From a Single Leaf

Archival Research and Field Study on J. R. R. Tolkien’s Life and Works

What can the life and works of J. R. R. Tolkien tell us about the times in which he lived? What materials can we access to learn about his life and how he created his works? How do his works and events and places he experienced through the late nineteenth and most of the twentieth century relate to life in our twenty-first century? How can we best establish connections between Tolkien’s storytelling and our world today? In the summer of 2017, Dr. Leslie Donovan and six Honors students sought to address such questions through experiential field study and archival research for two weeks in Birmingham and Oxford, UK. For this project, the students pursued interdisciplinary research not only in literature and history, but also in fields such as botany, industry, economics, psychology, philosophy, digital technology, geology, religious studies, archaeology, education, philology, linguistics, and mythology.

students sitting on rocks in a field
The Single Leaf students strike a pose in the Oxford countryside. (From L-R: Eli, Dakota, Jess, Sarah, Sam, and Pablo.

The results of the project were distilled into a website designed and created by the students, titled The Single Leaf Project, which is open to the public and may be accessed at Each student produced materials for the project in both written and visual formats using analytic/interpretive, historical/informational, experiential/reflective, and creative/imaginative methods to present the research material. After the conclusion of the field work in England, four of the students and Dr. Donovan also shared their work on The Single Leaf Project at the international Mythopoeic Society Conference in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, from July 28-31, 2017.

a map and students walking through the woods
The students venture deep into Moseley Bog. Tolkien lived nearby from 1896 to 1901. He would describe it later in life as “a kind of lost paradise…a wonderful dell with flowers…”

This project offered several significant, practical benefits to students and faculty. First, by engaging in primary, archival research, students gained research skills rarely available to undergraduates. Next, students applied place-based learning in England to expand their knowledge of the links between the historical past and present as well as between Tolkien’s storytelling and new global understandings of art and literature. In addition, they became original contributors to a public project and presented their work at a professional, academic conference. The conference allowed students to learn from and interact with professional Tolkien studies scholars as well as explore new possibilities for future scholarship. Dr. Donovan benefits from the project through her plans to continue the Single Leaf Project website as an ongoing part of her pedagogical research in Tolkien studies in future Honors courses.