Who was Arthur? Who is Arthur? Was there an Arthur? What do we know and how do we know it?
We will track the legendary yet mysterious king from his beginnings in the late 5th/early 6th century through 1500 years during which his story moved from history to folklore to romance to tragedy. A handout available online will put Arthur in the context of his earliest sources. We will move on to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain; the early Welsh fairy tale “Culhwch and Olwen” from the Mabinogion; two romances of Chrétien de Troyes—Lancelot and Perceval (in English translation); and a substantial portion of the Works of Sir Thomas Malory. Because each period created the king it wanted, we will encounter many Arthurs and many—even conflicting—versions of his story.
The Arthur Story (Summer 2012)
The History of the Kings of Britain – Geoffrey of Monmouth, translated by Lewis Thorpe
The Mabinogion – translated by Thomas Jones and Gwen Jones
Lancelot; or, the Knight of the Cart – Chrétien de Troyes, translated by Ruth Harwood Cline
Perceval; or The Story of The Grail - Chrétien de Troyes, translated by Ruth Harwood Cline
Malory: Complete Works – Thomas Malory, edited by Eugene Vinaver
The Idylls of the King – Alfred Tennyson, edited by J.M. Gray
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)