Talks on Tolkien: John D. Rateliff, the Hobbit manuscripts, and Tolkien archives

One of the most exciting parts of scholarly research, in my opinion, is having the opportunity to read an original manuscript. This week’s “Talk on Tolkien” features the work of Dr. John D. Rateliff, who is an expert in Tolkien’s Hobbit manuscripts. Dr. Rateliff has studied Tolkien’s drafts and revisions of The Hobbit and these versions, along with Rateliff’s commentaries and notes, have been published in the two-volume History of The Hobbit. Recently, Dr. Rateliff announced that a shorter one-volume edition is forthcoming as well, a Brief History of the Hobbit. You can follow Dr. Rateliff’s work on his blog, Sacnoth’s Scriptorium, and on his website.

Although the video below is not a recording of a complete talk, it allows us to listen in on the question period after a presentation that Dr. Rateliff gave in 2012 at Marquette University, the home of The Hobbit manuscripts. You can hear all kinds of intriguing details in the video about Tolkien’s habits of revision, surprises in the manuscripts, different versions of The Hobbit, and more.

Dr. Rateliff talks about how Tolkien would often write on scraps of paper, including exam papers. Tolkien tells the story of how the first line of The Hobbit came to him one day as he was marking exams. Rateliff’s History of The Hobbit notes that this page does not survive, but here is Tolkien himself describing the moment in this brief clip:

I’ve found that people are sometimes surprised that all of Tolkien’s papers aren’t at Oxford where he was a professor for most of his life. But in fact, manuscripts of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Mr. Bliss, and Farmer Giles of Ham are all in the US at Marquette University (in Milwaukee, Wisconsin) in the J.R.R. Tolkien Collection  How did they get there, you might well ask? Listen to the Marquette archivist, William Fliss, explain:

I’ve spent a number of happy hours in the Tolkien archives at Marquette, although my experience is a mere glimpse compared to the years that Dr. Rateliff studied there. I’ve felt quite privileged being able to work in the bright and peaceful reading room of the archive, aided by the very helpful staff and surrounded by stacks of grey boxes filled with treasures.

Marquette Archives reading room
Marquette Archives reading room

For anyone wondering about what’s in the J.R.R.Tolkien Collection, you can check out their descriptive inventory of holdings. Aside from Tolkien’s manuscripts, the Collection is especially rich in periodical literature dealing with Tolkien. If you are interested in popular culture, the reception of Tolkien’s works, the history of fandom and zines, screen treatments and adaptations, take a look at this list of sources in the Collection’s periodical literature. I reported on a roundtable discussing various scholars’ experiences (including my own) with the archives at the Popular Culture Association last year.

The other major archive holding Tolkien materials, as might be expected, is at Oxford in the modern manuscripts collection. Here you can find some manuscript drafts of Tolkien’s work, such as The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, as well as lectures, notebooks, translations, letters. Anyone with a chance to visit Oxford should definitely take an opportunity to tour the old and wonderful Bodleian Library, including the Duke Humphrey’s reading room (better known as the library in the Harry Potter movies).

But Tolkien’s papers are actually held in what was called the New Bodleian across the street from the old library. Scholars used to work in a fairly cramped reading room. You would check your bags at the door and after showing your reader’s pass proceed down a rather dark corridor into a long, crowded room at the end of the hall. Rows of tables seemed to be squeezed into the space between bookshelves, files, microfilm readers, and librarians’ desks. I think I remember windows, but if I recall correctly, they were rather high up on the wall and did not provide a view. But who cared when you were sitting there and handed a Tolkien manuscript to read! I spent many an hour in that room squinting at Tolkien’s scrawl and then typing at a furious pace to transcribe as much of what I was reading as possible before closing time.

That library has undergone an extensive renovation and has just recently opened to scholars and now to the public, renamed as the Weston Library. From the look of some videos and news reports the rooms are light and spacious — and apparently you can even buy a cup of coffee there! I can’t wait to go back — I hope very soon. The following video presents the mind-boggling massive extent of the Bodleian’s operations and includes a look at the new Weston building:

Anyone have any experiences or memories of archival work they’d like to share? Has anyone visited these or any other archives holding Tolkien materials?

5 responses to “Talks on Tolkien: John D. Rateliff, the Hobbit manuscripts, and Tolkien archives”

  1. Fascinating! I wonder if any the great writers of our time will have collections like this? So much is done digitally. Something about actually seeing the writer’s handwriting makes it more real–they were real, they touched this paper.


    • It’s a great experience being able to handle a writer’s papers. You get to feel like you’re recognizing the author’s moods through their handwriting. Tolkien writes a very neat and beautiful script when he’s revising carefully or rewriting to see how a piece looks, but there are other times when he seems to be writing at a fast and furious pace in almost a straight-line scrawl, probably when he’s trying to get some new ideas down. (Or maybe just trying to write quickly in limited time). If you have several drafts of an author’s work, you can even reconstruct to some extent the process of the author’s thinking by looking at the deletions, insertions, and reorderings in the manuscript. Today, if someone writes entirely in digital form, we won’t be able to see that unless they also print out their drafts or alternate between digital and handwritten drafts and revisions. With handwriting, though, there’s a real sense of physical presence that you don’t get with digital screens or printouts.


      • That’s pretty cool. I’d like to think that one day someone might do the same with the snippets I write in notebooks. Sadly, most of my stuff is digital so a lot will be lost (if anyone cares to know, that is!)


  2. […] pass to get into this part of the library though **). I’ve written about the experience of working in the old reading room; I was not disappointed by the new one, which is a large space, with full-length windows between […]


  3. […] pass to get into this part of the library though). I’ve written about the experience of working in the old reading room; I was not disappointed by the new one, which is a large space, with full-length windows between […]


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