Inklings

The Tolkien Fandom Oral History Collection with Archivist William Fliss

(Welcome to Inklings Week 2021! You can find all the posts here. Be sure to also follow the International Inklings Instagram account here. Hope you enjoy!)

Back in 2019, I came across the call for fans of Tolkien for Marquette’s Oral History Project – an “effort to document Tolkien Fandom, the Department of Special Collections at Marquette’s Raynor Memorial Library is building a collection of brief testimonials from Tolkien fans.” Naturally I signed up immediately (you can listen to mine here). 

The project continues, with the goal of “6,000 audio interviews, one for each of the Riders of Rohan that Théoden mustered and led to the aid of Gondor.” The curator, William Fliss, was kind enough to join this year’s Inklings Week, sharing more about the project! If you’re a fellow fan, be sure to sign up! 

Thank you William for joining us! 

Archivist William Fliss

The Hobbit saved my life.”

“If Frodo and Sam can get to Mount Doom then I can handle what I’m dealing with.”

“The legendarium has been my star-glass, my light in dark places when all other lights go out.”

These words come from fans of the Inkling J. R. R. Tolkien, captured in a collection I am building in the Department of Special Collections and University Archives at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, called the Tolkien Fandom Oral History Collection. If you are a Tolkien fan, please consider contributing an interview!

Since 2012 I have served as curator for Marquette’s celebrated Tolkien Collection. It surprises many people to learn that Marquette University owns the original manuscripts for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, acquired directly from Professor Tolkien in 1957. These manuscripts are the heart of Marquette’s collection; however, over the decades Marquette has also sought to document the fandom that has sprung up around Tolkien and his works.  

This new oral history collection is one of my contributions to that effort. The concept is very simple. Tolkien fans of all ages and levels of intensity are invited to contribute a brief interview to Marquette. Each fan has up to 3 minutes in total to respond to 3 questions: (1) when did you first encounter the works of Tolkien? (2) why are you a fan? (3) what, if anything, has he meant to you?

Simple, right? Well, some people struggle mightily with the 3-minute limit, but it does force the fans to concentrate on what has been truly important to them in their relationship with Tolkien’s works.  Each audio recording and its accompanying transcript are uploaded to a digital collection on the library’s website where they can be enjoyed by other fans or studied by scholars of Fan Studies. (Yes, there is an actual academic field call Fan Studies, complete with its own peer-reviewed journals!)

The idea for this project sprang from the fact that Marquette is a pilgrimage site for Tolkien fans. Fans passing through Milwaukee often stop by the archives. We keep an exhibit of reproductions of selected manuscripts on display in our reading room. (Unavailable at present because of the pandemic.) After meeting many such fans and chatting with them about their experiences of Tolkien’s works, it dawned on me that if I wanted to document contemporary fandom, these are the voices I should be capturing.  

I have built the collection around the image of the Muster of Rohan from The Lord of the Rings. In that story, King Théoden gathers his riders from across the Riddermark and leads 6,000 of them on a desperate ride to lift the siege of Gondor. My goal is to gather interviews from 6,000 fans, one for each of the Rohirrim that rode to Gondor’s aid! I chose this number with my heart and not with my head. I realize now just how long it will take me to get there, so if you are reading this and love Tolkien, please consider contributing an interview.

I am building the collection gradually. Keeping with the spirit of the “Muster”, I group the interviews into éoreds of 120 fans, the éored being the basic unit of the Rohirrim. After an éored fills, I upload its interviews to the site and begin work on the next one. I am also assembling the interview text into a dataset that can be downloaded from Marquette’s institutional repository. My hope is that digital humanists will analyze the interviews and report on interesting patterns or commonalities across them.

I have collected over 600 interviews so far. My own study of them to date has been based on impressions rather than systematic analysis. Having listened to every interview more than once, I am struck by the number of people who came to Tolkien’s works through a parent or older sibling; and I marvel at how many of these fans have introduced their own children to the works or intend to do so in the future. This gives me great confidence that Tolkien will remain a popular author for generations to come.

I am also impressed by how much Tolkien has meant in people’s lives, especially his role in helping people overcome hardship. As the quotations above indicate, fans turn to Tolkien for strength and comfort in hard times. It can be grieving the loss of a loved one, overcoming addictions or disabilities, struggling with depression, enduring bullying, wrestling with despair—you name it—people have found in Tolkien’s works the hope to persevere.

If you are interested in learning more about the collection, I will be giving a presentation called “Forth now, and fear no darkness!”: Reflections on the Tolkien Fandom Oral History Project at Marquette University at the Digital Moot hosted by the wonderful Prancing Pony Podcast.

Please consider contributing an interview. All fans are welcome!

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