Tolkien is world-famous for his fiction. In his highly distinguished professional career, meanwhile, he was a philologist, and furthermore a comparative philologist, following in the footsteps of Jacob Grimm, whose innovations in comparative philology (vergleichende Philologie) must count as the Darwinian revolution of the humanities in the 19th century. Nor is it an accident that while Tolkien’s “Middle-earth” sequence was one of the great popular successes of the 20th and 21stcenturies, the fairytales of the brothers Grimm were one of the great popular successes of the preceding century. The philology and the fantasy go together. They deserve to be studied together.
This course aims to use the life and works of Tolkien as a gateway to provide an introduction to the discipline of comparative philology, and to highlight the many links between this field and his creative writings. The course will offer an introductory (and necessarily selective) overview of several of the old Germanic languages and their literatures, such as Gothic, Old and Middle English, and Old Norse, and cover select topics in Germanic comparative grammar (e.g. Grimm’s Law). Attention will also be given to other related matters, such as Celtic philology and Tolkien’s invented languages.
Students are not expected to have prior familiarity with any language other than modern English. Coursework involves readings, philological exercises, and study of short, glossed excerpts from ancient texts. The overall aim is to provide a basic familiarity with the methods and subject matter of philology and to make the ancient languages and texts that provide the field’s raw data appear less unfamiliar, as well as to examine the strong influence of philology on Tolkien’s works.
Philology Through Tolkien (Fall 2013)
Materials were provided for students in the live course, only.
This course focuses on a close reading of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings from two closely related approaches: cultural studies and audience reception. Knowledge of either approach is not necessary for taking the course. The class readings, lectures, discussions and assignments focus not only on the text, but on the modern circumstances of its production and its reception in the United States and in Europe. The influence of Tolkien’s work on such modern cultural developments as the environmental and anti-war movements as well as on popular cultural productions, such as the emergence of the high fantasy genre which did not exist as a publishing category before the success of The Lord of the Rings, is notable. The extent to which his work was influenced by medieval sources and acted to shape our contemporary understanding of the medieval world has long been studied, and Tolkien scholarship is beginning to develop new approaches to the Legendarium.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carter
Tolkien, Race and Culutural History: From Fairies to Hobbits by Dimitra Fimi
This course will examine the life of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. We will examine several important precursors of the book, works that helped establish the genre in which Tolkien was writing, or which influenced Tolkien’s own thinking. We will then read not the final published version of The Hobbit, but the growth of the story in manuscript and typescript, examining carefully how the story developed and in what directions. We will then turn to the publication and reception ofThe Hobbit, including its adaptation to film. We’ll end the semester with a discussion of the Rankin-Bass animated Hobbit and, after a brief delay, a discussion of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Professor Olsen will be joined in this class by two distinguished guest lecturers: John D. Rateliff, author of The History ofThe Hobbit, and Douglas A. Anderson, author of The Annotated Hobbit, two of the foremost scholars on The Hobbit in the world.
The Story of The Hobbit (Fall 2012)
Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll
Winnie-the-Pooh - A.A. Milne
The Princess and the Goblin - George McDonald
The Marvellous Land of Snergs - E.A. Wyke-Smith
The Lays of Beleriand (same as Fall 2011)
The Shaping of Middle-earth - J.R.R. and Christopher Tolkien
The History of The Hobbit - John D. Rateliff
The Annotated Hobbit - edited by Douglas A. Anderson
The Hobbit (DVD) – Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass (alternate UK title: Bilbo Baggins – A Hobbit’s Tale)
Tolkien once said his immediate response to reading any medieval story was to want to write one like it. He did. Three times. “The Story of Kullervo” came from the Finnish Kalevala, Sigurd and Gudrún was his take on the Icelandic Eddas, and The Fall of Arthur was inspired by the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthure and the Stanzaic Morte Arthure. We’ll read each of these works in the context of its particular literary tradition to explore how Tolkien fits/alters/extends/compresses traditional material to make it his own.
The course divides naturally into three segments each devoted to a mythic story and Tolkien’s treatment of it. Each of the first two sections will be followed by an exam on that section. The last week’s classes will be a summing up in open discussion/evaluation/critique of Tolkien’s use of his material. I will provide some talking points to get us started, but this is your opportunity to try out your opinions about what you’ve learned. It is, if you like, a rehearsal for the cumulative final exam on Friday of the last week in which you will be asked to evaluate Tolkien’s works both individually and comparatively, judging them in the context of each other as well as of their sources as read in class.
Tolkien and Tradition (Fall 2013)
Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Faulkes
The Poetic Edda: The Mythological Poems by Henry Adams Bellows
The Poetic Edda: Heroic Poems by Henry Adams Bellows
King Arthur’s Death by Larry Dean Benson and Edward Foster
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien
In this course, students will read Tolkien’s two critical essays, Beowulf, and The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings to explore how his world and his myth developed over time. There are three interim exams, one on the essays and Beowulf, one on The Silmarillion, one on The Hobbit, plus a two-hour final exam on The Lord of the Rings. Each exam builds on the one before it. All are open book, open notes. The goal is not to test your memory, but to get you to think deeply and critically about the material and the relationships among the works. You should know more at the end of each exam than you did before you started.
Tolkien's World of Middle-earth (Spring 2013)