Thursday, June 03, 2004

Discussions on Tolkien 

This morning the Chronicle of Higher Education hosted a live question and answer session with Mike Drout on Tolkien scholarship. I thought I'd provide a link to the transcript here. There was a good range of questions, though the scholarly response to Peter Jackson's films was predictably dominant. I am not sure what to do with this question. Jackson's divergences from the book have provided me with some insights into how to read the original text (although that was not the purpose of the divergences), but this type of "scholarly" response can't lead to much actual scholarship. The films are of interest to the field of film studies, but it seems to me that this interest does not focus on the study of Tolkien's work per se, except as a source for the films. If the study of the films is to be scholarly, it seems to me that it will have to move in different directions from the study of Tolkien's literature.

In a separate development, I received today a copy of the report I did on the state of Old English in North America for the news Teachers of Old English in Britain and Ireland (TOEBI) Newsletter. The newsletter also contained a couple of articles on whether or not (and if so, how) teachers of Old English should exploit the popularity of Tolkien (books and films). I have certainly engaged in this sort of exploitation in my senior seminar on The Lord of the Rings, and the result has been to raise the profile of Old English immensely. Although a course aimed at seniors is a bit late for moving students into academic scholarship, it does give students an experience at examining the themes of Old English literature and applying them to questions to be found in a broader literary and cultural history. Can we ask for more? Yes. We can ask the students to learn Old English, read the literature in the original, and subject it to the sort of focused discussion that would engage in when taking, say, a Chaucer course. Perhaps this is where the use of Tolkien's work can have minimal effect. It can raise the cultural prestige of Anglo-Saxon studies, but it may not be able to add many students to focused courses on Old English.

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