Teaching Tolkien

These are the comments that I have prepared for the roundtable in which I am participating at the International Medieval Congress on Friday.  Come help us talk about teaching Tolkien!

The title of the course that I teach is potentially a little misleading.  "Tolkien: Medieval and Modern" would seem to suggest that what I am concerned about is demonstrating Tolkien’s use of his medieval sources.  But although I do have students read occasional selections from the works on which Tolkien based some of his most memorable characters (Turin Turambar, Smaug), this is not really the point.  Rather, my goal is to teach students to see how Tolkien was thinking about history and story-telling as an exercise in sub-creation and, therefore, ultimately, as worship.

Two texts are critical to the argument in my course.  The first, which I have students read in class on the first day, is Mythopoeia, the poem that Tolkien wrote for C.S. Lewis in defense of mythology and his idea of sub-creation. This is the most significant passage for my purposes:
The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him.  Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world were filled
with elves and goblins, though we dared to build
gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sow the seeds of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused).  The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.
The second, which I have students read for our final discussion, is Tolkien’s answer to Camilla Unwin’s question, "What is the purpose of life?" As Tolkien explains [Letter 310], this is a question that only makes sense if you posit the existence of a personal creator, in which case (he argues) the purpose of life is to praise God for his creation:
Those who believe in a personal God, Creator, do not think the Universe is itself worshipful, though devoted study of it may be one of the ways of honouring Him.  And while as living creatures we are (in part) within it and part of it, our ideas of God and ways of expressing them will be largely derived from contemplating the world around us...  So it may be said that the chief purpose of life, for any one of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks.  To do as we say in the Gloria in excelsis: Laudamus te, benedicamus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te, gratias agimus propter magnam gloriam tuam.  We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendour.  And in moments of exaltation we may call on all created things to join in our chorus, speaking on their behalf, as is done in Psalm 148, and in The Song of the Three Children in Daniel II. PRAISE THE LORD...all mountains and hills, all orchards and forests, all things that creep and birds on the wing.†
To be sure, there are students who resist this reading of Tolkien’s purpose, the usual response being, "Just because an author says that that is what he was doing doesn’t mean we have to read his work in that way." But most of them seem not only willing to go along with this reading, but positively enthusiastic.  This is, after all, a text (or set of texts) to which they have typically already deeply committed themselves.  In part, it is a function of the way that I set up the course: I make it a prerequisite that they have already read The Lord of the Rings before the first day of class, and I give a map quiz to ensure that they have. But it is also, I am convinced, a function of the way most of us encounter Tolkien in our lives and--if we like what we read--re-encounter it as we read over and over again.

Tolkien, as we learn from his letters, was a devout Catholic.  His purpose, as we learn from his letter to Milton Waldman [Letter 131, p. 144], was to create a mythology ("a body of more or less connected legend') for England.  A pre-Christian mythology, to be sure: the mythology that the Anglo-Saxon pagans might have had.  And yet, as he tells us in the letter to Father Robert Murray [Letter 142, p. 172], "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision." Why is The Lord of the Rings so wonderfully re-readable, even as The Silmarillion is not? Because they are not just stories, they are Scripture.  They work on their readers in much the same way as Scripture, encouraging the practice of lectio divina, requiring us to read not as modern readers might approach a novel, but as medieval readers approached the sacred texts.

Which means: actively, expecting to be transformed by what we read, perhaps even inspired to act.  One of the themes of our discussion in the course is the problem of choice and free will: was Frodo able to choose to claim the Ring?  But just as important is the way in which Tolkien shows his characters’ choices as caught up in the activity of making--and of their relationship to the things that they have made.  We contrast Aule’s willingness to destroy his subcreations with Feanor’s attachment to his.  And then, as the culmination of our study of Tolkien, we risk making something ourselves.

I have two major assignments for the course.  One is a blog that I set up on which the students are required to sign up to post two reflections following our class discussions.  I have used blogs like this for several other courses and found them to be quite successful at encouraging the students to write, partly, I think, because with a blog they have a clear audience.  But also because a blog, being public, gives them a sense of being real writers, not just completing an assignment.  In this sense, they are participating in the public, scholarly conversation as subcreators, as commentators on our beloved texts.

The second assignment is a little more complicated.  They have a choice of options: either to write a scholarly paper modeled on Tolkien’s own scholarly work (e.g. "On Fairy Stories," "The Monsters and the Critics"), or to create something themselves.  Tolkien himself, of course, issued the invitation [Letter 131, pp. 144-45]: "Do not laugh!  But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend...which I could dedicate simply to England; to my country...  I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched.  The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.  Absurd."  But is it? 

I invite the students to consider everything: stories, poems, songs, maps, comic strips, pictures, clothing, food.  Some of the most ambitious projects that I have received over the years have included a hobbit morality play, complete with hobbit cast portraying the story of the lamps; a Numenorean rock opera performed on the eve of their sailing West; and a series of hobbit poems about monsters complete with plush toys [show goblin].  The students are required to write an essay explaining how their works participate in the "depth" of Tolkien’s own subcreation; the essays themselves are typically as rich (if not richer) than the works for the insight that they reveal about their makers’ own creative process.

Should I, therefore, change the title of the course to something more accurate?  I’ve thought about it, but I am not so sure.  After all, what could be more medieval than to respond to Scripture by wanting to comment on it, illustrate it, perform it, become part of it?  And what could be more modern than the exercising of stepping out of one’s work to reflect upon the process of making?  In the end, as I hope the students realize, this is not just a course on reading Tolkien or imagining our way into his world, but an exercise in converting ourselves to a new way of seeing our own world.  It is the exercise that Tolkien himself pointed to in "On Fairy Stories" of seeing our Primary World afresh and thereby the materials out of which it is made: "A good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give.  By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and the Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory."‡

There is, I argue in our discussions, something fundamentally sacramental in the way in which Tolkien understands the relationship between material and Art.  I want the students to see themselves not just as artists or authors but as participants in the sacrament of making, to recognize themselves, as Sam does on the stairs of Cirith Ungol, as being in the same story in which the light of the Trees has been captured in the Lady’s glass.  This is what I think the title of the course means: finding ourselves still in the same story, neither medieval nor modern, but part of the whole, the glory of creation revealed through the sacrament of sub-creation.  "We make still by the law in which we are made."

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), pp. 399-400.
The Tolkien Reader (New York: Del Rey, 1966), p. 78.


  1. I wish I could take your course. I have always thought Sam was the real hero of the tale; he was the only one pure in heart enough to be unaffected by the ring. Coincidence that I just posted about the film? Hope you are having fun at the Zoo. Please give Rozanne my love

  2. I totally agree: Sam is the real hero, the servant who bears his master and who returns to plant a new garden of life. But Aragorn, Frodo, and Gollum are also heroes in their own way. We talk about this in our discussion of "Death and Immortality II: Hobbits and Men". Coincidence--or the Author's design? : )


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