Introduction to a Course on Tolkien
Table of Contents
I. The Whence and Wherefore of This Course
This online course is meant to replicate a course I taught at the University of Dallas 1 off and on from 2003 to 2015. The first time it was team-taught and offered under the auspices of the Dallas Medieval Consortium (made up of faculty from UD, SMU, and UTD). Subsequently I taught the course on my lonesome, at the UD campus in Irving, approximately every other year until my retirement.
This is not a full-service long-distance course, with all the related paraphernalia of such a course (written assignments, online discussions, tests, grades, and transcripts). Nonetheless, I will present things in it as if this were a course you were taking. with topics introduced and “lectured” on, and reading and thinking (if not writing) assignments given, in a particular logical and pedagogical order.
The Legendarium…and What Lay Behind It
The goal of the course is to throw light on Professor Tolkien’s “Legendarium” as a unified whole. The Legendarium, in my usage, is the entirety of Tolkien’s fictions dealing with Middle-earth, and hence includes The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but also encompasses The Silmarillion, the Akallabêth, and many other (mostly unfinished, but not necessarily unpublished) texts. It is a complex, and in some regards (and at some points) very confusing, body of work. What underlying principles (if any) animate it, structure it, give it a telos?
Now, it is a fundamental assumption of this course that, to understand Tolkien’s Legendarium, you need to understand Tolkien the philologist, that is, the student of old texts. Professionally, Tolkien was a scholar of the medieval forms of the Germanic languages, particularly English and Norse, as embodied in their literary “monuments,” the very partial textual record that has survived the centuries and come down to us in manuscript form. Along with these, Tolkien also studied to some extent the languages and literary remains of neighboring peoples: Celtic (Irish, Welsh, and Breton) and Finnish (as collected and reformulated in the 19th century). In all these materials, Tolkien was especially drawn to narrative.
The Philologist’s Goad
Tolkien’s relationship to these old narrative remains was complex. He studied them and elucidated them in scholarly publications, but that was not all. They also functioned, not merely as models, but even more perhaps as goads (in the sense of: irritants) for his own creative fictional work. For, while they undoubtedly fascinated and delighted him, they must also, often enough, have irritated him exceedingly. He was not merely the curious student and avid consumer of such works: he was also their assessor, their critic.
As they have come down to us (in late handwritten copies of copies of copies), they are, all too often, less than satisfying as accomplished narratives. Parts of the text may be missing; parts may exist in too many versions, and we cannot decide which is “authentic”; parts may be indecipherable (what philologists call a crux). These problems, of course, exist alongside the more familiar faults a narrative artist may fall victim to regarding characters, motivation, plot, and so forth.
Tolkien’s Creative Response
Tolkien was so mindful of, and irked by, these deficiencies, that even in his scholarly work we see him time and again, not simply busying himself with the imperfections of the textual tradition, but a) re-imagining narratives in a more authentic, more satisfying form, and b) creating wholly new narratives that fit in with and round out the texts we have.
I believe a like impulse is part of what lies behind the creation of his own Legendarium. In my opinion (and as other files in this course attempt to suggest) Tolkien conceived of himself as bringing to a term, in his own stories about Middle-earth, what earlier narrative traditions he was familiar with had essentially (if unconsciously) aimed at, but had achieved only partially and imperfectly.
All This, and No Hobbits?
Hence, the first part of this course deals with Tolkien on, and Tolkien alongside, the medieval texts he most studied (in a few cases, the sort he most studied). Part of what we read is by Tolkien (including his two most famous essays and some of his reconstructions or retellings), part of it by his medieval predecessors.
That is a lot of ground to cover. In the second, purely Tolkien part of the course, we will likewise have a lot of narrative ground to cover, including all the major and some of the minor texts dealing with the First and Second Ages (see the list below).
You will NOT be reading, as a part of the course, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. This is not because I have any desire to depreciate these works. On the contrary, I recognize that they are, if you like, the fine fleur of Prof Tolkien’s entire œuvre. However, on the one hand, most likely you have already read them not once but a number of times and don’t need anyone to introduce you to them; on the other, I maintain that they take on their full luster, or that they reveal their full import, only when they are viewed in the light of the author’s entire intellectual-literary endeavor.
You should certainly have copies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings nearby, since we/I will be referring to them from time to time, and you may yourself occasionally feel the need to review passages in them. It is my hope that, at the end of your involvement with this course, your admiration for them will only have grown.
II. The Texts You Will Read
What Tolkien Wrote
In some physical or electronic form, you will need (along with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) the following items by Professor Tolkien; they are listed in the order in which they will first be needed.
In some cases I give information only for the first American edition; information about subsequent and paperback editions is easily available online. See the Wikipedia Tolkien Bibliography and the Writings by J.R.R. Tolkien at the Tolkien Gateway.
- The Tolkien Reader. A compilation of three previously published books: Tree and Leaf, Farmer Giles of Ham, and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. Originally published, apparently, in England in 1964 by George Allen & Unwin, it was printed as a paperback in the US in 1966 by Ballantine Books; currently the paperback is from Del Rey, 1986? Important in it for this course are:
- “On Fairy-Stories.” Also available elsewhere, for which see the Wikipedia article.
- “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son.”
- Certain poems from The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.
- “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics.” This essay, first published in 1937, is available in a number of places, one of them the collection of essays by JRRT (edited by his son Christopher) The Monsters and the Critics (Houghton Mifflin, 1984). This volume also contains the essay “On Fairy-Stories.”
- The Fall of Arthur. Edited by Christopher Tolkien (hereinafter: CT). HarperCollins, 2013.
- The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun. Edited by CT. HarperCollins, 2009.
- The Silmarillion. Edited by CT. Houghton Mifflin, 1977.
- Selections from Unfinished Tales (of Numenor and Middle-Earth). Edited by CT. Houghton Mifflin, 1980. Particularly important:
- Of Tuor and HIs Coming to Gondolin.
- The Tale of the Children of Hurin.
- Aldarion and Erendis.
- Selections from various of the 12 volumes of The History of Middle-Earth (1983-1996).These are available in paperback. The most important for this course:
- Volume 1. The Book of Lost Tales Part One.
- Volume 2. The Book of Lost Tales Part Two.
- Volume 5. The Lost Road and Other Writings.
- Volume 9. Sauron Defeated.
- Volume 10. Morgoth’s Ring.
Not included in the required Tolkien readings, but extremely important nonetheless and absolutely essential for anyone intending to do critical work on this man’s writings, are:
- The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter (with the assistance of CT). Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
The collection contains some personal letters, though only a tiny portion, I am sure, of what must exist. They are interesting, to be sure, but far more important are the letters giving insight into the author’s creative intentions with regard to The Lord of the Rings and to the Legendarium of which it formed a part.
Additional Books on or by Tolkien
For other books of interest, but not essential, see the file Additional Books on or by Tolkien.
What Tolkien Read
When possible, I will provide links to online versions of what you will be asked to read. For a few items I will provide you with the text myself, on this site. Also, a very few items you may simply have to procure on your own, as for instance by purchasing them in physical or virtual form.
The works are listed pretty much in the order they will be assigned. I include only “primary” texts; there will also be assigned works in secondary (scholarly) literature. Of the primary texts I give only those that are required; there will in addition be recommended primary texts; also, I do not include some short texts, such as lyric poems.
- Marie de France, Lanval
- Sir Orfeo
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
- Snorri Sturluson, Prose Edda
- Poetic Edda
Irish Immrama (“Voyages”) and Related Tales
- The Voyage of Bran
- Oisin in Tir-na-nog
- The Voyage of Saint Brendan
- Elias Lönnrot, Kalevala (selections)
III. The Course of This Course
Here I describe how we will proceed through these materials and what topics we will touch on as we do so.
Tolkien on His Precursors
The first half of the course, Tolkien on non-Tolkien, covers its materials in two sweeps:
- First Sweep
- Tolkien, Fairies, and Fairy Stories
- Tolkien on Beowulf
- Second Sweep
- Norse literature: the Volsungasaga; the two Eddas
- Celtic Immrama
In a sense it is the same, or at least related, materials covered both times: the first sweep deals with Celtic (fairy stories) 2 and Germanic (Beowulf), the second, reversing that order, with Germanic (Norse) and Celtic (Immrama).
As we read and reflect on these materials, certain issues will come to the fore that will be relevant for thinking about Tolkien’s own fictions. They include:
- The relationship of the imaginary to the real, fictional worlds to the world we live in. The rôle of fantastic literature, of the fantastic in literature.
- The hero. Strengths and weaknesses of the Germanic heroic ideal; the human and the trans-human.
- The importance of TIME: evocation of the past; what is at stake in the present; what future we are headed for.
- The importance of PLACE, or SPACE: cosmogenesis and cosmology; mortal vs. immortal lands; geography and Volkswanderungen.
In the second part of the course we will consider major sections of Tolkien’s Legendarium with, hopefully, at least in some respects a better idea of what aspects deserve special attention.
- God, Gods, Creation, and Evil; the Pathos of the Valar
- People, Language, Tale, and Place
- Critique of the Northern Ideal
- A Kinder, Gentler Middle Ages
- Theology, Theodicy, Eschatology, and More
- Akallabêth, The Lost Road (HoME 5), Notion Club Papers (HoME 9)
- Madam Blavatsky, Anyone?
- One Fall after Another
- A Cosmo-topological Switcheroo
- Was Tolkien Mad?
- Later Texts…and Some Earlier Ones (Culled from the HoME)
- History and Eschatology (yet again)
- The University of Dallas is located in Irving, Texas. It is a private school and has nothing to do, administratively, with the state-run University of Texas at Dallas located in Richardson, Texas (although, admittedly, their are almost identical and although the first institution is frequently mistaken for the second).↩
- Tolkien himself protests that fairies and fairy stories are not exclusively Celtic, which is certainly true, but I cannot follow him insofar as he maintains that Celtic fairy-lore and fairy stories do not have a certain pride of place in fairy-literature, particularly when we are speaking of the BRITISH Isles.↩
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