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The Art of the Manuscript Exhibit at Marquette University and My Experience with Tolkien Gatekeepers

Dec. 5, 2022 at 2:58PM

What was your childhood obsession? We all have one. Or multiple. Maybe for your adolescent years, all you wanted to talk about, read about, and learn about was polar bears. Or perhaps you were a Power Rangers kid. You knew all the characters, had all the toys, and had the matching bedspread. Maybe it was Pokémon or Polly Pockets. Or perhaps you were like me. You were obsessed with The Lord of the Rings

I still remember standing in a Blockbuster—yes, a Blockbuster—on a Friday night when I was a kid, no more than nine years old. I stared at The Fellowship of the Ring box cover—I’m pretty sure it was a VHS—and I swear that film called to me. From what I could tell, it was a fantasy, with swords and horses. Everything that was totally up my alley. So I added it to the pile.

My mom was out with her sisters, so it was a dad-and-daughter movie night. He brought my sister and me to Blockbuster to pick out a few movies for the weekend and swung us through the McDonald’s drive-thru. We loved Fridays. 

I think about that night often, especially as I stand in the Haggerty Museum of Art on the Marquette University campus staring at pages written by J.R.R. Tolkien himself. The museum currently has a collection of his first manuscripts of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings on exhibit

That film has been a focal point in my life. And has helped me overcome more than I thought I was capable of. From bullying to sexism, The Lord of the Rings has been with me almost every step of the way.  

I’m going to save us a lot of trouble and immediately say that I’ll be referring to The Lord of the Rings as just LOTR. Saves some space, you know?

Forging of the Obsession

My dad and my sister fell asleep on the couch during LOTR. But I was perched in the recliner, my eyes glued to the screen for two hours and 58 minutes. As the final scenes drew closer, I heard the front door creak open and my mom walk in. She was about to scold me for staying up so late when the movie caught her attention. Like me, her eyes were fixed on the screen. We watched the last half hour together, and she turned to me and said, “This is really good!” 

So good, we pushed my dad and sister off to bed, rewound it, and started over from the beginning, snuggled  under the same blanket on the couch. 

My dad wasn’t a huge fan of films. He was more of a gun-slinging Western fan. Plus, he never could get over Gollum/Sméagol—the character apparently freaked him out. 

But my mom and I couldn’t get enough. My sister, to her credit, enjoyed watching the films with us, though she’d never let anyone at school know that. For Christmas the following year, I unwrapped what I thought was going to be a book. Instead, it was a thick, green DVD case for The Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition. And I watched all of it. Appendices and all.

The following year, my mom said she had heard on NPR that the sequel to The Fellowship of the Ring was coming to theaters. Yes, this was back in the day before you heard about movie releases on social media. And I don’t think I ever saw a preview for a LOTR movie until The Return of the King. 

Mom took us to see The Two Towers (2002) in our small-town rinky-dink theater, and initially, my sister and I thought the film would be about 9/11. It was still fresh in our minds, especially as 10 and 8-year-olds; getting two towers and twin towers mixed up was easy. I remember trying to make the twin tower connection for the whole film.

“No,” my mom said. “The books came out long before 9/11.”

During the opening scene of The Two Towers, the camera pans over familiar-looking mountains while the sounds of Gandalf trying to vanquish the Balrog echo in the distance. The film cuts to the Mines of Moria, where Gandalf stands on the bridge of Khazad-dûm and yells his famous line, “You shall not pass!” before slamming down his staff and cracking the bridge. At that moment, my sister turned to my mom and said in a loud, whiney voice,  

“We’ve already seen this part!”

After shushing her, my mom and I watched Frodo wake from a nightmare, and The Two Towers continued. 

For Christmas the following year my mom  handed me a familiar-sized present. My heart leapt as I tore away the colorful paper to reveal the brown box set of The Two Towers Extended Edition. My Godfather had caught on to my latest obsession, and I secretly think he thought it was cool. He used to get me Barbies for Christmas, but switched to a pocket knife and a BB gun when he learned what a tomboy I was. That particular year, he got me LOTR Monopoly, equipped with a Ring of Power and all. I even wore the Monopoly ring around a chain to school, just like Frodo. 

Whenever my cousins came over, I put LOTR on in the background and forced them to play LOTR Monopoly with me. When I was 20, we sold my childhood home and somehow that LOTR Monopoly got lost. But, for my 26th birthday, my mom found the same game for sale on eBay and surprised me with it. We still play it from time to time.

My mom was supportive of my obsession. She didn’t even hesitate to buy me a Legolas poster from K-Mart and adored all of my LOTR-themed art projects I brought home from school. She even took us to The Return of the King on opening day in theaters—I’ve never had to pee so bad after a movie. Part of me wishes everyone had been that supportive.

Gatekeeping Gandalfs

As I was sitting in 7th-grade art class, creating a wind chime in the shape of Mount Doom, one of my classmates came up to me and said, 

“You know everyone thinks you’re obsessed with The Lord of the Rings.”

“I know,” I tried to sound nonchalant, like I didn’t care that people were talking about me behind my back. But they were. And soon, they started saying things about it to my face. 

One male classmate would quiz me on all of the film actors to ensure I wasn’t a poser. I had so much trouble pronouncing John Rhys-Davies’ (Gimli) name that I’d get, “Ha! See, you don’t know!” 

To be fair, Rhys, pronounced “Reece,” always looked like “Rye-es.” It was one of those situations where sounding it out totally didn’t help. 

The worst memory, though, came from an incident with upperclassmen.

I was riding the bus home, talking to my crush at the time. He was in the grade above me, and I mentioned my obsession. I explained I had seen all the movies, could name all the actors, had my Legolas poster, and that I had all of the dialogue memorized. Still do, by the way. My crush turned to his friend and said, 

“[Friend’s name] loves LOTR, don’t you [Friend’s name]?”

His friend turned to me, eyes narrowed. 

“Are you really a LOTR fan?” he sneered.

I told him I’d seen all of the movies. 

“That doesn’t count. You’ve never even read all the books.”

And it’s true, at that point, I hadn’t.

He told me that I didn’t know anything, that I was stupid, and that LOTR wasn’t for girls. It never worked out with my crush. I can’t imagine why …

Not wanting to be proved wrong, I went to the school library the next day to check out The Hobbit. I knew it was the prequel, so I thought that would be a better place to start. I found a copy and brought it up to the check-out desk. The library assistant—not even the actual librarian—looked at the book and then at me. 

“Monica, are you sure you can read this?” she said. “It’s not an easy read.” 

I wanted to ask why this library had the book if it was too hard for 7th and 8th graders to begin with. However, I assured her that I could even read it hanging upside down. Reluctantly, she scanned the book and handed it to me. I did try reading it upside down, but it hurt my brain. I read as much as possible, but I couldn’t finish it in a week. When I asked for an extension, she gave me a wry, I told-you-so look. And took the book back without the extension.

When I told my mom, she gave me money to buy The Hobbit and LOTR box set at the Scholastic Book Fair. And I read them. And loved them. And, yeah, they were hard to read when I was 13. But seeing the movies actually helped me get through them. I at least recognized some of the names and could follow the plot a lot easier. I will say much of the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring doesn’t really happen in the movie, but I still love both equally.

I didn’t realize it then, but these kids in my class and the damn library assistant were gatekeeping LOTR. Just like Gandalf when he tried to stop the Balrog from crossing the bridge, yelling, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS.” 

I passed anyway. 

Middle school and high school are hard. Especially when the thing you love is one of the reasons no one likes you. Especially when you get to high school and all the girls who bullied you read LOTR because it’s cool now. Though, I’m happy it’s cool now. It makes me feel like a trendsetter. 

I may have toned down my obsession in middle and high school, but I’ve always been proud that I didn’t let those bullies and gatekeepers prevent me from loving LOTR. On my loneliest days, those films were a rock for me. I dreamed that one day I’d have a group of friends—a fellowship—and that we would go on grand adventures. And now, I do.

My extended collection
My extended collection

The Obsession Goes Ever On

When I saw that Marquette University would host a collection of Tolkien’s works, I was sitting in a car in the middle of a dusty Iowa cornfield with my boyfriend. Why? We were leaving a music festival. It might seem odd to drive all the way to Des Moines, Iowa for a music festival, but LOTR woke up the adventurer in me, so it seemed only fitting that I was on one of my own adventures when I found out about the exhibit.

My boyfriend, bless his soul, did not hesitate to book us tickets. A few weeks later, we were standing inside the small gallery, with its tall, vaulted ceilings. It was dead quiet, except for the shuffling of shoes and slight whispers.  The butterflies in my stomach began to bubble up and hot tears began to sting my eyes. The years of childhood trauma rose to the surface. Every memory of a peer or a teacher being rude or condescending about LOTR to me flicked across my mind. But when I saw the first piece, written by Tolkien’s incredible hand, I laughed to myself, and all those mean things people said to me didn’t matter anymore. 

It was incredible to see. Tolkien’s handwritten drafts. The edits on a typewriter manuscript. Illustrations and maps drawn out. The timeline of events after Frodo sails from the Grey Havens to the Undying Lands. It’s a small exhibit but will stir emotion in any Tolkien fan.

I was happy to see the variety of ages in the museum. Kids around the same age I was when my obsession first started. College students, adults, and seniors. We all stood together to appreciate the world Tolkien built. The world that brought us all together. 

But why Marquette? What is the Milwaukee connection here? It turns out Marquette University has an extensive Tolkien collection thanks to William B. Ready, the library director from 1956-1963. He knew right away that LOTR would be a masterpiece and procured some of the original manuscripts from Bertram Rota—a rare book dealer in London—for less than $5,000. Tolkien was even scheduled to speak at Marquette University twice but had to cancel each time due to family matters. Apparently, at the time, Marquette was one of the first institutions to express interest in these manuscripts, and I’m so happy they did. Maybe Ready felt the same way about LOTR that I do.

One final thing I want to say to all those gatekeeping bullies who are upset over the casting in the new LOTR spin-off, The Rings of Power. Get over yourselves. Tolkien didn’t write this just for you. It clearly impacts thousands of people regardless of gender or race. Like me, they can find comfort in these stories in moments of darkness and doubt. LOTR was my light in the dark. And I’ll be damned if you think you can take that away from anyone. 

And to all the people who didn’t love LOTR and bullied me for loving something. I feel bad for you. I feel bad that you’ll never love something like this that can bring you so much joy and happiness. 

And to all the little girls out there that loved something, but were told it wasn’t for girls, don’t stop loving it. Use it as your armor, as your light in dark places when all other lights go out. Because one day, you’ll be older and wiser, and so glad you didn’t let those bullies steal this from you. 

The exhibit runs until December 23, 2022. I know I’ll be going again. You can book your tickets here and simply walk into the exhibit.

About the author

Monica Cull

Monica is a writer, editor, weekend warrior, and professional concert goer.