Just after Christmas 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the first sentence on the first page of what would become his "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy:
"When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bad End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton."
This is the threshold of Tolkien's imagination, the place where his ideas about hobbits and elves and rings flowed from mind to pen to manuscript. This is the Holy Grail for Tolkien scholars.
And this Holy Grail is now - surprise! - in Milwaukee, Wis.
"Good instincts and good timing" is how Matt Blessing, head of special collections at Marquette University's Memorial Library, explains the fact that virtually all of Tolkien's original manuscripts, including 1,586 pages of "The Hobbit," 9,250 pages of "The Lord of the Rings" and assorted other manuscripts and drawings by the British author, ended up where they did: In a temperature-controlled vault in a basement room in the library of a small Midwestern university.
Tolkien, after all, lived and worked quietly in Oxford, England, and never set foot in the United States. But for more than four decades, most of the fruits of that life's work have called Milwaukee home.
The good instincts that brought Tolkien to Milwaukee, Blessing explained, belonged to the late William Ready, a Welshman who arrived at Marquette in 1956 as new library director. He had become an ardent fan of a couple of fantasy books that many of his friends and colleagues didn't quite take seriously, "The Hobbit" (1937) and "The Lord of the Rings" (1954-55). Trusting his taste, he went about procuring Tolkien's papers the old-fashioned way:
He asked for them.
"Tolkien scholars have been dealing for years with the mystery of how the papers ended up here, but I think it was probably that Marquette was the first to ask," Blessing said.
Manuscripts of contemporary authors were not much prized by libraries at that time.
"Forty years ago," Gotlieb said, "it was unheard-of to collect the papers of a living author. [Tolkien died in 1973.] There had to be a little madness attached. You'd be subject to a great deal of ridicule. It was, `Why take a chance on someone who might not be worth it?' But I think curators have to take chances."
Looked at from another angle, however, the audacity of going after the manuscripts of living authors at the time helped eliminate the competition. Thus for 1,250 British pounds - about $35,000 in today's American dollars - the deal was struck. In today's market, the manuscripts would fetch at least several million dollars, according to some reports.
Since then, Blessing said, the library has seen "a steady stream of scholars," including Tolkien biographer Humphrey Carpenter and doctoral candidates who need to ascertain if, say, on Page 234 of the second draft of "The Two Towers," Tolkien used a semicolon or a period on Line 14.
Scholars use microfilm copies of the manuscript, not the actual pages, in order to protect it. "If everybody who ever did research here had touched it, the manuscript would be in rough shape today," Blessing said.
Samples of the actual pages, however, are on display in the archives, mounted behind protective glass. Even through that barrier, the pages are remarkable to behold; anyone who knows the book would be enthralled to see the very first manifestation of its rollicking songs, its long-winded and many-chambered story.
The manuscripts demonstrate how the saga took shape, as Tolkien revised some chapters several times and scrapped others altogether, changed names and rearranged incidents according to an intricately unfolding plan. There was nothing slipshod or spontaneous about "The Lord of the Rings." And Tolkien embellished the text with lovely pen-and-ink maps and drawings that he hoped would end up in the published version - although many did not, owing to the cost of publishing illustrations.
Frodo's sidekick Pippin, for instance, originally is called "Folco."
Had Tolkien not made a change on the title page, which reflected a change in his mind and heart, the book's history might have been quite different: As a look at the manuscript reveals, he wrote "The Magic Ring," drew a line through it, put a question mark just below it, and wrote, "The Lord of the Rings."
"By then, he knew this was going to be an adult novel," Blessing explained. The title "The Magic Ring" struck Tolkien as too childish, too similar in tone to "The Hobbit," regarded primarily as a children's book since its 1937 publication.
Originally planned as a sequel to "The Hobbit," which he undertook at his publisher's request, Tolkien gradually realized he had another kind of story to tell, a darker and more complex one. Hence the multiple drafts of "The Lord of the Rings."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times