The Forge of Tolkien
I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was eleven. My mother gave me the boxed set (see above) for Christmas, and I read all four books in one trip to our grandparents’ house by New Year’s. Imagine my 11-year-old self struggling with the hobbits across Middle-earth as my mother drove us across the middle of America from Kentucky to Texas (and back again), and you will get some sense of the effect that it had on me.
Of all the things that drew me to become a medieval historian, reading (and re-reading, and re-reading, and re-reading) Tolkien is at the top of the list, although it took me decades to admit it. Tolkien lived in my imagination somewhere between stories I remembered reading as a child and my first (magical) visit to England with a school trip in high school—not really real, certainly not the stuff of serious scholarship.
Latin and Chartres drew me to study the history of medieval Christianity, not elves, hobbits and dwarves.
Or so I told myself.
And then Peter Jackson came out with his movies, and a friend suggested doing a course on Tolkien for the undergraduates at the University of Chicago. Just, you know, as a way of getting them interested in medieval history. My friend went on to write a historical novel based on the exercises we did with our students in sub-creating with Tolkien. I have been teaching the course every three years ever since.*
To prepare for the course, I spent a year reading Christopher Tolkien’s 12-volume edition of his father’s drafts—the scribbles and revisions that never made it to press. I immersed myself in the scholarship on Tolkien, fan-girled Verlyn Flieger and Tom Shippey at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, and kicked myself for not having taken Jane Chance’s Tolkien course when I was an undergraduate at Rice.**
Over the years, like Jane’s, my course became immensely popular, sometimes attracting over 100 students a quarter (big for a Chicago course). Every year, the students were invited to “make still by the law” in which Tolkien had made—stories and poems and music and drama inspired by his own longing to “make a body of more or less connected legend” which he could dedicate “to England.”*** In 2011, I set up a blog for the students to post their reflections on the discussions we were having in class. The blog (Tolkien: Medieval and Modern) now includes essays from four years’ worth of conversations, indexed by theme as well as by year. This past Spring, the class met on Zoom—which meant we were able to record our discussions as videos—but, alas, those I cannot link here.
Would you like to know more about Tolkien, his love of languages and history, and how he came to write The Lord of the Rings? It is my great pleasure to announce a new series of videos which I have been invited to make for Unauthorized.tv, called The Forge of Tolkien. My plan is to record one episode per week. List of episodes will be updated as new episodes are recorded and aired.
Come, journey with me across Middle-earth! I promise to take you there—and back again! Each episode should stand alone as an exploration of a particular theme, but the series overall will follow the general arc of the course that I have taught at the University of Chicago, taking seriously Tolkien’s invitation to sub-create and exploring the roots of this invitation in his understanding of our own creation as sub-creators in the image and likeness of God.
Episodes recorded to date (updated November 6, 2021):
1. “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?”
How many of you read Tolkien’s stories and wish you could find yourself in the tale? Professor Rachel Fulton Brown introduces her new series, The Forge of Tolkien, with a meditation on Tolkien’s word-smithing as an invitation to enter into the Greatest Fairy Story Ever Told. —Aired July 29, 2020
2. A Mythology for England
What did Tolkien mean when he told Milton Waldman that he wanted to write “a body of more or less connected legend” that he could dedicate “to England,” sketching it in part, while leaving “scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama”? In this episode, Professor Rachel Fulton Brown talks about Tolkien’s understanding of mythology and its relationship to country, as well as what it means to take up his invitation to participate in this story-telling, and why it is a fundamentally Christian exercise to write fan fiction within Tolkien’s legendarium. —Aired August 6, 2020
Are myths true? In this episode, Professor Rachel Fulton Brown reads Tolkien’s poem “Mythopoeia” as a riddle about the relationship between poetry, sub-creation, and the reality of myth. We explore the structure of the poem and its language for clues as to how Tolkien convinced his friend Jack Lewis to read myths not as “lies,” but as invitations to sub-create in the image and likeness in which human beings are made. —Aired August 11, 2020
4. Who is Tom Bombadil?
Enigma or allegory? Unimportant or essential? Tom Bombadil is Master—but what does that mean for the hobbits and their adventure? Professor Rachel Fulton Brown traces Tom Bombadil to his source in story and song. —Aired August 18, 2020
5. Stories for Children
6. A Taxonomy of Dragons
7. Time-travel Toss-up
8. A Notion of Time
9. A Deeper Delve: Tolkien Trivia
10. Falling Wide Asleep
11. Norman Keeps [Norman Castles]
12. A Taste for Tongues
13. Ichor and Potatoes
14. The Ent in the Moon
15. Through a Glass Darkly
16. Magic Words
17. On Fairy Stories
18. Around the Tale-fire
19. The Olde Speech
20. The Voice of Saruman
21. The Music of Creation
22. Melkor and the Leviathan
23. The Breath of the Gods
24. Melkor’s Fall
25. Aulë and the Nephilim
What was so wrong in Aulë’s desire to make creatures of his own in the likeness of the Children whom Ilúvatar intended to make? What kind of power did Aulë intend his making to have? And where did Tolkien get the idea that the Valar should be able to make things like children? In this episode, Professor Rachel Fulton Brown considers the stories told in Genesis and the Book of Enoch about the ‘sons of God’ who had children with the daughters of men as sources or models for Tolkien’s efforts to create a mythology including “beings of the same order of beauty, power, and majesty as the ‘gods’ of higher mythology, which [could] yet be accepted…by a mind that believes in the Blessed Trinity.” What did Aulë do that Azazel did not? And where does Grendel fit in? —Aired March 31, 2021
26. What Did Tolkien Read?
27. The Two Trees
28. The Mischief of Elves
29. Fear of Elves
30. Letter 43
31. Splintered Light
32. Gemstones of Paradise
33. Three Dog Tolkien
34. The Making of Fëanor
35. The Marring of Fëanor
Writing to Milton Waldman about the scope of his legendarium, Tolkien insisted that “legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth,’” one such truth being that every story must contain a “fall”: “All stories are ultimately about the fall.” Like Men, the Elves fell—but how? And through whom? In this episode, Professor Rachel Fulton Brown breaks open the story of Fëanor’s marring to further explore Tolkien’s thinking about the importance of making and Light. What was so evil about Fëanor’s refusal to break the Silmarils, and what does his sin show us about our own failure to trust God? —Aired June 9, 2021
36. The Fall of the Followers
37. The White Lady
38. The Spellsongs of Tinúviel
39. Morgoth’s Revenge
41. The Soup of Stories
42. Refracted Light
43. The Riddle of the Ring
**You may remember Based Professor Chance from Milo’s account of my adventures with certain other medievalists—they have some nasty things to say about Tolkien, too. Jane, on the other hand, was willing to read what I—and Milo—had actually said. No wonder she writes so well about Tolkien!
***I talked more about this assignment in a roundtable at Kalamazoo in 2012 on “Teaching Tolkien.”