MILWAUKEE — To complete the ultimate quest of "The Lord of the Rings," Carl Hostetter has left his home in Maryland to navigate roaring rivers and cross vast plains -- all to stride bravely through looming masoned gates in search of a nearly hidden glass door.
As he seeks to step closer to the mythical world created by J.R.R. Tolkien, Hostetter ends his journey at a place where few expect to find Middle-earth: Milwaukee.
For here, inside Marquette University, rests the world's preeminent collection of J.R.R. Tolkien's best-known literary works.
The original text for "The Hobbit," his first published book, is here. So is the manuscript of "The Lord of the Rings." There are hand-drawn maps. Rejected epilogues. Abandoned chapters. Elvish songs. Mounds of paper scraps. More than 11,500 items written by his hand.
Acquired at a time when fantasy was considered trash by many academics and literary critics, Marquette's collection of the Oxford professor's writings, poetry and drawings now is considered priceless.
"To see these papers is the closest thing you can get to sitting in the same room with him," said Hostetter, 38, head of the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship, an international nonprofit organization that studies a number of Tolkien's invented languages. He has visited the collection twice.
"You can see, examine -- almost feel -- not only his work, but his genius," he said.
Public fascination with the British author and his legacy at Marquette has swelled in recent years because of the incredible popularity of the film trilogy based on "The Lord of the Rings." The final movie, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," won 11 Academy Awards last month.
"It used to be we got academic researchers and the occasional visitor wearing a cloak and Hobbit feet," said Matt Blessing, head archivist for Marquette's special collections. "Since the movies came out, the phone's been ringing constantly. Everyone wants to see where it all began."
For nearly half a century, "The Lord of the Rings" has mesmerized readers with one of the most compelling fantasy stories of the 20th century.
Written as a single and massive tome, the book was broken into three for marketing purposes, and published in 1954 and 1955. The tale follows the trials of an unlikely group of hobbits, elves, dwarfs and men as they attempt to destroy the One Ring, the ultimate icon of evil. Virtually every fantasy novel, science-fiction computer game and swash-buckling adventure film of modern times has been inspired by the saga of Middle-earth.
"This isn't someone knocking out the latest fantasy by the pound to make a buck," said Edith Crowe, a research librarian at San Jose State University and a member of the Mythopoeic Society, a nonprofit international literary and educational group that studies fantasy books. "This was a life work."
Millions of people have been consumed by the esoteric world Tolkien created. Researchers across the globe study and speak Tolkien's invented languages, while others bring the trilogy to life through music, painting and live-action role-play -- where fans dress in costume and act as if they live in Middle-earth.
Since the first film's release in 2001, through the end of last year, Americans bought 26 million copies of Tolkien's epic tale. And the number of visitors to Marquette's collection has grown sixfold, averaging about 3,000 people a year.
By scouring the Internet, wading through reference books or simple word of mouth, inspired fans track down the secret at Marquette and come to cherish the Tolkien artifacts tucked away inside the Raynor Memorial Libraries, the university's high-tech research facility.
Nearly everything here speaks of the digital age. Computers are steadily overtaking the dwindling number of books. The floors, raised and covered with carpet tiles, are designed to allow access to data and electrical lines. Elevators with brushed steel doors lead to conference rooms that open only by electronic keycards.
But at the end of a winding staircase, in a back corner of the third floor, one room hearkens to another era, to a time of literary magic. The hallowed, wood-paneled room houses the library's special collections.
Most visitors come to the Jesuit college's reading room for research, and spend hours poring through piles of microfiche and dusty books. Tolkien followers come to gaze raptly at a glass display that takes up one entire wall, floor to ceiling.
"It's atypical to have any sort of exhibits inside a reading room like this, let alone one this prominent," Blessing said. "But so many people are interested in the collection, there's never been any question. We need to show at least some of what we have."
A letter Tolkien wrote to a supporter in 1963 rests near the ornately decorated dust jackets from the first edition of "The Lord of the Rings," in which dragons and dwarfs intertwine with the trees. Handwritten sheets from the opening of Tolkien's 9,250-page "Rings" manuscript are mounted for viewing.