  • the perceived relationship between fans engaging in activities for fun and those developing more serious academic interests as time goes on;
  • the prevalence of fan works – fiction, art, poetry, songs, plays – from the earliest days of fan publications, without derogatory comments on fanfic such as you might find today;
  • the way in which women were writing Lord of the Rings fiction from female points of view;
  • the various ways in which the collection supports film studies – for example, tracking fan reactions to the Ralph Bakshi film, or reading the Ackerman screen treatment (with Tolkien’s comments in the margins), or imagining John Boorman’s screenplay (if only it had been filmed!), or reading fans’ anticipations of what a live-action film by some guy named Peter Jackson might be like.
  • and finally, looking at the ways in which fans perceived the Lord of the Rings “cult” in the 1960s and 70s when Tolkien fandom was highly visible. Essays on the subject extend from early days in the 60s to retrospectives in the 1980s. An interesting range of opinions can be found, from conservative to liberal, as these zine article titles might suggest:  “Hippie Hobbits”; “Hippies or Hobbits?”; “Hippies versus Hobbits”; “Hippies relating to hobbits”; “On Behalf of the Half Hippy” and “Those hippity hobbits.”  (Clearly, the alliteration was too much to resist).

These suggestions by no means exhaust the possibilities of the secondary materials in the Marquette collection, but I hope they make clear that the history of organized Tolkien fandom is to be found in the archive in Milwaukee. I should add that I was commenting on North American and British sources, but other materials from around the world can also be found in the collection.

Chicago buildingOur final panellist was Richard West. He spoke of his long experiences and happy memories of discovering and using the Tolkien Collection over the years. He reiterated what Amy had said earlier: that there is nothing like looking at the actual manuscripts. Richard told the story of seeing Mr. Bliss and thinking that it was a lovely book that should be published, and of course it eventually was. He also spoke about how being able to consult manuscripts can complete the printed record: for example, in the published edition of Tolkien’s famous Letter 131 to Milton Waldman, Carpenter omits a small section, but it can be read in the original document in the collection.

I think the theme of our roundtable could be summed up simply by saying that the Marquette Tolkien Collection is an invaluable resource that all Tolkien researchers should know about.

If you’ve used the collection, I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences in the comments. If you were at our roundtable and have other notes to add, please feel free.

Areas of interest for future conferences

As I mentioned in my previous post, you can keep in touch by joining the Tolkien Studies at PCA open Facebook group. There you will find a report by organizer Robin Reid on the success of this trial run of the Tolkien Studies area. After a business meeting on the final day of the conference, participants identified a few areas of interest for future meetings that emphasized the multidisciplinary nature of Tolkien studies, including discussions of publishing opportunities and the state of Tolkien scholarship; teaching Tolkien; Tolkien linguistics; critical race studies; gender and queer studies; Tolkien in a modern context, including his knowledge of science and his relation to the genres of science fiction and fantasy; and creative presentations.

The next national PCA/ACA conference will be held in New Orleans in 2015.

Chicago night scene

3 responses to “Tolkien Studies at PCA 2014, part two”

  1. […] More information about the conference and how to submit proposals can be found on the PCA/ACA Tolkien Studies page. You can also keep up with news of the conference and other items of interest by joining the public Tolkien Studies at the Popular Culture/American Culture Association Facebook group. If you join the group, you can download Robin Reid’s notes on all of the 2015 sessions. For another view of the 2015 meeting, see David Bratman’s report on the Tolkien Society blog. Going even further back, you can find my summaries of two of the roundtable discussions from the 2014 conference here and here. […]


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