The Archivist’s Nook: “The Road Goes On” – The Making of the Tolkien Exhibit

The poster advertising our 2023 exhibit on Tolkien.

Every year, on the week of the 22nd day of September, the passionate community of J.R.R. Tolkien’s enthusiasts gather together all around the world to pay tribute to the creator of Middle-earth. This date wasn’t selected arbitrarily. On September 22nd,  Bilbo and Frodo famously celebrate their concurrent birthday in the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings, and now, on the very same day, Tolkien fans and scholars everywhere share in the birthday festivities by celebrating “Hobbit Day” and expanding this event into a full week, aptly named “Tolkien Week.” Here in Special Collections, we are celebrating Tolkien week in our own way, with the opening of our new exhibit, “The Road Goes On: Exploring Tolkien’s Influence through Catholic University’s Special Collections and Rare Books.

It all started with a wonderful rediscovery of a book signed by J.R.R. Tolkien’s son, Christopher (you may have read about it earlier in our blog). But this was just the beginning. Upon seeing our blog post, a former Rare Books staff member reached out to us to share that he remembered seeing a book signed by J.R.R. Tolkien himself. We had neither a map, nor a secret key, but the search was on, and luckily for us, it didn’t require walking through “dungeons deep and caverns old.” The book was rediscovered within a day.

The famed signature of “Ronaldus Tolkieu” who is attempting to render his name in Latin.

Much as we are indebted to Christopher for keeping his father’s legacy alive, our excitement over seeing a book signed by J.R.R. Tolkien himself was much stronger. This excitement grew, once we realized the nature and timing of the signature and what story it could tell. This was not the iconic signature of a respectable Oxford Professor of great literary renown which we see on his letters and autographed books, but the signature of an undergraduate, who just arrived at Oxford in October 1911, leaving behind his life and school at Birmingham. It predates not only his major works, but even his very first attempts at writing about Middle-earth. All of this started during his undergrad years.

We felt such a discovery deserved something more than a mere blog post. Besides, we wanted to share the story and our excitement over it with the public. Thus, plans for an exhibit were underway.

This book, by John Garth, gives insight into what Tolkien’s time at Oxford may have been like.

When thinking about the exhibit, we were struck and inspired by the ways in which Christopher Tolkien, who devoted his life to bringing his father’s manuscripts and unfinished works into the public realm, had once again unwittingly been the means of unveiling another missing piece of his father’s story. We began to think about the ways in which J.R.R. Tolkien’s works have influenced others (our own CatholicU community as well as Catholics of all ranks and ages in our country) and the things that had influenced his own worldbuilding and ignited his imagination, from Nordic to Welsh. 

Bilbo Baggins sings a song on the day in which he leaves the Shire on the night of his birthday. It goes, 

“The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.”

This, we felt, embodied Tolkien’s legacy as a road which would lead the walker to new and interesting places, long after Tolkien himself had gone. 

A poster for a talk given by Dr. Meyer about his friendship with Tolkien. A reproduction of his notes for the talk can be found at the Catholic University archives.

Our exhibit is divided into three sections. First, there are items related to J.R.R. Tolkien and his life and works, as well as the work carried on by his son. Then, we showcase books and materials from three cultures that heavily influenced Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Finally, bringing the exhibit closer to home, there is a section on some notable alumni and professors of The Catholic University who were inspired by Tolkien’s writings. Some became major Tolkien scholars and others – even his friends (such as Robert T. Meyer, to whom we are indebted for the donation of both Christopher and J.R.R. Tolkien’s signatures and many other materials in our Rare Books and Archives). In this section, we have also included examples of other Tolkien-related materials in the Tower or USCCB Office of Film and Broadcasting collections preserved in the Catholic University Archives. 

The exhibit can be seen in the main reading room on the second floor of  Catholic University’s Mullen library throughout the Fall 2023 semester, but a digital version of the exhibit (which may include some “extras” as all director’s cuts do!) can be accessed online

While preservation concerns had led us to placing a facsimile of our signed Tolkien book in the exhibit, we encourage anyone interested to make an appointment with Rare Books (reachable via email at to view the original. Much like Bilbo, we will never turn down a visitor, although you will forgive us if we do not offer you tea and seed cakes, as they are bad for the books.

Share this:

Leave a Reply