Monday, May 18, 2009

Teaching Tolkien

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!”


  1. OMG, I want to take this class!

    The Summer Institute sounds like fun, too. I hope you'll give us a full report.:)

  2. The only report I’ll be able to give, most likely, is of my own day. I might be there the day before, but just as likely not. I certainly wouldn’t be able to take five weeks off work to participate in the whole thing, must as I would love to. So, I hope just my own self-obsessed report will be good enough! :)

  3. "But at last, and for the first time I know of, Tolkien has come to Harvard."

    I don't believe that that is true, Jase. I am told by a reliable source who attended Harvard in the late 70s to early 80s that the legendary Albert B. Lord taught a course on Tolkien that was one of the most popular courses on campus, with a long waiting list to get into it. I don't have any more details than that, but perhaps one of your erudite readers will have some.

  4. Hmm, the devil’s advocate in me wants to reply: “No, irrespective of whether Tolkien has ever been taught at Harvard before, my statement that it was the first occasion I knew of is nevertheless quite true.” :)

    For those of you who don’t know, Doug is a lawyer, so this little drollery was just lawyerly banter. Seriously, though, this is very interesting, but if it’s true, wouldn’t you say this was still something of an anomaly? It’s certainly not as if Tolkien has regularly been on the menu at Harvard (or the other Ivy League schools) since then.

    Anyone know more? I know a couple of Harvard grads (though no one from the 70’s or 80’s) — perhaps they’ll recall something.

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  6. As soon as I posted that, I thought "that's not what I might to say; what I meant to say is that it is my understanding that it is not true that Tolkien has never been taught at Harvard before." And I knew you would call me on it.

    Anyway, I don't know whether it was an anomaly. I don't know how long the class was taught, or whether it was the only one. I suspect that if you really wanted to know, you could contact Harvard and they would tell you. Maybe.

    Lord was an expert on epic literature and the oral tradition. According to Wikipedia, he "founded Harvard's Committee on Degrees in Folklore and Mythology, and chaired the college's department of Folklore and Mythology until his retirement in 1983." So obviously, he didn't teach it past 1983. If it is really true that he taught a class on Tolkien (and I have no reason to doubt my source, who happens to be both the most intelligent and most beautiful woman that I know), I bet it was pretty awesome.

  7. And I knew you would call me on it.All in good fun! :)

    So obviously, he didn't teach it past 1983.He might have continued to teach the occasional class in an emeritus capacity. In fact, retirement might have opened up greater opportunities to teach whatever he wanted (as opposed to a definite canonical curriculum).

    But hair-splitting aside, I’m sure he did teach the class (of which I was unaware), and I’m sure it was pretty awesome indeed! And it’s really something to think that Tolkien could have been taught at Harvard as little as two decades after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, and perhaps no more than a few years after Tolkien’s death.

  8. Sorry for the dropped line-breaks in the preceding comment. Not sure what happened there. :-/

  9. Jason, do you suggest getting Scull and Hammond's LotR: A Reader's Companion, or the 2 volume J. R. R. Tolkien Guide and Companion? What is the difference? Don't tell me both, because I can't afford that, yo!

  10. Hi, Alex. Yes, I’m afraid the answer is both (or rather, all three). The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion is basically the annotations for an annotated edition of The Lord of the Rings (they just didn’t reproduce the entire text of the novel due to the constraints of space). It follows the book pretty much line by line with all manner of useful notes and observations. It is specifically scoped solely to The Lord of the Rings, unlike ...

    The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide is a two-volume set, consisting of Volume I: Chronology and Volume II: Reader’s Guide. The first is a day by day chronology of Tolkien’s life. Hammond and Scull present almost literally innumerable new details about what occupied Tolkien’s days, especially the early ones about which much less has been known until now. The second volume is something more like an Encyclopedia Tolkieniana of everything to do with his life and works, organized topically. You can buy them separately, or as a boxed set.

    But you ought to get all three of these books, even if it takes you a while to save up the scratch for them. They aren’t cheap, but they really are indispensable. Yo. ;)

  11. But which is more important now? *whiny voice*

  12. LOL. Well, since you put it that way ...

    It really depends on what you expect to do with them and where your real interests lie. If your interests are broad and biographical, go for the two-volume Companion and Guide. But if you find yourself more often than not chiefly interested in just The Lord of the Rings, start with its Reader’s Companion. Does that help? :)

  13. Jaason

    Great piece - at the Tolkien Weekend in Birmingham just passed there was a Tolkien tent that offered beginning classes in Sindarian and Tengwar with handouts!!! Basic stuff but I loved it and tried not to ask to many complicated questions - was hoping there would be an Advance Sindarin Composition class but no go - perhaps we can establish a Tolkien University (what are you taking this year - Valaquenta I, Intemediate Tengwar, The tongues of the Black Speech, etc). Fun taking the class right by Sarehole Mill and Mosley Bog!



  14. Thanks, Andy. As you might have seen from another of my recent posts, the coming issue of Tolkien Studies will have a piece on “The Basic Vocabulary of Quenya” by one of the experts, Christopher Gilson. The Tolkien Weekend sounds like it was great fun. It must really be something to meet and socialize right in the shadow of those Tolkienian landmarks. I have never even been to the U.K. — scandalous, I know! :)

  15. Many thanks to Jason for his kind comments on my upcoming class. I'm embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Lingwë until this morning, when a friend sent me a link to Jason's article. But I certainly knew of Jason, having read his recent article in Tolkien Studies, as well as several of his entries in the Tolkien Encyclopedia (which I find to be a reliable resource for Tolkienian linguistics, despite a few other shortcomings).

    I've been teaching at Harvard for four years now, and I've incorporated Tolkien's invented languages and alphabets into several classes, most notably a popular decipherment course I teach every spring. But this is the first opportunity I've had to design a full course on this theme. Some of you may be interested to know that it will also be offered in Harvard's Extension School next spring; a combination of live lectures and an online forum will allow students to enrol from practically any part of the globe with a reasonably fast internet connection. I'll be happy to keep Jason apprised of the details if he can bring himself to forgive this shameless plug.

  16. Welcome to the discussion, Marc, and thanks very much for taking the time to comment. There’s certainly no need for embarassment at not having known of my blog! But I’m gratified to learn that you were familiar with some of my work.

    I’m sure readers will be delighted to learn about the Harvard Extension School class, especially since they won’t have to be in the greater Boston area (nor admitted to Harvard proper). That’s exciting! Definitely keep me posted, and I will be very happy to pass along details. By the way, my oldest friend has also taught at the HES (and is himself a Harvard alumnus, though he defected to the West Coast for his Ph.D.).

  17. Apparently anyone can now go to the link below and watch the first two weeks' lectures from this class.

  18. Super! Thanks very much for the link, Robert.