15 Marquette A long expected party.jpg

Book 1, Chapter 1, "A Long-Expected Party", 1939, Marquette University © The Tolkien Estate Limited/The Tolkien Trust 2019-2020, used with permission



Across the Atlantic, the curators and staff at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are putting the final touches on the exhibition this weekend. As many of us prepare to travel to Paris for the opening events, I took a few minutes to ask some questions of William Fliss. Bill is the Archivist at Marquette, where a significant portion of Tolkien's artwork and manuscripts are kept and from where many of the materials that will be on display next week were loaned.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you became the archivist at Marquette?



I am a Wisconsin native. My academic background is in History. I have been at Marquette for 16 years. I came here as a part-time, limited-term project archivist to process the papers of Tommy G. Thompson, former governor of Wisconsin. Over time the position evolved into a full-time, permanent position. I began working with the Tolkien Collection in 2012 when the former curator and head of special collections left for a position elsewhere and I assumed the role of interim curator. I was doing so well that our new department head decided to make my curatorial role permanent. I have enjoyed working with the Tolkien Collection for the past 7 years. It has allowed me to meet a lot of interesting people. I was a Tolkien fan from an early age and so I knew the published works well, but I have had to learn an enormous amount about the collection. I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity. I did not come to Marquette to work with Tolkien. It just turned out that way.

How large is the Marquette Tolkien collection, and how often do items from it get shown publicly?



Marquette’s collection encompasses the original manuscripts purchased in 1957 as well as a vast gathering of secondary sources that document Tolkien Scholarship & Fandom. The manuscripts are the heart of the collection, of course, and represent four of Tolkien’s fictional works: The Hobbit (1937), Farmer Giles of Ham (1949), The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), Mr. Bliss (1982-posthumous). The entire manuscript collection, encompassing all four works, amounts to over 11,000 pages of material. See the question below for more on the public showings.

What projects are you working on to grow the Marquette archives, and to make it more accessible to scholars and other visitors?



There is a lot going on with the Tolkien Collection right now. We have three major projects underway right now. The first is a reprocessing of the manuscripts for The Lord of the Rings to integrate additional manuscripts that Christopher Tolkien sent from 1987-1997 with the original shipment of Rings manuscripts that arrived in Milwaukee from Professor Tolkien in 1958. This is being done digitally, and I hope it will make the collection easier to navigate and understand for scholars visiting Marquette. Second, we are building a site called FellowsHub where we are cataloging and publishing digitized Tolkien content from historic fanzines. Third, we have begun a project called The Tolkien Fandom Oral History Collection that captures 3-minute interviews from Tolkien fans sharing their experiences.

What do you feel is unique or special about the BnF exhibition?



The scale of the exhibition. It will be huge, especially with the inclusion of the Aubusson Tolkien Tapestries, which I am very much looking forward to seeing in person. Marquette has never loaned this many manuscript leaves to another institution since Tolkien’s death in 1973. The BnF borrowed over five times the number of manuscripts that we loaned for the “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” exhibition at the Bodleian Libraries last year which also showed in New York City at the The Morgan Museum & Library earlier this year.

About how many items did Marquette send to Paris for this exhibition?



We loaned 80 leaves from the collection to the BnF. A leaf can contain more than one ‘page’ if there is something on the verso, but usually only one of the pages is showing if the leaf is lying in a display case or mounted on a wall. The breakdown of leaves is:

  • The Hobbit – 8 leaves
  • Farmer Giles of Ham – 3 leaves
  • The Lord of the Rings – 58 leaves
  • Mr. Bliss – 11 leaves

  • Most of the Mr. Bliss leaves are folded folios that can contain up to four pages. They borrowed about 2/3 of that entire work.

    Do you have a favorite or particularly meaningful exhibit from Marquette that you are excited will be widely visible to to the public next week? How about from the Bodleian or the BnF collections?



    Among the items we loaned is a page of plot notes from early in the writing of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien wrote the name ‘Sam Gamgee’ in pencil in the margin of the notes. It seems to be the earliest mention of Sam in the manuscripts. It gives me chills to think that when I am looking at that page I am witnessing in a sense the birth of Sam who is such an iconic character, much admired by Tolkien fans around the world. I cannot answer your second question because I have not seen lists of what they have contributed. I am looking forward to being surprised and delighted.

    Are there items in the Marquette archive that are too fragile to travel to exhibitions such as this one?



    Not really. From a condition standpoint, everything was an option.

    Do you have future exhibitions or showings planned for any of the Tolkien materials in the Marquette archives?



    Eight times a year I do public showings of selected manuscripts from the collection. I will also do showings for classes that visit, both from within Marquette University and from outside educational institutions as well. In terms of outside exhibitions, there is nothing scheduled right now. From a preservation standpoint one does not want the manuscripts to travel too much! I suspect there will be future showings.




    Thank you very kindly to Bill for answering these questions, for years of support and friendship with the Tolkien community, and for all his effort to support the BnF in this exhibition. For more information about the exhibition, see

    The TolkienGuide page for BnF news

    and

    The BnF page for "Tolkien, Voyage en Terre de Milieu" (in French)
    or The BnF page for "Tolkien, Voyage en Terre de Milieu" (in English)

    160 Marquette Minas Tirith.jpg

    Earliest sketch of Minas Tirith, October 1944, Marquette University © The Tolkien Estate Limited/The Tolkien Trust 2019-2020, used with permission