Tolkien Class Explores Trilogy's Roots in Medieval Literature

Lord of the Rings class gets students enthusiastic about Medieval Literature

The fate of Middle-earth may rest on the broad shoulders of Aragorn and a diminutive Hobbit named Frodo, but the students in Rebekah Long's English class carried their own burden into December: a 10-15 page final paper.

This semester at Duke, Long is teaching a class on J.R.R. Tolkien, the English scholar and author of the 1954 epic "The Lord of the Rings." The most influential fantasy writer of the 20th century, Tolkien's work has surged in popularity in the 21st century, thanks to a blockbuster "The Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy. On Wednesday, five days after those final papers were due, the third film in the trilogy, "The Return of the King" opens in theaters nationwide.

Long's English 121A class focused on three themes coursing through Tolkien's extensive writing: the influences of war, the chivalric code in Tolkien's medieval sources and Tolkien's own sense of morality. The topics may have seemed heavy and the reading assignments extensive, but Long's 30 students plunged into the work headfirst with lengthy debates and lively class discussions every Tuesday and Thursday.

"They're really a fantastic class," said Long, a Ph.D. candidate in medieval literature. "I've been very pleased with them. So many are from different majors and they bring different perspectives."

Long asked her class to focus on the psychological costs of war. Tolkien was deeply affected by fighting in World War I, she said, but too many people reduce his writing to escapist fiction about the battle between good and evil.

"Tolkien was saying that the experience of war is excruciating, and victory always comes mingled with loss," she told her students.

To prove the point, senior Beren Segarra showed a clip from an extended version of a DVD of "The Two Towers." In the clip, Faramir of Gondor, a soldier, kills an enemy but explains that his enemy's sense of duty was no less than his own.

"War has made corpses of us all," the soldier says.

Segarra jumped at the chance to take Long's class while registering online in the spring. He was weaned on Tolkien, he recalled, lying in bed in Mississippi at night as his parents read him "The Lord of the Rings." In fact, "Beren" is the name of a character in a love story by Tolkien. Segarra's parents also used the name of another Tolkien character, ‰wyn, for their daughter. "My parents were really big fans," he acknowledged.

Segarra, an English major, said the class seems more open than other English classes he's taken. While academically grounded, the class focuses on the "actual beauty of the novel" and what went into creating Tolkien's fiction, he said. "[Long] stays away from the dead-horse topics," Segarra said.

Unlike Segarra, who has read the trilogy five or six times, senior Drew Clary, a computer science major, began reading Tolkien just this fall. He'd seen the first two movies, but his interest in Tolkien has grown "infinitely" since enrolling in the class. Beyond Duke, Tolkien's work is an international sensation. A quick Google search for "Lord of the Rings" turned up 6,520,000 hits. And for decades, groups have appropriated Tolkien's fantasy world of hobbits, orcs, ents and elves for a wide swath of uses, from environmental movements to pro-war American political rhetoric, Long said.

But only recently has Tolkien begun to garner the respect he deserves as a "brilliant medievalist," she said. "I knew how influential he was in fantasy fiction, but I had little sense about his importance as a medieval scholar," Long said. "While researching and writing my dissertation, I learned he was a profound thinker. He wrote an incredible essay about 'Beowulf.' More and more I'm fascinated by how he thought about bringing medieval literature into the present and making it relevant." And it's a heck of a tale.

"It draws students into the course," she continued. "It gets them enthusiastic and involved in reading medieval literature. Through Tolkien, students realize that the literature speaks to them and relates to our everyday world. It's not static, boring or dusty." Long had to turn some students away because the class was overbooked, and Clary said there's a buzz about it on campus. "I'll carry the book around on campus and people ask, 'Are you in the Tolkien class?'" he said.


Rebekah Long is a Gerst Instructorship Fellow and doctoral candidate in the Department of English at Duke University, where she specializes in medieval literature. Her dissertation is titled "Apocalypse and Memory in 'Pearl'" (a poem).

Long is at work on two articles pertaining to Tolkien. The first is "Nameless Lands: J.R.R. Tolkien's Memorial Arts." In this paper, Long looks at Tolkien's lifelong relationship to the medieval elegy and considers the implications of this for the portrayal of loss in "The Lord of the Rings." The second, "Knights' Tales in the Trenches: Violence and Memory in David Jones's 'In Parenthesis' and J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings,'" looks at violence and medievalism in Jones' epic World War I poem and Tolkien's fantasy masterpiece. She will present parts of the article, which draws on the themes of her course, at the Modern Language Association convention in San Diego this December and the 39th International Medieval Congress next May.

Long came to Duke in 1997 from California, with degrees from Stanford University (MA) and U.C. Berkeley (BA). Her interests outside of medieval literature and Tolkien include early '80s new wave music and art deco-era movie theaters. She plans to see "The Return of the King" when it opens Dec. 17.

Reprinted from The Durham Herald-Sun.