Wheaton College has an open library commemorating Tolkien and the “Lord of the Rings” universe, formally known as the Marion E. Wade Center, at the college in Wheaton, Illinois. RNS Photo by Emily Miller
WHEATON, Illinois (RNS) — It started with an inkling.
It was the 1950s. Clyde S. Kilby, then an English professor at Wheaton College, had a feeling about a British author he’d been reading named C.S. Lewis — that he was “probably going to be famous one day,” according to Crystal Downing, co-director of Wheaton’s Marion E. Wade Center.
So Kilby wrote to Lewis and started collecting books and letters written by the author. He met some of Lewis’ friends and family.
Years later, he was traveling to England to work with Lewis’ Oxford University colleague J.R.R. Tolkien on “The Silmarillion,” a collection of stories that fill in the background of Tolkien’s beloved “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Decades later, the professor’s collection of letters and books has grown to become the Marion E. Wade Center, one of the foremost research centers not only on Lewis, but also Tolkien and five other British Christian authors who had influenced Lewis’ work.
Now the Wade Center is preparing for an influx of archival materials and interest as Tolkien and his fantasy world of Middle-earth have once again grabbed the spotlight.
After years of speculation, the first two episodes of “The Rings of Power” — the multimillion dollar prequel series produced by Amazon Studios and inspired by the appendices to Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” novels, debuted Thursday night (Sept. 1) on Prime Video, Amazon’s streaming service.
“Tolkien probably would never have gotten published if it weren’t for Lewis,’” Downing said.
“And, of course, Lewis wouldn’t be famous if it weren’t for Tolkien because Tolkien is the one who convinced him he could be a Christian.”
The Wade Center can feel like the evangelical Christian college’s best-kept secret, housed in a cozy building that looks like a stone English cottage nestled into Wheaton’s suburban Chicago campus.
Laura Schmidt, archivist and Tolkien specialist at the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College. RNS Photo by Emily Miller
But Laura Schmidt, archivist and Tolkien specialist at the center, said, “Tolkien knew about Wheaton College. He knew about the Wade Center.”
Pre-pandemic, the Wade Center welcomed about 10,000 people a year, ranging from elementary students from Chicago-area school districts to scholars from around the world.
Its archive includes books belonging to authors Lewis, Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams (including more than 2,400 from Lewis’ personal library alone). It also includes original manuscripts of their work, letters they wrote and oral history recordings of people who knew them.
Among its treasures are rare, autographed first editions of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Hobbit,” all featuring cover artwork designed by the author himself.
Marion E Wade Center, home to the Tolkien Library, is housed on the campus of Wheaton College in Illinois. RNS Photo by Emily Miller
An exhibit in the museum shows how those covers have changed over time, from Tolkien’s artful eye of Sauron circled by Elvish script to a 1980s paperback featuring an Olan Mills-style portrait of the dwarf Gimli and elf Legolas with flowing, romance-novel hair.
Another exhibit atop the dining room table from Lewis’ house displays merchandise that accompanied the popular “Lord of the Rings” films released in the early 2000’s and more recent films based on “The Hobbit.” There is a Lego scene of The Shire; a letter opener made to look like Bilbo Baggins’ Elven sword, Sting; even a board game.
The museum also features the small, nearly hobbit-sized desk at which Tolkien wrote “The Hobbit” and much of “Lord of the Rings,” as well as the dip pen he used to write, slightly melted on the end he used to tamp his pipe tobacco. Its most popular attraction, though, is the wardrobe carved by Lewis’ grandfather that inspired his beloved children’s story “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
Yes, there are fur coats inside.
On Tuesday, scholars from Ireland and Australia perused texts in the reading room, home to at least one copy of every book published by the seven Wade authors, as well as nearly everything ever published about them.
Meanwhile, across campus, members of the Wheaton College Tolkien Society shared their plans for watching “The Rings of Power” while manning a table at Wheaton’s club and ministry fair. The series had yet to premiere, and members were feeling both excited and apprehensive.
Elizabeth Church, president of the Wheaton College Tolkien Society, was one of several students helping to run a booth about the club at the school’s Club and Ministry Fair. RNS Photo by Emily McFarlan Miller
Tolkien Society President Elizabeth Church said that what drew her to Tolkien’s stories was the “found family aspect.” In the “Lord of the Rings” series, the Fellowship of the Ring brings together hobbits, elves, dwarves, humans and others for a single purpose: to destroy the one ring and defeat evil.
Church has found a similar family in Wheaton’s Tolkien Society, she said.
“We’re very much like the fellowship in the books in that we are a ragtag bunch of people who come together for one goal, which is to be a fellowship,” the senior said.
The first two episodes of “The Rings of Power” set up an epic battle between good and evil. In one of its opening scenes, a young Galadriel, who will become the elven Lady of Lórien in “Lord of the Rings,” questions how to recognize the light when evil masquerades as good.
The answer comes near the end of the episode: “Sometimes we cannot know until we have touched the darkness.”
Light and dark, good and evil are themes found throughout Tolkien’s work, Schmidt said before watching the new series.
And Schmidt, who advises the Tolkien Society, expects the series to get dark.
The Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College includes a wide variety of memorabilia including cards, miniature swords and other decorations symbolic of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” series. RNS Photo by Emily McFarlan Miller
It’s drawn from writings set before the events of “Lord of the Rings,” when the evil sorcerer Sauron is handing out what Schmidt jokingly called “friendship rings” to men, dwarves and elves that he’ll later use to control Middle-earth. It’s a long time before the conclusion of “The Return of the King,” the final book in Tolkien’s series, when good ultimately triumphs over evil.
Those themes are also part of the reason why the author’s work not only endures nearly 70 years after it first was published, but also has inspired what has been called the most expensive TV show ever made.
“I think that’s going to really resonate with people in this time and era now, because there’s a lot of darkness that we’re trying to figure out. That’s why these books are pertinent to our time, and it’s going to, hopefully, inspire hope in people’s hearts that the fight is worth fighting,” Schmidt said.
“Maybe we’ll get a ‘Return of the King’ in a few years.”
SOUL CONDUCTOR: Don Cornelius, dead at 75, transformed American culture with 'Soul Train.'
“Peace, Love, and Soul.”
That’s how he used to bid us adieu at the close of every show, that bespectacled man with the velvety voice and cool disposition. The apparent suicide death of Soul Train creator and host Don Cornelius caught us all off guard, while immediately transporting us back to those more soulful days of yesteryear — pre-MTV days, when the music wasn’t just an afterthought but the main event.
We tuned into Soul Train each week to see our favorite soul and R&B stars, sometimes for the very first time. (The four sisters of Sister Sledge looked as cute as they sounded, and imagine my shock as a 6-year-old to discover that Elton John was white!) But we mostly showed up for the array of colorful dancers — to check out their moves, to see what they were wearing, and to imagine ourselves right there with them. We knew that if we didn’t see any other black images on TV all week, we could at least see ourselves on Soul Train every weekend. Don Cornelius, the radio-deejay-turned-television-impresario, gave that to us — a refuge for African American pride and empowerment disguised as a TV dance show.
In honor of Mr. Cornelius, we asked our UrbanFaith columnists and regular contributors to share their favorite memories of Soul Train. Check out their reflections below the video, and then share yours in the comments section. — Edward Gilbreath, editor
MEMORIES OF ‘SOUL TRAIN’
It was soon proven otherwise, but Don Cornelius through Soul Train, told me I was a good dancer. Every Saturday morning after cartoons went off, feeling like a grownup, I’d tune in to move to the music any kind of way just like the Soul Train dancers. Going down the Soul Train line, some of them looked so crazy. But at home, bounding through an imaginary line of people, so did I. Don Cornelius made it cool to love music enough to dance no matter what. By the time I came along, his ’fro wasn’t as big, but the cool he carried was bigger than life. And I felt just as hip rhythmlessly dancing with my own portion of soul. — DeVona Alleyne, staff editor and contributing writer
I am very saddened by the death of Don Cornelius, a black legend! Back in the ’70s and ’80s before the dominance MTV or BET, there were very few outlets to see my favorite R&B acts like Michael Jackson, New Edition, or DeBarge perform on television. Since my parents were pretty conservative at the time, I wasn’t allowed to watch Soul Train but as a lifelong R&B and pop culture aficionado, I found ways to watch this great show without “technically” breaking the rules. I wasn’t allowed to go inside of childhood friends’ homes either unless my parents knew their parents. I remember I had one friend who allowed me to literally sit on the pavement outside of her apartment. We would speak to each other through the open window, and if she happened to have Soul Train on the television behind her, who was I to say what she could watch inside her home? I remember that one light-skinned woman with extra long black hair that whipped around her body (pre-Willow Smith) as she danced on what seemed like nearly every episode for years! I couldn’t wait until I got a perm so I could whip my hair around like that! A towel wrapped around my head sufficed until I finally got a perm. I remember all of the fresh dance moves that would not be duplicated on American Bandstand, even though I was a fan of that show too. Simply put, there was nothing else like that show at that time, an oasis of black grooves and moves in a desert of white programming. RIP Don Cornelius … —Jacqueline J. Holness, contributing writer
I’ll never forget Soul Train, from the chugging train at the intro to the various incarnations of the Soul Train dancers. Don Cornelius made this show an institution that definitely shaped the culture and gave us memorable performances on the stage and dance floor. — Dr. Vincent Bacote, contributing editor
Being in a military family, every so often we’d get stuck in the boonies with no television we could relate to. When my dad got orders to a big urban city, we kids were ecstatic. It was my job to watch my younger siblings on Saturdays while my parents worked, and at the time when I announced SOUUULLL TRAINNNN is on, my brothers and sisters would run from outside like they’d lost their minds. Oh, and then the party was on. We bumped, spanked, wormed, or whatever the latest dance craze was, along with the hippest kids in America. If there had been just two or three more of us, we could have formed a Soul Train line right there in the living room. It grieves me to know that Don Cornelius couldn’t find another way; which serves to remind us that we must get the word out about the only One who can bring us out of our troubles, the only One Who can bring us out of the lies that Satan tells us when we see no way out. There is a world of hurting people who don’t really know Him. Someone needs to tell them. We need to tell them. — Wanda Thomas Littles, contributing writer
Despite being a child of the late 70s and 80s, I didn’t have many actual experiences of watching Soul Train. Most of my memories regarding Soul Train were at various school dances and wedding receptions growing up, when folks would start up “the soul train line” and line up to cut a step. Most of the influence of Soul Train I witnessed were in derivative television shows (like Solid Gold), subtle homages (like when Theo and Cockroach fought over who was getting into Dance Mania) or actual parodies (like In Living Color‘s “Old Train” sketch). Still, I got a little misty when I got the news of Don Cornelius’ passing. No one will ever really replace him and what he meant to the black community. — Jelani Greenidge, columnist
As a girl growing up in small-town New Jersey in the 1970s, my primary exposure to black culture was Soul Train, and oh how I loved Soul Train! It was sandwiched between Saturday-morning cartoons and Saturday-afternoon roller derby on our television station. It never occurred to me that by introducing me to some of that era’s best music and most accomplished musicians, Don Cornelius was drawing me into a richly textured world that was not available to me then. I just knew I loved hearing his smoky voice and dancing to the sounds of soul. It saddens me deeply to learn that, like my son, this gifted man apparently died by suicide. I’m reminded that depression and despair don’t only visit the downtrodden, but even the most accomplished among us. My thoughts and prayers are with his family. — Christine A. Scheller, news & religion editor
I remember the Jackson 5 barely had enough room to dance on that stage. Fans could literally touch Marvin Gaye as he sang (and they did). You could feel the sweat dripping off of Barry White’s collar. This was Soul Train, Black America’s debutante ball. As a child it always felt RAW, like a grown-folks party that I could only watch from the stairs. It seemed fun enough, but in reality Soul Train was about rebellion: finding a way to create in the midst of the chaos of injustice. Black people were thrown into America’s basement, and Don Cornelius found a way to host a house party there every Saturday. It remains our challenge to find hope in the midst of great darkness; to dance when the forces of life threaten to steal all rhythm. And when I look at black music today — videos that portray the worst potentialities for our young men and women, dancing that has turned into “Sex Lite,” and artists that lack intimacy and authenticity — we need not ever forget Soul Train. The truth is, we need it back. Thank you Don Cornelius, from the little boy who watched your party from the stairs. — Julian DeShazier, contributing writer
Sitting in my parents’ living room, the back of my legs sticking to the plastic covering mom’s gold velvet couch, the funky music from the Jacksons, the Sylvers, and Joe Tex would blare from the black-and-white screen. I would fix my eyes on the Afro puffs, braids, wide brim hats and bellbottoms, imagining their psychedelic colors (mom and pops did eventually get a color TV) as they danced the funky chicken or the robot. As Jermaine sang, they would be “movin, she’s groovin. Dancin’ until the music stops now, yeah” down the Soul Train line. My older sister and brothers would bust all the moves, blocking my view of the TV along the way. But back then, when you were the baby brother, you just kept quiet and thankful that they let you hang out with them on Saturday morning. We were raised in a 12th floor apartment in The Tilden Houses (The Projects) in Brownsville, Brooklyn (NY). Watching Soul Train was more than a temporary escape from what was immediately outside the door, down an elevator that often stuck, or the stairwell that was owned by depressed brothers and sisters high on dope. Soul Train was a weekly, encouraging dose of positive black life, of people who were happy, talented, and free. And they looked like me. Mr. Cornelius, you did a great thing, sir. I pray that your soul has found the peace that you wished for us all. — Wil LaVeist, columnist