I’m working up a post to share some of my initial thoughts about The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, I promise, but I couldn’t let this pass without commenting. It is a fact often bemoaned by Tolkien scholars and students alike that the literary establishment has been reluctant to admit the Professor into their sanctum litteratorum. Only slowly, over decades, have Tolkien’s works crept into collegiate curricula. And I suppose there is a dispassionate argument to be made for this. Nevertheless, I will set it aside, as I admit I am not a disinterested commentator. More and more schools are now offering courses on Tolkien, and teachers’ roundtables are becoming more wide-spread. I myself will be presenting a class at a Summer Institute for Teachers this summer — more on that to come. But in spite of this progress among rank and file students and instructors, there is still resistance among the more, how shall I put it, elite schools.
But at last, and for the first time I know of, Tolkien has come to Harvard. True, it’s a summer course, not one offered during the busier, higher-profile fall or spring semesters. True, it’s being offered by the Anthropology and not the English department. And yes, the course is being conducted by a lecturer, not a tenured professor. But even this is a big step.
The course itself looks quite good. I suppose you could say Tolkien is getting “the Harvard treatment” — rather than a straightforward survey of Tolkien’s literary contributions, Anthropology and Archaeology S-1641 (“Tolkien as Translator: Language, Culture, and Society in Middle-Earth [sic]”) is a systematic exploration of “the important role of language in The Lord of the Rings, applying concepts from linguistic anthropology that shed light on Tolkien’s methods and purpose as the ‘translator’ (both linguistic and cultural) of Middle-Earth [sic].” Hardly a “gut”, in the traditional Ivy League parlance.
Even a cursory glance at Dr. Marc Zender’s web pages for the class (linked from the previous paragraph) reveals that this is serious academic business, and it’s very refreshing to see. Take a look at the syllabus [PDF] for even more detail. Zender’s web pages and syllabus demonstrate a close familiarity with the subject matter, and a broad reading of the scholarly literature — ranging from out-of-print classics to the most recent research. Indeed, some of my friends will probably be delighted to learn that their books and essays are being used at Harvard this summer.
The only change I would have suggested is that Zender use the more complete “Nomenclature” published in Hammond and Scull’s The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, rather than the abridged version published in A Tolkien Compass. Still, the material Lobdell omitted was small enough not to make much difference. Also, in spite of the shortcomings of the Tolkien Encyclopedia, one of its entries makes it onto Zender’s assigned reading. I was a little bit surprised not to see Tolkien’s own essay, “English and Welsh”, assigned during week five or six. But I suppose it’s too easy for me to engage in Monday-morning quarterbacking here; the class really does look absolutely first-rate. In fact, I wish I could take it. Or teach it. ;)
Speaking of teaching ... I thought I had written something about this here on Lingwë, but apparently I haven’t, so here goes ...
“J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Real and Imagined Middle Ages” is a Summer Institute for Teachers funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It runs for five weeks, from July 13 to August 13, at Texas A&M University at Commerce. As I hinted above, I’ll be participating in the Institute as a “visiting expert”, conducting a half-day class on the subject of Old English, Old Norse, and Tolkien’s Fiction during the Institute’s second week. I’m one of fifteen such instructors, plus the two Institute co-directors, Drs. Robin Reid and Judy Ford (take a look at the company I’ll be keeping, here). It’s too late to apply, I’m afraid, but if a program like this sounds interesting to you, keep your eyes open in the future — and watch this space. This is the second Tolkien Institute (the first was in 2004), and it may not be the last. In addition, there’s a good chance some of the material could become available online later this summer (but I’m not promising anything).
Tolkien may not have reached the top of the Ivory Tower yet, but with an ample supply of students, and with intrepid instructors like Marc Zender and so many others, I feel confident Tolkien will gain admittance one day and finally be universally recognized for the brilliant and creative man that he was. And on that day, don’t be surprised if you hear a collective cry from fans and scholars alike, now hoar and hoarse: “That’s what we’ve been trying to tell you all along!”