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A Tolkien Dream Come True by Linaewen

Author: Linaewen
Title: A Tolkien Dream Come True
Rating: G
Theme: Nonfiction
Subject: The story of a trip to hear a lecture on The Hobbit and how it was a dream come true.
Type: Personal narrative
Author's Notes: Some of what is shared here was posted previously as a blog post at the time of the original lecture, but I have added other memories and experiences for a more complete narrative about a Tolkien dream of mine that ended up coming true.
Word Count: 3009 as counted by Jarte

A Tolkien Dream Come True

I was reminded recently, when watching the extra features included with the extended versions of The Hobbit films, of a lecture I attended about 10 years ago, on the subject of the writing of The Hobbit.  What reminded me of this was the fact that one of the people who was providing background information for the Hobbit DVDs was John D. Rateliff, who gave the lecture I attended.  Rateliff is a Tolkien scholar, author of The History of the Hobbit, a fascinating look at the whole process of Tolkien’s writing of The Hobbit, including all the revisions and edits Tolkien made over the course of time.  Rateliff had some fascinating background tidbits to share on the film DVDs, all the more enjoyable because I still remember well how much I enjoyed hearing his lecture, even after all this time.  I kept good notes about my trip to hear the lecture -- it really was the trip of a lifetime, and a dream come true for me.

I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was in junior high school -- I think I must have been twelve years old or so. It wasn't long afterwards that I was collecting books on Tolkien as a writer as well as anything else Tolkien-related I could get my hands on. I discovered in those days that my state of residence had the honor of being the holders of a vast collection of Tolkien's original manuscripts, at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

I always that it would be such an amazing thing to see, and it became a dream of mine to one day go there and visit the collection, to maybe see some of Tolkien’s manuscripts first hand. But Marquette was just far enough away from where I lived to make it awkward, and then I was off to college and grad school and getting married and living overseas…  And well, it just never happened.

But at last my opportunity came, after I had almost forgotten about the dream.  I was living with my husband and son not far from Milwaukee at the time, and I was made aware of a lecture that was taking place at Marquette to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the obtaining of the Tolkien collection. The lecturer, John Rateliff, was a graduate of Marquette, and had spent much time in the archive doing research for his Hobbit book.  It sounded fascinating -- and remembering my dream of one day visiting the collection, a friend and I made arrangements to go together to hear the lecture.

After driving to Milwaukee from my small town (a new adventure in itself!), we got there plenty early, because we wanted to be sure to see as much of the Tolkien manuscript collection as the general public was allowed to see, before the lecture began. When we arrived, we couldn't get into the library proper, because we were too early! You had to have an ID or be registered as a guest to enter the library; we were actually registered, but they weren't ready for us yet. So we waited in the vestibule, until the person with the guest name tags showed up.

While we were waiting, a small school group came through, and from what we overheard them saying, we realized they were there for the lecture as well -- but they got to go in for a special tour, while we had to wait! However, shortly afterwards, the woman with the name tags arrived, and we were able to go in and up to the special collections area.

We were pleased to discover that the school kids' tour was still going on, so we listened in, and the librarian giving it said we could come up closer so we could be included -- though he was really speaking for the benefit of the kids, and didn't repeat anything he had already said before we turned up.

We couldn't see the display cases until the kids had moved away, but we did hear what he was telling them about the papers displayed. What was displayed were authentic-looking photocopies, because the original manuscripts are really just Tolkien's writings on cheap paper and envelopes and school notebooks and such, and needed to be protected from degrading. They are stored in vaults, and even researchers don't get to see them very often. They use microfilm copies, and only get to look at them if the microfilm is illegible.

I was mentally and emotionally prepared for not seeing the "real thing" because I had heard they no longer displayed the actual manuscripts. It was enough to me to be in the place that housed them and see displayed copies! So imagine my excitement when I heard the librarian say he was going to let us see some original manuscripts, some that had recently come into the library's possession from Christopher Tolkien. Bless those school kids and their specially-arranged tour of the archive!

We all gathered around while he showed us what he had. The papers were each protected by a special plastic sleeve that could be handled without damage to the paper inside, which was pretty yellowed, but still quite readable and in good shape. There were about 8 pages written in fountain pen ink on what looked like paper pulled from a teacher's lesson planning notebook. That in itself made me feel rather nostalgic!  My dad, who was a teacher, used such notebooks all the time, and he always had extra ones laying about. They made great notebooks for scribbling notes or drawing pictures. I was a dabbler in writing even then, so I made good use of his spare ones. It was lovely to learn that Tolkien also favored such notebooks for his notes!

The pages themselves were fascinating. One page was a planned chronology, like what we find printed in the Tale of Years in the Appendices of LotR. The other pages were charts Tolkien had made to help him keep track of which group of characters was doing what on what day of the month, to help him keep it all straight as he wrote. It was amazing! He had it all laid out neatly, with little notes about what was happening to each important character or group of characters, next to the appropriate date, whether Fellowship, Allies, or Enemies -- and later, Gandalf, Aragorn, Frodo and Sam, after they split up and started having separate adventures. I was able to make out Boromir's name on the one that was near me, even reading upside down!

Once the school kids were done looking, my friend and I got in there and had a closer look. I was amazed at how easily I could read Tolkien's writing; it reminded me exactly of my dad's cramped scribble, right down to the use of a blue fountain pen, which he favored above all else! I read aloud the notes he had jotted about Boromir's death, Aragorn leading the Three Hunters in pursuit of the captive Merry and Pippin, and other familiar passages. It was so gratifying to realize I was actually holding Tolkien's notes, and not only that, notes about some of my favorite parts of the story!

It was a dream come true, for sure, and it all happened so naturally, without me even trying to make it so or worrying about it not happening. The amazing thing was, that if we hadn't gotten there early, we would not have been able to see the real manuscripts, because they were put away when the kids moved on, so we were actually the only ones to see them apart from the school group. What a blessing!

The photocopies in the display cases were pretty amazing, even so, and very authentic looking! Some of them were copies of what we had already seen in the originals, and others were things like Tolkien's notes about the Lonely Mountain from The Hobbit, a preliminary sketch of Thror's map, and an intricate chart of the phases of the moon with dates for use in the Lord of the Rings.

The lecture that followed later in the day turned out to be just as much a dream come true as the chance to view the collection was.  The following is reconstructed from my notes of what John Rateliff shared that really impressed me, plus some things he made reference to which I looked up afterwards and inserted appropriately. I wanted to have a written record of what I had heard and experienced, to serve as a report to those who weren't there -- and of course, as a memory of my dream come true!

The title of Rateliff's lecture was 'A Kind of Elvish Craft': Tolkien as Literary Craftsman. It was really very interesting, because, though he actually read right from his notes, he was quite engaging and funny and his presentation and points were extremely easy to follow, and well thought out. He shared some things I had never thought of before, but which, once he shared them, made perfect sense and I realized I had known some of it all along, but had never been able to put it into words.

The title of the talk -- "A Kind of Elvish Craft" -- refers to a passage from Tolkien's On Fairy-stories, where he says the following about making fantasy worlds credible:

Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say 'the green sun.' Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough — though it may already be a more potent thing than many a 'thumbnail sketch' or 'transcript of life' that receives literary praise. To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible... will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.

Rateliff's assertion was that Tolkien was adept at making that fantastic world credible and believable, because he was a master craftsman whose medium was ink, words and paper -- but most of all words.

Rateliff talked about how Tolkien strove to achieve applicability in his work and how he attained that through his descriptions -- or lack thereof. Applicability was very important to Tolkien, as he wrote in the Forward of the LotR: "I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author."

So, when Tolkien writes, he writes sparsely, withholding descriptive details -- because to give too much detail ruins the applicability of what he is writing. Rather than describing in painstaking detail what you are seeing, he makes you experience a particular scene from the inside by giving you just enough detail that you recall a time when you saw just such a valley, or lived through just such a blizzard, and thus the scene is made real for you because of your own experience and memory. You add your own memory to the picture he is painting, and it becomes very real to you -- credible. In fact, much of his description is done, not as the reader might see it, but as the reader might remember it, which makes it even more experiential. When you read Tolkien's words, you remember The Hill of your childhood, or The River by which you always walked, or The Valley that you came upon in that tour you once took through the mountains. You are in a world of fantasy, but it a world you know personally because Tolkien has reminded you that you have seen just such a place.

To illustrate this point, Rateliff read two passages, one by Tolkien -- happily, a favorite passage of mine from when the Fellowship is on Caradhras being buried in snow and Boromir lifts Frodo out of the drift when he begins to fall asleep -- and the other by another fantasy author whose name I didn't catch, giving a passage that describes a man going into a forest in such minute detail that one knew the color of everything and exactly what it looked like. Both were well-written, yet it was obvious that the Tolkien passage resonated better with the audience, because we were there on the mountain, experiencing the snow and the cold, while the other had us looking at the strange well-described forest as if we were looking at a picture or a painting -- visualizing it, but not really caring as much.

The next point Rateliff made was in contrast to his previous point about Tolkien's lack of descriptive details. In this case, details matter very much. Tolkien will sometimes depart from the norm of general description, and switch into giving greater, sharper details, appearing at times as special memories, felt or remembered keenly. Sometimes these special moments are so important to the essence of the scene that he is trying to portray that they are revealed even when a paradox results.

Rateliff here shared about a problem that exists in The Hobbit, where it is obvious that in one passage, the moon is the new sliver of a moon of Durin's Day, appearing in the sky as the sun is setting; yet only a matter of a few days later, the men of Lake-town are watching the stars shine out in the black of night when Smaug attacks, and the moon rises in the middle of the battle to reveal the weak spot in the dragon's breast. Rateliff followed Tolkien's attempts to fix this problem in the various drafts of the story, but in the end Tolkien could not reconcile all the details, without actually changing the passage that has the moon rising in the darkness instead of in the evening with the sun still setting. But this he refused to do, because that image of the moon shining at night was too important a moment to take out, simply to reconcile some details.

That led to Rateliff's third point, which he came to understand as he followed the course and the history of Tolkien's tale-weaving by comparing different drafts of his work. His suggestion is that Tolkien was aware of errors and discrepancies in his writing, and CHOSE to keep some of them because of the effect he wanted to achieve. He did not miss these errors, rather he consciously chose to ignore them, because to him it would spoil that vivid picture or moment he wanted to share. In some cases he tried to mitigate the effect of the error, to make it less obvious, but if the choice was between complete accuracy and the loss of a special experience, he would choose the experience over accuracy.

Sometimes, though, accuracy was all-important, and Rateliff talked about that as well, but not as part of his talk. It was at supper after the lecture, when my friend and I had a chance to briefly chat one-on-one with Rateliff, that he shared a fun little thing he had discovered in his comparing of the texts, where Tolkien had inexplicably changed a very small detail -- for what was probably a very valid reason: accuracy.

The lengthy list of food that Bilbo served Gandalf and the dwarves includes things like red wine, apple-tart, mince pies and cheese, pork-pie and salad, cakes, eggs, and cold chicken. In several of the drafts of the story, tomatoes were also included in the list, over and over again. But then, all of a sudden, the tomatoes become pickles, and that is what they remain in ensuing drafts, and that is what is in the text we know. Why the change from tomatoes to pickles? Such a small detail, and either would be tasty enough with chicken! Rateliff is convinced that Tolkien, ever conscious of being accurate, realized that tomatoes would not have been in season at that time of year, and so switched it to pickles. The man who was determined at all costs to keep a moon that didn't quite fit in the tale, still wanted to be accurate to the point that he could not use tomatoes that were out of season. (I have since read that tomatoes were also not native to the European world Tolkien was using as a basis for his Middle-earth, and therefore there was even more reason for him not to include them, in order to maintain consistency and accuracy.)

After the lecture, there was a question and answer session, which was quite enjoyable as well. The meeting broke up then, and we went off together in our little group for the evening meal. It was known that the University library staff was going to be taking Mr. Rateliff out to eat at a nearby pub, so my friend and I went there as well. As it turned out, our table was right next to theirs! It was a lovely, lovely place on the river, and the food was excellent -- not to mention the company! We spent an enjoyable evening chatting and visiting -- and we even got a chance to talk personally with Mr. Rateliff, for which I was so thankful. I was almost too shy, but I am glad I ended up speaking to him, because he was delightful.  He was so eager to talk about what is obviously his favorite subject, and it was a real blessing to be able to remember that sparkle in his eye as he talked about the tomatoes vs. pickles problem, and to learn something that no one else knew as yet who hadn't ever had access to the original manuscripts.

It was indeed quite a perfect day -- a dream come true -- and I shall never forget it!


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Aug. 21st, 2017 11:01 pm (UTC)
Oh wow, what a fabulous experience! I'm so happy you shared this with us.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )


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