Looking at Middle-earth
Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D., for Scholars OnlineJune 18 - August 13, 2019
This course is a two-way introduction: it’s an introduction to Middle-earth from a language-and-literature point of view, and it’s an introduction to literary thinking from the perspective of Tolkien’s subcreated world. The hope is that the student will build mental bridges in both directions that will serve a wider purpose in the future. It’s intended for Tolkien enthusiasts, and it presupposes that the student has already read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. (No, seeing the movies doesn’t count. We can talk about those, if a student wants to, but this is not primarily about the films but about the books.) Other works — particularly The Silmarillion and The History of Middle-earth — may come up, but they will not be the backbone of what we’re doing here. I myself have been a die-hard Tolkien fan since 1967, and Tolkien’s vision has done a great deal to shape my own view of the world, literature, and art.
In each session we’ll look at a different aspect of Tolkien’s created world:
- June 18, 2019: An introduction to the class and general discussion of the books and what went into them.
- June 25, 2019: Tolkien’s physical universe: his geography. The maps. How are these used? Do they just provide scenery, or do they organize the story? Can place be realistic and metaphorical at the same time?
- July 9, 2019: Tolkien’s social universe: the peoples, their customs, and their characteristics. We’ll begin to talk about cultural borrowings from this world, the races of hobbits, men, dwarves, ents, and elves — and also trolls, orcs, and other nameless things.
- July 16, 2019: Tolkien’s language universe. That is, how he uses languages internally as part of the overall construction of his world, and how language was (and remains) its most basic root-stock. Tolkien was a great philologist, and his work was wider than what appears here.
- July 23, 2019: Tolkien’s universe of story — internally, that is, how the shape and structure of story conveys meaning and embodies deep structures. Story is a difficult concept to wrestle with, but it continues to pay long-lasting dividends.
- July 30, 2019: Tolkien’s moral universe — how good and evil figure in his tales.
- August 6, 2019: Tolkien’s religious and philosophical ideas.
- August 13, 2019: Summing up: it’s your turn. Let’s discuss whatever other topics you’d like to raise. Who’s oldest — Bombadil or the Ents? I have a theory...
Each session will also approach the topics from three different directions:
- Tolkien’s life and works from his own point of view. Biography is not always essential to understanding a work of literature, and I’m not eager to belabor this, but it is a piece of the puzzle.
- These ideas and themes as they show up in the books themselves. This will be the bulk of each session.
- A look back at some of the literary techniques we’ve used and their limitations — what general principles we can discover here that will apply to other works of literature.
© Copyright 2019 by Bruce A. McMenomy.