Teaching Tolkien: Biographical, Textual, and Historical Approaches

Though I have not yet had the chance to teach an entire course on Tolkien, his works, and his legacy, I have still given a lot of thought to the numerous ways in which I might do so, as well as what aspects would be most fruitful pedagogically. As it happens, his is an immensely rich ouvre, and there are numerous ways one can use his work to address a wide variety of reading and interpretive practices key to the study of various aspects of literature and culture.

One could, of course, teach a course on Tolkien as an author. I’m thinking here not just of a biographical study (though Humphrey Carpenter and Michael White have both written compelling biographies of Tolkien), but also of a nuanced and careful consideration of those things that most influenced his writing.  Tom Shippey has made a compelling case for reading Tolkien in the context of his scholarship and academic works (in both Tolkien:  Author of the Century and, to a greater extent, in his very learned The Road to Middle-earth).  Indeed, one of the richest courses I took on Tolkien in undergrad was titled “Tolkien in Context.”   Such a course, I think, would almost certainly have to include Tolkien’s noteworthy translations, and we are very fortunate that Christopher Tolkien has provided us at last with his father’s translation of Beowulf, as well as the already in-print collection of Sir Orfeo, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Pearl.  However, I would also include such works as The Elder Edda in a course such as this, and I might even consider throwing in some of the work by other Inklings such as C.S. Lewis (though probably not The Chronicles of Narnia, both because I think it is far inferior to LoTR and because Tolkien was known to have hated it).  This course would,  I think, enable students to get a really nuanced and complex sense of who Tolkien was an author, as well as the various contexts and frames within which he wrote as both an author of fiction and a well-respected academic.

Likewise, I would also love to teach a course on the textual history on Tolkien’s work.  Shippey has shed a great deal of light on the ways in which Tolkien often used his fiction to fill in gaps in various Old English works, and it would be fascinating to do a literary archaeology of Tolkien.  Again, Christopher has done a great service by publishing the magisterial History of Middle-earth (and John D. Rateliff has done the same for The Hobbit), and it would be a really compelling class to look through both the works themselves and their respective histories.

More interesting, perhaps, would be a course on Tolkien’s cultural influence, the ways in which his works, including but not limited to The Hobbit and LoTR, have had an effect on 20th and 21st Century culture. One could have units devoted to fandom, film adaptations, and appropriation by the meme culture of the Internet (it’s hard to watch The Fellowship of the Ring and not chuckle at either “One does not simply walk into Mordor” or “You shall not pass!)  This could, of course, be part of a larger course discussion on the adaptation of beloved literary works to film (and the hotly debated status of Jackson’s The Hobbit films would make for some very fiery class discussions), as well as the ways in which fans can exert a measure of ownership over their chosen text (which is one of the ways in which I have used Tolkien in my own courses on popular culture and popular appropriation).  Or, one could even have an entire course devoted to his (substantial) influence on the fantasy genre, looking at authors such as Terry Brooks and even George R.R. Martin (seeing A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, as a sort of commentary/homage to Tolkien).

Of course, some of these ideas would probably never make it to the light of day in the standard English curriculum, but they do show how rewarding and compelling teaching Tolkien can be.  What’s more, I think a lot of these ideas could be adapted to appeal to a more general audience, one that does not necessarily have the investment in Tolkien that an avowed fan might have.  That, for me, is one of the most compelling things about bringing Tolkien into the classroom; his works, with all of their density and richness, provide a number of ways to think about fantasy literature and its relevance and inclusion in the larger field of literary study.  Hopefully, Tolkien’s literary reputation will continue to grow and many more generations can come to appreciate the beauty of his works, while also learning the invaluable skills associated with critical and thoughtful engagement and critique of texts.


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