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In this week’s “Talk on Tolkien” listen to Michael Drout as he constructs a lecture on “How to Read J.R.R. Tolkien” out of personal reminiscences, a discussion of the features of oral tradition, and images of stone and textual ruins.

Professor Drout is best known to Tolkien scholars as one of the founding editors of the journal Tolkien Studies, and the editor of the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment and of Tolkien’s Beowulf and the Critics. You can find out more about his publications and projects on his website MichaelDrout.com, on his blog Wormtalk and Slugspeak, or by following him on twitter: @MikeDrout.

The following lecture was delivered in October 2013 at Carnegie Mellon University. Michael Drout was an undergraduate there, and in his talk he pays tribute to his former medieval literature professor, Peggy Knapp, while recalling some of his experiences as a student. But don’t be fooled into thinking that these are simply personal digressions from the subject of Tolkien; Drout masterfully interlaces the different strands of his talk to build to his concluding reflections on textual ruins and nostalgia in Tolkien’s work.

After listening to this talk, you might end up reflecting on the pastness of the past and the ways in which it is overlaid by the present. This “joyous and heartbreaking” feeling of longing is not only found in Tolkien’s work but also in many Old English poems. I thought it would be interesting to extend Professor Drout’s meditation on ruins by looking at a video adaptation of the Old English poem known as “The Ruin” which layers past and present in unexpected ways:

(You might note that the director, translator, and speaker in this film is Stuart Lee, a professor at Oxford University who is a medievalist and a Tolkien scholar.)

If you are interested in delving further into Professor Drout’s discussion of the features of oral tradition, such as “communicative economy” and “traditional referents,” I would recommend John Miles Foley’s book How to Read an Oral Poem as a great starting point.

As always, any comments are welcome. Does Michael Drout’s view of how to read Tolkien strike a chord with you? Do you see the same qualities in the text as he does? Other thoughts?