Adding luster to a literary pilgrimage
Marquette enriches precious Tolkien collection with first printing of ‘The Hobbit’


December 22, 2016

Submitted photo

The cover of Marquette University’s latest addition to its J.R.R. Tolkien Collection.

MILWAUKEE - With manuscripts and working drafts of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and other J.R.R. Tolkien-related material, Marquette University was still missing something.

“The Hobbit” first printing first edition, an acquisition it made widely public this week.

“Not having a copy of this was like having a tooth missing from a smile,” said William Fliss, archivist and curator of the J.R.R. Tolkien Collection at Marquette, renown for its dental school.

“Marquette owns the manuscript for ‘The Hobbit,’ so we have all the various handwritten corrections for it,” Fliss said.

The collection does have many other English copies as well as versions in other languages.

“It fits in very nicely with ‘The Hobbits’ we do have,” he said.

He described the copy as in very good condition but without a dust jacket.

Published on Sept. 21, 1937, by George Allen & Unwin, the first printing sold out before 1938.

Building a collection

The first Tolkien works arrived at Marquette 20 years later, shortly after “The Lord of the Rings” was published in 1954-’55. William B. Ready, Marquette’s director of libraries from 1956-’63, recognized them as classics and purchased them for 1,500 pounds, or less than $5,000. Humanities study is a part of the Jesuit tradition, Fliss said.

The first printing of the first edition of “The Hobbit” follows the purchase of two Tolkien letters  as recent significant additions. And is on top of the mountain of other materials that includes 1,200 volumes of Tolkien books, 270 titles of periodicals, plus book reviews, studies of (invented) Elvish languages, poems, puzzles and videos. “The Hobbit” manuscripts alone number 1,586 pages, including corrected typesets and a holograph version.

“He did a lot of rewriting of chapters,” said Fliss, who has been curator since 2012 but at Marquette since 2003. “You can see his creative process develop over time and ... you can see improvement in them.

“Tolkien was a world builder.”

Because of the breadth of Tolkien and the stunning details, it’s hard to finger any one reason for his long-standing popularity, Fliss said. He added the popularity soared with the release of the Peter Jackson films, beginning in 2001.

Some things are universal.

“It represents a lot of values that you gravitate toward - loyalty, friendship, love, standing up to oppression, courage, perseverance,” Fliss said. “These values seem to grab every generation.”


The title page of “The Hobbit.” The first printing first edition was published by George Allen & UnWin on Sept. 21, 1937, in London.

Paying tribute

While academic and amateur researchers come from all over the world to study the works on the third floor of the Raynor Memorial Libraries, 1355 W. Wisconsin Ave., it’s also a place for fans to pay homage to the writer who died in 1972.

“We have, for lack of a better word, pilgrims. They are Tolkien fans who just want to make some kind of contact with the collection,” Fliss said.

People curious about Tolkien and the world he created can attend bimonthly showings of the collection. The next is at 2:30 p.m. Jan. 20 at the library. Fliss said he expects to have the Department of Special Collections and University Archives acquisition of “The Hobbit” on display. A lot of the collection isn’t hands-on.

For preservation purposes, researchers often work with photocopies or microfilm versions of the original manuscripts and sometimes printed versions of handwritten letters that can be hard to read. They can work with rare books.

“For the most part it's like coming to a museum and you can get a good look at it, but not handle them,” Fliss said.