English 492


Reading Tolkien, Tolkien’s Reading


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This is a course on medieval literature and medievalism. The centrepiece is J.R.R. Tolkien’s monumental fantasy, The Lord of the Rings. We will explore some of the medieval literature which was Tolkien’s professional concern and his source of inspiration. We will read examples of the medieval Finnish, Old English, Old Norse, and Welsh literature that underpins both Tolkien’s fiction and his most famous critical interventions (“On Fairy Stories” and “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”). We will compare Tolkien’s methods with the work of two contemporary fantasy writers, Guy Gavriel Kay and Neil Gaiman. Kay’s Last Light of the Sun depends on a meticulous reading of sagas and other medieval texts, though the world he creates is an alternate reality, while Gaiman’s American Gods brings the Norse gods (along with other mythic creatures) into a recognizable American context.

Kay and Gaiman are both readers of Tolkien, and the intertexuality of modern fantasy literature will be part of our discussion, as we try to sort through the influence of Tolkien’s medievalizing fantasy. We will explore the role of posthumous publication and co-writing in the magnification of Tolkien’s oeuvre: many of the works from the underlying mythos of Middle-earth (for example, The Silmarillion and, more recently, The Children of Húrin) were published as a result of the editorial and creative interventions of Tolkien’s son Christopher. The meticulous (re)creation of Tolkien’s world in Peter Jackson’s films is another kind of co-writing, one that shows the accretive response to Tolkien’s work, as Jackson brings to the screen a vision of Middle-earth that is mediated through the design visions of Tolkien artists Alan Lee and John Howe. And the vast world of fantasy-inspired gaming represents yet another kind of collaborative authorship, as every dungeon-master, whether table-top or RPG scripter, develops characters and plots first derived from Tolkien’s work.

Course texts:

Beowulf: Facing Page Translation, ed. and trans. R.M. Liuzza (Broadview)

The Sagas of the Icelanders, ed. Jane Smiley and Robert Kellogg (Penguin)

The Mabinogion, trans. Sioned Davies (Oxford World’s Classics)

Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Guy Gavriel Kay, The Last Light of the Sun

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin

Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in the extended edition

A course pack (actually, online versions) of texts including selections of Middle Welsh poetry, Old English poetry, The Kalevala, The Volsung Saga. Additional Tolkien material will include “On Fairy Stories” and “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” and excerpts from Tolkien’s letters.


Weighting: Research Tools assignment (10); discussion questions (10, 10); SHORT (20 minutes) group presentation (20); final paper (50).

1. Research Tools Assignment

This assignment is due on Thursday, March 5, 2015. It has two parts. First, you are to visit the course Resources page, and follow THREE of the links. Explore the resources a little bit, and write a very short assessment of each. Second, try searching yourself for websites that might potentially be of use to us. Report briefly on your discoveries. Note that you can report frustration and failure as well as success; that is, the purpose of this exercise is in part to give you a chance to work out how to both find and assess web-based resources, particularly in a field that turns up a wide range of material. E-mail me your assignment, and be sure to includes URLs for the sites you visit. I will add any particularly interesting discoveries to the resources page.

Feel free to include oddities...

2. Discussion Days

Your task, on the day you are the discussion point person, is to come prepared to kick off the discussion of the day’s reading. If you find it helpful to think in terms of time, imagine that your contribution might occupy about 5-10 minutes of class time, though this need not be in a single presentation. There will be at least five people charged with this responsibility every class, so it might be useful to check in with the other speakers (listed below), though you needn’t work together. Possible approaches:

  • Bring questions that have occured to you as you have been reading-- about the work, about its connections to some of the issues and themes we have been developing, about its connection to other works on the syllabus...
  • Come prepared to call attention to particular passages
  • Bring in some related material that you think helps to illuminate the chosen reading

3. Group Presentations

The last four weeks of class will be given over to summary and reactions to Tolkien’s work, and for these classes, you will work in small groups to drive the discussion. Here I am imagining presentations of about 20 minutes, rather more scripted than the question sessions, though still essentially “catalytic” in nature: once again, your task is to kick-start the discussion and see that it keeps moving.

4. Term Paper

This paper should be 10-12 pages in length. You may develop it out of your discussion days, your group work, some combination of these, or something else entirely that has occurred to you over the course of the seminar. You should run your proposed topic past me before you start work. You will be receiving responses from me to your work as the term progresses, and I will make an effort to suggest what look to me to be promising threads for further exploration. The paper should be handed in no later than April 10, 2015. I would prefer to receive it by e-mail as an attachment. Do let me know, though, if electronic submission poses a problem for you.

SYLLABUS (tentative: to be finalized early in the term)
January 8 Introduction: Works and Words

If you haven’t already read The Lord of the Rings, this is the time to start; you’ll see that there’s no specific class set aside for it, but certainly you should plan to be finished by the time we get to Heroes and Kings. The sooner you can finish the book, though, the better.

Visit Resources page
January 15

Creations: Worlds and Powers

READ: In The Silmarillion: Ainulindalë, Valaquenta, and Quenta Silmarillion 1-12; Akallabêth

Genesis 1-3; Revelation

Kalevala Runes I-X


SKIM: John Milton, Paradise Lost, I:1-669, II.629-1055; V.771-907; VI.1-892

Questions: Rich, Alexis, Siobhan, Karen

Visit Creations page

Kalevala online

Völuspá online

January 22

Creations: Worlds and Powers

READ: In The Silmarillion: Quenta Silmarillion 21

The Children of Húrin

Kalevala Runes 31-36

SKIM: Volsungsaga 3-11

Questions: Sonja, Deanna, Grace C., Rich, Alexis

Kalevala online

Volsungsaga online

January 29

Runes and Riddles

READ: Riddles from the Exeter Book

The Hobbit

“On Fairy Stories” (handout)

SKIM: Fáfnismál

Questions: Tasha, Raven, Steffi, Elizabeth, Talia

Visit Tolkien and Runes

Exeter Book riddles

Fáfnismál online

You can see a contemporary artist interpreting the riddles here

February 5

The Red Book (of Hergest): Welsh Worlds

READ: The Four Branches of the Mabinogi and How Culhwch Won Olwen (all in Davies)

Selections from The Welsh Triads

Preiddeu Annwn

TO THINK ABOUT IN TOLKIEN: the Elves, Beren and Luthién (in both LOTR and The Silmarillion, c. 19); the Red Book of Westmarch (see the Prologue and Appendices to LOTR)

Questions: Tasha, Talia, Karen, Cecily, Grace L.

Visit Medieval Welsh Prose

Visit The Welsh Triads

Preiddeu Annwn online

Translations of triads (various sources, not all reliable)

February 12

The Red Book cont’d

Questions: Raven, Siobhan, Sonja, Sylvanna

February 26

Elegy and Lament in Welsh and Old English

READ: selections from Canu Llywarch Hen

Selections from Y Gododdin

The Ruin

The Seafarer

The Wanderer

PLAN to be finished The Fellowship of the Ring by this day


Questions: Klaudia, Antony, Emily, Karen, Grace L.

Visit Medieval Welsh Poetry

Visit Old English Poetry

For all of the poems listed to the left, I have made webpages with the selections in both the original language and in translation; the two pages linked above are portals to these individual pages.

March 5

Heroes and Kings

READ: Selections from The Sagas of the Icelanders (Egil's Saga, The Saga of the People of Laxardal, The Vinland Saga); and excerpts from Jómsvikings Saga (handout)


“Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (handout)

SKIM: Asser, Life of King Alfred

Questions: Antony, Elizabeth, Emily, Deanna


Asser, Life of King Alfred

March 12

Heroes and Kings cont’d

PLAN to be finished The Two Towers by this day

Questions: Klaudia, Grace C., Cecily, Sylvanna

March 19

Heroes and Kings cont’d

PLAN to be finished The Return of the King by this day

Group presentation: Klaudia, Raven, Steffi, Siobhan, Antony

Read an essay in The Mary Sue comparing Eowyn in the books and the films here
March 26

Modern Fantasy

READ Guy Gavriel Kay, The Last Light of the Sun

Group presentation: Talia, Sonja, Deanna, Sylvanna, Alexis

April 2

Modern Fantasy cont'd

READ Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Group presentation: Elizabeth, Grace L., Grace C., Rich

April 9

Dungeons, Dragons, and Movies

READ: C. M. Booker, “Byte-Sized Middle Ages: Tolkien, Film, and the Digital Imagination,” Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 35 (2004): 145-74 (online)

Group presentation: Emily, Karen, Cecily, Tasha

Come prepared to discuss Peter Jackson’s films, and to share any experience you have with fantasy-related gaming

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