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Here’s your chance to become part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s oral history – The Coloradoan

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Amazon, who paid $250 million alone for the rights alone to make a ‘Lord of the Rings’ prequel, could reportedly spend $500 million or more for two seasons on production and marketing on the series. USA TODAY

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Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s rich mythological worlds are not shy about their love for the author of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Hobbit.”

Now Marquette University – which has an extensive collection of Tolkien’s notes, manuscripts, first drafts, maps and artwork – wants to hear from fans for an oral history project that hopes to collect 6,000 recordings. 

Why 6,000 oral histories? Tolkien aficionados already know this, but for folks who have never heard of a hobbit, that’s the number of riders of the Rohirrim.

The Tolkien Fandom Oral History Project launched recently with little fanfare but is now ramping up to include fans who can’t come to Milwaukee to give a short spiel on why Tolkien is the greatest author ever.

The official announcement is Monday, which happens to be Tolkien Reading Day, an annual event to encourage reading the works of Tolkien. Why March 25? That’s the day in Tolkien’s timeline when the ring was destroyed.

All are welcome to participate in the oral history project whether they be fans of the books or fans of the movies, or both; whether they be elves, hobbits, humans, dwarves, wizards or orcs. Actually, probably not orcs, who were not fans of anything.

“Marquette is kind of a pilgrimage site for Tolkien fans. I thought we should collect their voices,” says William Fliss, curator of Marquette’s Tolkien collection.

Fans are given just three minutes to briefly expound on why they love Tolkien. To help people distill their thoughts, Fliss asks them to answer three questions:

  • When did you first encounter the works of J.R.R. Tolkien?
  • Why are you a Tolkien fan?
  • What has he meant to you?

Everyone must sign a donor agreement form, which makes the interview a gift to Marquette and becomes part of the Tolkien collection. While oral histories have been done in person so far – around 65 have been collected – Fliss has worked out a way for people who can’t come to Milwaukee to record their oral history.

Rather than waiting to reach his goal of 6,000, Fliss will publicly release the oral histories and add them to the Tolkien collection in groups of 120. Because in “The Lord of the Rings,” a division of Rohirrim fighters, called an eored, numbers 120.

Is he hoping famous Tolkien fans like “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” director Peter Jackson, “The Late Show” host Stephen Colbert and former President Barack Obama will volunteer to record their thoughts? “I would certainly welcome that,” Fliss says.

Though Tolkien scholars and ardent fans know about the collection at Marquette, it’s surprising to many who wonder how a Jesuit university in Milwaukee ended up with more than 11,000 pages that basically represent the creation process of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit,” as well as lesser-known books “Farmer Giles of Ham” and “Mr. Bliss.”

When Marquette built a new library, it hired librarian William Ready in 1956 to fill book shelves. Ready contacted Catholic writers, including Tolkien, a linguist whose expertise in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English languages formed the foundation of a rich imagination that created the world of Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, Aragorn and Gollum.

Through an agent, Ready was the first to ask Tolkien if he’d sell his papers. Tolkien said yes in 1957. It was as simple as that.

Marquette purchased a treasure trove of papers that include the bound volume of final page proofs of “The Hobbit” featuring a list of names who would get 10 free copies from Tolkien’s publisher. Toward the top of the list the initials “CSL” are crossed out, perhaps because Tolkien’s close friend C.S. Lewis received a free copy to write a newspaper book review.

The Marquette collection includes pages where Tolkien wrote his stories on student essay books and scraps because paper was scarce during World War II. On the back of an air raid warden’s report – Tolkien was a warden during World War II – he jotted observations of the moon to help him figure out a lunar calendar for “The Lord of the Rings.” There’s also a menu that Tolkien used to write down the size of a hobbit’s foot to figure out how fast and far a hobbit could travel.

In addition to Tolkien’s papers, Marquette also collects Tolkien fandom, including fanzines, books, calendars, toys and movie memorabilia. 

Each interview will be transcribed and available to search by keywords. Names will be kept private but ages and hometowns will be available.

Marquette student Caitlin Helmers, who recorded her oral history this month, became a fan at age 9 when her mother read “The Hobbit” to her shortly before the movies were released. Part of the appeal of Tolkien for Helmers, who loves medieval history, is his vivid writing.

“I’ve always admired the way, as an author, he can create evocative scenes. All of the books have a really positive message about working together, about not needing to be a big important figure to get something done,” says Helmers, who is studying international affairs.

Tolkien is the rare writer who attracts new readers with each generation, since “The Hobbit” was published in 1937 followed by “The Lord of the Rings” in 1954. Like Helmers, many people who have given their oral histories so far were introduced to the author by a parent.

What people have chosen to say about Tolkien is illuminating.

“Some people spend all their time talking about how they encountered him while others might mention that very quickly and then spend their time talking about what he meant to them or why they’re a fan,” says Fliss.

“I’m struck by the number of people who Tolkien has helped them to cope with difficult moments of their life.”

To participate in Marquette University’s Tolkien oral history project, contact archivist William Fliss, william.fliss@marquette.edu, to schedule an in-person interview. If Tolkien fans can’t come to Milwaukee, they can schedule a videoconference interview.

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