My name is Catherine McIlwaine, and I have been the Tolkien Archivist at the Bodleian Libraries for 15 years, University of Oxford. I've spent the past five years curating the biggest-ever exhibition of Tolkien materials, which is open at the Bodleian until 28 October and will go to New York's Morgan Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France next year, and I edited the accompanying catalogue, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth

I'll be answering your questions live from 11.30am EST (4.30pm here in the UK) until 1pm EST. I'll have colleagues from the u/bodleianlibraries account helping me out in case there are too many questions to answer in one go. I’m looking forward to my first AMA.


UPDATE: It's time for this AMA to end. Thanks for all your great questions. I've really enjoyed answering them all. Happy Hobbit Day for tomorrow!

Comments: 111 • Responses: 24  • Date: 

philthehippy33 karma

Hi Catherine,

Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions today.

I am still engrossed in Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth and Tolkien Treasures, both have become instant must haves in my Tolkien research, my heartfelt thanks for the work by all of you at the Bodleian.

I would like to know how many documents were in a publishable form but not used for the exhibition books? Could we see more archival papers released in the future? We would all dearly love to see more from Tolkien's archives published in the form of letters, notes and his remaining unpublished fragments. HarperCollins, yourselves and the Tolkien Estate have an opportunity to publish more works that we are all waiting for.  

TolkienArchivist66 karma

There is still unpublished material in the Tolkien archive despite Christopher Tolkien's heroic efforts over the last 40 years to edit and publish his father's work. The wonderful thing about archives is that new material keeps on coming to light, such as the map of Middle-earth annotated by Tolkien and his illustrator Pauline Baynes, which was discovered in her archive in 2015. The Bodleian Library was fortunate enough to be able to purchase this unique map and it is now on display in the exhibition.

Mr-Squig22 karma

What is your favourite Tolkein fact, favourite display/presentation piece, and favourite book quote?

TolkienArchivist68 karma

There is so much wisdom in The Lord of the Rings. I think Gandalf's words to Frodo are quite profound, 'All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.' But there's lots of humour too and I especially like Bilbo's speech at his birthday party where the guests don't know whether they've been praised or insulted.

Mr-Squig14 karma

Thank you for your reply! The speech about knowing half of the guests half as well as he'd like and so on, was my first experience of true wordplay (I was eight when I first read LotR) and it had stuck with me ever since.
What is your favourite piece/exhibit currently on display?

TolkienArchivist46 karma

I love the leaves from the Book of Mazarbul. It's as though you are looking at an artefact from Middle-earth, rather than a drawing. It shows Tolkien combining his knowledge of medieval manuscripts with his skills as an artist to produce something wonderful. I was also very excited to borrow Tolkien's pipes from the children. I was lucky enough to handle them before they were placed in the exhibition case and I could still smell the tobacco that Tolkien smoked. That was a special moment.

TolkienTolkien20 karma

Can you tell us anything about your contact with Christopher Tolkien please? And what is was like to work with him?

TolkienArchivist46 karma

Christopher Tolkien generously loaned some of his father's precious relics to the exhibition, including his pipes, paints, boxes of coloured pencils and sealing wax (used on the letters from Father Christmas). It is wonderful to have the support of the family and their contributions have made it an extra special exhibition.

OnlyWritesTimeTravel19 karma

If you could go back in time to 1970, what would you want to ask Tolkien? And what would you want to show or tell him from today?

TolkienArchivist87 karma

I think I would be too over-awed to ask him anything! Someone came to see the exhibition last week and they told me that they had written to Tolkien in the 1960s to ask if the Ents ever found the Ent-wives. Tolkien wrote back and told him that they didn't and that it was a very sad tale. I think that is something I'd always wondered about.

es_price19 karma

How often do you interact with archivists for peers like CS Lewis?

TolkienArchivist33 karma

The Bodleian holds lots of amazing literary archives including the papers of Tolkien's fellow Inklings, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams and some of the papers of C.S. Lewis. I'm lucky to work with Dr Judith Priestman the curator of modern literary manuscripts at the Bodleian who looks after these collections.

I am also in frequent contact with my fellow Tolkien archivist, William Fliss, who works with the Tolkien archive at Marquette University in Milwaukee. We often share information and compare notes. It's great to have someone else to talk Tolkien with!

curlybamboo12919 karma

How many Tolkien materials are there?

TolkienArchivist53 karma

The Bodleian Library holds the largest Tolkien archive in the world. We have over 500 boxes of manuscript material and over 300 volumes from Tolkien's working library.

marumotch18 karma

Hello Catherine!

I visited “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth” two months ago, and was surprised to see so many delicate materials exhibited. What was the most difficult to you when exhibiting the stuff?

Also, I was very impressed by the 3D map of Middle-Earth. Will it be displayed in your library after the exhibition in BnF was over? It would be a pity if it were to be destroyed.

TolkienArchivist27 karma

The Book of Ishness is particularly tricky to display as it is partially disbound and is also one of the earliest manuscripts. Due to the nature of this item, I was unable to display the beautiful coiled dragon inspired by Beowulf. I love this tiny painting but it clashed with the Land of Pohja and a tough decision had to be made. Luckily I could include lots more items in the exhibition catalogue which eased my pain slightly.

We hope that the 3D map will live on after the exhibition. It is an extraordinary item and has been a big hit with visitors in the exhibition room.

TolkienArchivist17 karma

Thanks for all your great questions. I've really enjoyed answering them all. Happy Hobbit Day for tomorrow!

ChaoticScott15 karma

I imagine you must be a fan to have dedicated so much of your career to Tolkien. When did you first get introduced to his books?

TolkienArchivist55 karma

I am a huge Tolkien fan which makes being the Tolkien Archivist my dream job! I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was about 14. I have two older brothers and I had sneaked into their bedroom (strictly off limits to me!) to see if they had any books to read. I spotted a well-worn single volume copy of LotR on their bookshelves. It had an eye-catching cover design by Pauline Baynes. I took it back to my own room and was immersed in Middle-earth for as long as it took to finish. My only complaint was that it was too short.

GoodLordChokeAnABomb14 karma

How many Balrogs were there, and did they have wings?

TolkienArchivist31 karma

I think Christopher Tolkien might have written the definitive answer. In Morgoth's Ring he quotes from his father's writing, 'There should not be supposed more than say 3 or at most 7 ever existed'. I would defer to his superior knowledge. Personally I have always imagined them with wings.

TheTolkienist9 karma

It is obvious curation of such a wealth of material is on the hand a pleasure as there is so much to chose from and on the other hand very difficult because thematic choices have to be made. Thanks to the support of the Tolkien family (and many others, of course) this exhibition is absolutely unique.

What were your guidelines in chosing certain topics to be presented more prominently than others? It is obvious the 'artistic' side of JRRT's creativity is very much prominent (calligraphy, drawing and painting, maps etc.) whereas, for example, the academic side is not as present.

TolkienArchivist18 karma

The exhibition space at the Bodleian is fairly small so there were difficult decisions to make. I made the decision to concentrate on the three major works: The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Over half of the exhibition is taken up with these and sadly this didn't leave space for Farmer Giles or Smith of Wootton Major.

I was keen from the outset to include biographical information so that visitors could find about more about Tolkien as a person and place his creative work in the context of his life.

I also wanted to create an exhibition that would appeal to all ages and to all types of readers, from the Tolkien expert to the Tolkien novice. Tolkien's artwork made this a very easy task, from his doodles on newspaper to his watercolour illustrations for The Hobbit, there is something for everyone.

TwiceAsShiny9 karma

Did Tolkien write more on the nature of orcs? I remember reading somewhere that he never had the heart to pen them down as irredeemably evil creatures and I wonder if you’ve ever come across anything in his archives that supports this.

TolkienArchivist16 karma

I think you're right that Tolkien did not want to portray anything or anyone as irredeemably evil. His characters are nuanced and each contains a measure of light and darkness. Certainly his conception of orcs seems to change over his lifetime and become less black and white.

Duke_Paul8 karma

Hi Catherine, thanks for doing an AMA.

This seems like it would be a really neat job. What's your average (work) day like? Also...what does an archivist actually do? I confess I don't really know. Finally, I'm putting together a casual LotR-themed quiz for my coworkers in a few weeks and I'd be honored if you would contribute a piece of trivia or question I could include.


TolkienArchivist18 karma

I love working with archives. Archives are unique items such as diaries, letters, account books. They can also be unique digital items such as blogs or word documents. When you work with archives, you feel as though you're at the forefront of historical research. You get to see original documents before researchers and historians - it's very exciting to open a new box of archival papers and know that you're the first person to see this material.

Although I work on the Tolkien archive every day, I never get bored. I pore over Tolkien's manuscripts, transcribe Elvish texts and create lists and indexes to help researchers. I advise academic researchers who visit the library and help them to decipher Tolkien's handwriting. I answer queries by email from around the world - I never know what will be in my inbox!

abbamouse7 karma

I'm researching the politics of Tolkien -- both the political myths propagated by his works and his own politics. I have three questions:

  1. Will there be material at the Morgan library not at the Bodleian exhibit?
  2. Is there material in the present exhibit which will not be making the trip to the Morgan Library in 2019?
  3. Have you run into anything that might shed light on my topic when preparing the exhibit? Views on nationalism, gender, race, political virtue, and leadership would be useful.

TolkienArchivist15 karma

The Morgan Library will be including additional items in their exhibition but not all the material on display in Oxford will be going to New York. They have a different space to fill so it will be a slightly different exhibition focussing on Tolkien's literary works.

Your third question might be difficult to answer in the time available! I find the most useful resource on Tolkien is his published letters. Every time I look at this volume I seem to discover something new.

abbamouse4 karma

Yes, they are very useful. I pretty much have or have access to all of his published material. It's the unpublished, un-mined data that I'm really interested in -- but I don't know what's in the various archives, esp. the Bodleian.

I have a follow-up question: you said the Bodleian Library has many boxes and books. How much of that is accessible to academic researchers? (I know that the family collection, MS B, and MS S are not yet available, but I don't know how much of the archive that comprises). I have to make some tough decisions about how to spend a limited research budget over the next couple of years.

TolkienArchivist10 karma

About half the archive is currently available to academic researchers. I'm happy to share details of the material which is available - please do email me at the Bodleian to further your research.

peet-the-cat7 karma

What was your interview like? How did you land your job?

TolkienArchivist11 karma

I've been working at the Bodleian Library since 1992. After a year I was asked to work on the Tolkien archive, so I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

ibid-119627 karma

Hi, right now the exhibit is free in Oxford. Will it remain free when it comes to New York?

Also, are there any plans to visit further locations, like Marquette University in Milwaukee?

TolkienArchivist20 karma

All exhibitions at the Bodleian Library are free and open to the public seven days a week. The Morgan Museum in New York will be charging an entrance fee so come to Oxford before the 28th October and see the exhibition in Tolkien's city!

The exhibition will not be travelling to Marquette University in Milwaukee but Marquette has generously loaned some wonderful manuscripts of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit from their own collection to make this an extraordinary exhibition. Thanks Marquette!

thesphinxistheriddle7 karma

When you were curating the collection, did you learn anything that surprised you?

What, in your opinion, is the most interesting piece in the collection (happy to hear about more than one of you just can’t choose!)?

TolkienArchivist24 karma

I learnt so much whilst preparing the exhibition. One of the highlights was visiting the Tolkien archive at Marquette University in Milwaukee where Tolkien's original manuscripts for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are kept. I was so excited to find his original title page for The Lord of the Rings, where the book is called 'The Magic Ring'. It's clear that he started writing it as a children's book - a sequel to The Hobbit - but it quickly outgrew this fairy tale title and grew into an epic work requiring a mor grown-up title.

mudflapjackson7 karma

Hello, thanks for doing this AMA!

Does immersing yourself so deeply in all things Tolkien affect your daily life outside of work? For instance, Do you avoid reading fantasy all together for personal enjoyment? What are your thoughts on the forthcoming Amazon series?

TolkienArchivist19 karma

Tolkien has certainly taken over my life in the last few years while I've been immersed in planning the exhibition and writing the book. I talk about Tolkien so much at home that my husband started dreaming about Tolkien! I do love my job though and I even took the extended DVD version of The Lord of the Rings on holiday with me this year.

-Non-nobis-domine-7 karma

Hi, Catherine,

What colour is Legolas's hair?

TolkienArchivist20 karma

I always imagined Legolas with dark hair as he was one of the wood-elves of Mirkwood but I don't think that Tolkien specifies in The Lord of the Rings. Most Elves had dark hair and grey eyes, like Tolkien's beloved wife, Edith. The House of Finarfin, which included Galadriel was the exception with golden hair.

RiseofBubblez7 karma

When did you first become interested in Tolkien’s works? How did you become an archivist for them? Also, who’s your favourite character in all of Tolkien’s works? You surely have one

TolkienArchivist16 karma

My favourite character is Faramir. I like the combination of wisdom and bravery tinged with sadness. I also love the Ents, particularly Quickbeam.

ghostinthewoods6 karma

Hey Catherine, thanks for this awesome AMA! What is the strangest thing you've ever seen in the Tolkien archives?

TolkienArchivist30 karma

The archive contains Tolkien's lecture notes on Old and Middle English. On a page of lecture notes on vowel changes in Old English Tolkien has written the opening lines of the Old English poem Beowulf, in Elvish!

Lexel_Prix5 karma

What would you say is your favorite original Tolkien story?

TolkienArchivist15 karma

The Lord of the Rings is my favourite book - ever. I have lost count of the number of times I've read it.