Tolkien and Tradition

The Orphan, the Hero and the King

Tolkien in Tradition

Taught by Dr. Verlyn Flieger

Tolkien once said his immediate response to reading any medieval story was to want to write one like it.  He did.  Three times. “The Story of Kullervo” came from the Finnish Kalevala, Sigurd and Gudrún was his take on the Icelandic Eddas, and The Fall of Arthur was inspired by the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthure and the Stanzaic Morte Arthure.  We’ll read each of these works in the context of its particular literary tradition to explore how Tolkien fits/alters/extends/compresses traditional material to make it his own.

The course divides naturally into three segments each devoted to a mythic story and Tolkien’s treatment of it.  Each of the first two sections will be followed by an exam on that section.  The last week’s classes will be a summing up in open discussion/evaluation/critique of Tolkien’s use of his material.  I will provide some talking points to get us started, but this is your opportunity to try out your opinions about what you’ve learned.   It is, if you like, a rehearsal for the cumulative final exam on Friday of the last week in which you will be asked to evaluate Tolkien’s works both individually and comparatively, judging them in the context of each other as well as of their sources as read in class.

Tolkien and Tradition will meet Monday and Thursday (primary lecture and closing session) from 7:30 pm – 9:00 pm (UTC-5)

Course Schedule

Week 1 (August 26 – 29):
Background
Monday: The folklore movement, myth, language, romanticism, nationalism.
Thursday: Lönnrot, Proto-Kalevala 1834, Old Kalevala 1835, Kalevala 1849. Folklore or fakelore?

Week 2 (September 2 – 5):
THE ORPHAN — Tolkien and Kalevala
Monday: Tolkien and myth.  Language & languages. Kalevala essays pp. 246-277  “I would that we had more of it left”
Thursday: Kalevala essays continued

Week 3 (September 9 – 12):
Tolkien and Kalevala
Monday: Runos 31–33 — Kalervo’s Offspring and Ilmarinen’s Wife
Thursday: Runos 34–36 — Kullervo and his Family

Week 4 (September 16 – 19):
Tolkien and Kalevala
Monday: “The Story of Kullervo” pp. 214-227
Thursday: “The Story of Kullervo” pp. 227-245

September 20: TAKE-HOME EXAM (due following Monday)

Week 5 (September 23 – 26):
THE HERO — Tolkien and the Volsungs
Monday: Norse worldview. Sources: Snorri Edda, Codex Regius, Völsungasaga
Thursday: Tolkien and the North from Andrew Lang to Beowulf to the Kolbítar

Week 6 (September 30 – October 3):
Sigurd
Monday: Sturluson, Gylfaginning pp. 7-19, Bellows Mythological Poems Voluspø
Thursday: Sturluson, Gylfaginning pp. 99-104, Bellows Heroic Poems Gripispo, Reginsmol, Fafnismol

Week 7 (October 7 – 10):
Sigurd
Monday: Tolkien, Legend  Volsungakvitha pp. 59-126
Thursday: Legend Volsungakvitha pp. 127-180

Week 8 (October 14 – 17):
Gudrún
Monday: Bellows, Atlakvitha
Thursday: Legend  Gudrúnarkvitha

October 15: TAKE-HOME EXAM (due following Monday)

Week 9 (October 21 – 24):
THE KING — Tolkien and Arthur
Monday: Arthurian tradition from Geoffrey to Malory to Tennyson
Thursday: Tolkien, the Waldman letter, The Notion Club Papers

Week 10  (October 28 – 31):
Tolkien and Arthur
Monday: Benson, Alliterative Morte
Thursday: Benson, Stanzaic Morte

Week 11 (November 4 – 7):
Tolkien and Arthur
Monday: Tolkien, The Fall of Arthur Cantos 1 – 5
Thursday: “The Unwritten Poem”

Week 12 (November 11 – 14):
Tolkien and Arthur
Wrap-up and class discussion

November 15: FINAL TAKE-HOME EXAM (due following Monday)

Required Texts

Original illustration by Breana Melvin, all rights reserved.