Middle to Earth to Marquette: Art historian co-curates Tolkien exhibit

What: J.R.R. Tolkien: The Art of the Manuscript

Where: Marquette University Haggerty Museum

When: Now thru Dec. 12

Tickets: $10/person, $8 for seniors and veterans. Visitors must register for a time slot at the Haggerty Museum of Art’s website.

In a room at Marquette there lived The Hobbit manuscript. And the manuscript of The Lord of the Rings. And more than 11,000 pages of drafts, notes, stories, and illustrations of celebrated author J.R.R. Tolkien’s meticulous work.

Marquette University purchased Tolkien’s manuscripts and notes for the institution’s archives in 1957, and has added to the collection in the decades since. Those materials are currently on display at Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum of Art through Dec. 23 as part of the museum’s “J.R.R. Tolkien: The Art of the Manuscript” exhibit.

The exhibit’s co-curator is Sarah Schaefer, an assistant professor of art history at UWM. She was delighted to help bring Tolkien’s collection to the public and sat down to talk about Tolkien’s work, the exhibit, and her own love for The Lord of the Rings.

First question: Are you a Tolkien fan?

Of course. I guess my fandom emerged around the same time I thought about art history as a career, but I never though the two would be married. I knew when I moved to Milwaukee that there was a big Tolkien archive at Marquette, and I half-thought, wouldn’t it be great if someday I could do something with that?

And you did! How did you come to be a co-curator?

Bill Fliss, who’s the archivist of the Tolkien collection at Marquette, does semi-regular public viewings. I signed up for one of those in 2018. He saw that I had a UWM email address and we connected at that viewing.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I was a meeting with the head curator at the Haggerty – I had curated a show for them a couple of years earlier. It was a meeting about a totally different project, and a date was brought up. The date March 25 was the date (in the books) that the Ring was destroyed, so among Tolkien fans it’s a holiday.

We’re in this meeting and the date March 25 was thrown out. My knee-jerk reaction was, “Fall of Sauron Day!” (One of the people there told me) she was going to a meeting later that day about an exhibition that may be happening on Tolkien at the Haggerty. I was like, I don’t want to push my way into this project, but if there is any way I can be involved, I would love to make that happen.

Had you ever curated a show like this before?

There were three major Tolkien exhibitions in recent years. There was one at the Bodleian (Library at University of Oxford), which is the other main repository of Tolkien’s archives, and then that was repackaged and mounted at the Morgan Library in New York. Then there was one that just recently happened in 2019 at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. I had seen the one in Oxford and the one in New York. I already had a good sense of what had been done at these earlier exhibitions.

Bill was concerned we were not going to be able to put on the same kind of show that the Bodleian did, so what could be done to make a solid contribution to the literature and the fandom? I had seen the other shows, so it was easy to develop a concept with Bill.

You settled on the theme, “Art of the Manuscript.” How did you land on that?

We wanted to create a show that was distinct in some way from the earlier shows. We started thinking: What is the strength of the Marquette collection? And it is the manuscripts – the manuscript pages for The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and then two short stories: Farmer Giles of Ham and Mr. Bliss. There are 11,000 pages of manuscripts, and the whole development of his opus of The Lord of the Rings.

Are there any highlights of the collection that you can tell us about?

There are certain things that we would characterize more as images or artworks in Marquette’s collection, and primary among those for us are these draft pages of the “Book of Mazarbul.” If you remember in the books and in the movie, when they go into the Mines of Moria and find the Tomb of Balin, they find a manuscript there. It’s the dwarf-chronicle that tells of what happened to the dwarves that tried to reinhabit the mines, and it ends with the lines, “Drums, drums in the deep. We cannot get out. They are coming.” That’s how the Fellowship finds out that the orcs had overtaken the dwarves in Moria and they were all dead.

This is such a great object and brings together a lot of the themes of the exhibition. It’s a hand-written manuscript within the story of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien himself was a scholar of languages and literature and knew so much about medieval manuscripts. He created these pages that are supposed to be facsimile pages of that “Book of Mazarbul.” You can see the writing in the different script forms and the different languages that Tolkien created as well. The finished pages are at the Bodleian and we included them in the show, but all of the draft versions are at Marquette. If you go to the exhibition, all of them are brought together – the draft pages and the finished pages.

How does one curate an exhibition like this? How do you create the experience you want guests to have?

Early on, we identified a number of different audiences we wanted to speak to. Bill and I are both uber-fans, and we wanted to speak to other super-fans, and people who might have gotten to those other exhibitions or had their catalogues. We also wanted to include things that may have been in the other shows that would appeal to the people who hadn’t gotten to see them, or who are maybe more casual fans.

One of the things that I draw people’s attention is a page where we can see what is almost assuredly [Tolkien’s] own tears. When he was writing the chapter, “The Field of Cormallen,” when Frodo and Sam are being praised after the destruction of the Ring, there is a letter that he wrote to his aunt in which he says he “blotted the page with his own tears,” and we have Sarah Schaefer this one manuscript page where you can see the smudge right at that part.

And, this is probably the last opportunity in a generation that people will have the opportunity to see the actual real objects, particularly at Marquette. The originals have essentially been retired for 40 years now because these are not very stable pieces of paper. They cannot be exposed to much light and they’re very valuable, obviously. If you’re the type of person who would get a kick out of, and maybe tear up yourself, at seeing his own tears on a piece of paper that he wrote on, this is probably your last chance to do so for quite a while.

Did you ever get chills handling the materials that Tolkien himself handled?

Oh yeah. A big reason that I’m a Tolkien fan is because my dad is a Tolkien fan. He re-read it every other year.

Oh really? My dad used to read The Hobbit to my sister and me when we were kids.

It seems like that is so often the case! At the opening, my dad was there and my husband was there. When I was doing my remarks, I cried calling out my dad’s presence because it was so seminal for me getting into Tolkien.

Why now? Was the exhibit meant to coincide with the release of the new Amazon series, or was it just time?

It was pretty firmly set as in 2022 from the get-go. The release of the show was pure coincidence. There are some places where I think people will be able to draw connections to what’s in the show. There is an emphasis on The Lord of the Rings, because that’s a big chunk of what is at Marquette, but in the last section … is a series of heralds, emblems, that he created for different major figures in the broader legendarium. People who were watching the show and come to the exhibition might see those names and draw those conclusions.

Speaking of the show, there has been some controversy surrounding the decision to cast actors of color. Working with Tolkien’s original manuscripts, do you have any thoughts?

First off, and this is the case when doing any kind of analysis for an author who is no longer around, you have to take into account that they cannot respond to these kinds of criticisms.

And, it’s a fantasy world. The idea that it should strictly adhere to some kind of imagined medieval past that isn’t even real is ridiculous. And even in the legendarium, even in places where there are communities or groups – other than the orcs – that seem wholly bad, if you dig deeper into his thinking, there are things that complicate or nuance that. … You can always find answers to combat the rigid ideologies of people who claim that “there are no Black elves.”

I would whole-heartedly agree with the statement that The Lord of the Rings is not racist, and I don’t believe Tolkien was racist. But everyone is a product of their time, and no one is perfect. There are things that I think that any person who reads these books or engages with this material with a critical eye may struggle with a little bit, and I have those same struggles as well. But ultimately, I think the values and ideas that he espoused in these books about friendship and pity and humility are all things we should espouse and try to adhere to.

Did you learn anything new?

So many things! The thing that I always come back to, being a fan and having read enough of the additional material around The Lord of the Rings, is knowing how much time he spent on the secondary world. I have a deep appreciation for that. But having gone through some of the archives, it was even more mind-blowing to me, the stuff that he was able to achieve, the number of realms he committed himself to, the level of precision and excellence that he dedicated to all of these things.

We were going through some of his scholarly papers, and he created these charts of Old English vowel changes across a couple of manuscripts. We saw pages and pages of him developing this, and this is not something he published. This is something he made for his own research, for teaching purposes.

And he still had a social life and was dedicated to his family! He seemed to have a really well-rounded life. That is inspiring to me, that he could maintain his dedication to teaching, to research, to the story that millions and millions of people so deeply love – but also have friendships and a great family life.

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science