Widsith, D&D, Fanworks, and Films: Another Year in ENGL 4475

ENGL 4475: the year in review

I’ve filed away my course notes and given out the final grades. ENGL 4475: Tolkien & Myth-making is officially over for the 2016-17 academic year. The project proposals, annotated bibliographies, abstracts, research papers, and exams are all done now. What’s left is my delight at the many ways my students found to explore Tolkien’s fiction in relation to adaptation, medievalism, and fandom.

ENGL 4475 gift of lembas
Gift of lembas by a student from ENGL 4475

Our last class of the year is a celebration of the work students have done. We set up in a party room with snacks and drinks and read excerpts from each other’s essays. After all, it’s more interesting if you’re writing for your peers and not just for your teacher. My students then present their research projects to the rest of the seminar. I give them a range of general options for these projects, from studying Tolkien’s adaptations of texts such as Beowulf to producing their own adaptations based on Tolkien’s fiction. Because this is a senior-level English course, all of the projects require a written researched analysis of the texts and, if relevant, of the students’ process of adaptation or their participation in fandom.

On presentation day, the class had assembled around the seminar table but for one student, who at the last moment made quite an entrance in full costume, much to our delight. Gavin Rollins’ project was about cosplay, but he didn’t just write about it; he arrived as a living example of his research. (He also brought us some delicious lembas).

ENGL 4475 cosplay Gavin Rollins
Part of Gavin Rollins’ cosplay project

Gavin’s paper dealt with the immersive, communal experience of cosplay and the intertextuality of Tolkien’s fiction and Jackson’s films.

A couple of other students were thinking along the same lines when they conducted their study of Dungeons and Dragons gaming. Andrew Potter used his and his friends’ experiences to investigate the question, can a D&D adventure feel like a “faerian drama“?  Andrew’s answer is maybe, and certainly more likely than the experience of playing a video game or watching a film.

Luke Hammond and his D&D research team
Luke Hammond (centre) and his D&D research team

Luke Hammond created his own D&D-style adventure based on Tolkien’s Mines of Moria episode and experimented with his friends in a campaign lasting several hours to see how Tolkien’s place descriptions worked (they worked well) and what kind of choices would be made by players who didn’t know the books or the movies. (Turns out the Frodo-character put on the Ring every chance he could get!). Luke’s analysis also considered how the role-playing genre could fulfill Tolkien’s ideas expressed in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” about fantasy, recovery, escape, and consolation.

D&D dice from diceaholic.wordpress.com
Image from diceaholic.wordpress.com

It would take too long to summarize every student’s project, but at least I can give you a taste of the variety we enjoyed. Courtney Francis wrote about Legolas/Gimli fanfiction; Megan Bruce about surveillance in The Lord of the Rings, including her poem about Galadriel’s mirror as a surveillance tool. Nicole Martina tackled Tolkien’s descriptive landscapes and his artistic style. And Allyson Roussy adapted the Old English poem “Widsith,” in which a widely-travelled poet recounts all the great rulers and places he has been, thus recording legends and histories in his verse. Allyson transposed the style of “Widsith” to the history of Middle-earth, beginning with Silmarillion tales and ending with The Lord of the Rings. Her speaker is Gandalf, someone who has travelled widely and seen a great deal in Middle-earth. Although she does not attempt to write consistently in alliterative verse, she typically captures the four-beat style of her Old English model. Here is a passage spoken by Gandalf:

…I acted as guide in the war against Sauron.
I counselled men and elves and exiles,
sought those who desired to aid our cause,
who strengthened the armies of Middle-earth.
I was with Aragorn, of the House of Isildur,
Beren’s mirror, with Barahir’s ring,
last heir to the throne of Gondor and Arnor,
A true leader with patience and humility,
The hands of a healer and the hands of a king….

Film adaptations of Tolkien’s work also provided fertile ground for analysis. Kimia Nejat studied Jackson’s film representations of Frodo and Sam. Samantha VanNorden, starting with the premise that Middle-earth is a character in The Lord of the Rings, analyzed Jackson’s representations of certain landscapes. And Alexandra Rudderham examined Tolkien’s representation of Galadriel along with the film adaptations by Ralph Bakshi and Peter Jackson. Tolkien’s handling of gender and women has long been a topic of debate, and Alex further asked, have filmmakers captured all of Galadriel’s qualities as a beautiful, perilous, powerful queen? Compare for yourself; first, Bakshi’s animated 1978 version:

and then Peter Jackson’s 2001 Fellowship of the Ring:

Fan Studies in the Classroom

I’ve had an opportunity to write about the kind of work I ask my students to do in this course. My essay “Adaptation as Analysis: Creative Work in an English Classroom” is forthcoming in the book Fan Studies in the Classroom, edited by Katherine Howell, to be published by the University of Iowa Press. In this essay I discuss the theory behind my ENGL 4475 assignments, the practical details of how they’re done, and why I think the assignments  encourage intertextual engagement, creativity, and textual analyses. I’ll post more when the book is published. In the meantime, some of my former students’ assignments can be seen on the ENGL 4475: Studies in Medievalism – Tolkien & Myth-making course page.

Selected Bibliography

This is not meant to be a complete bibliography by any means, but I thought that a few readers might like to sample some of the sources, especially those dealing with fandom and adaptation, that my students have read as part of their research. I’ve culled one or two sources from each essay in case anyone wants to look further into some of the topics my students have written about.

Abrahamson, M.B.  “J.R.R. Tolkien, Fanfiction, and the Freedom of the Reader.” Mythlore, vol. 32, no. 1, 2013, pp. 53- 72.

Allington, Daniel. “‘How Come Most People Don’t See It?’: Slashing The Lord of the Rings.” Social Semiotics, vol. 17, no. 1, Mar. 2007, pp. 43–62.

Amendt-Raduege, Amy. “Dream Visions in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.” Tolkien Studies, vol. 3, 2006, pp. 45-55.

Barker, Martin. “Envisaging ‘Visualisation’: Some challenges from the international Lord of the Rings audience project.” Film-Philosophy, vol. 10, no. 3, 2006, pp. 1-25.

Battis, Jes. “Gazing upon Sauron: Hobbits, Elves, and the Queering of the Postcolonial optic.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 50, 2004, pp. 908-26.

Clark, George. “J.R.R. Tolkien and the True Hero.” J.R.R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle-Earth, Greenwood Press, 2000, pp. 39–52.

Cohen, Cynthia M. “The Unique Representation of Trees in The Lord of the Rings.” Tolkien Studies, vol. 6, 2009, pp. 91-125.

Croft, Janet Brennan and Leslie Donovan, editors. Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J.R.R. Tolkien. Mythopoeic Press, 2015.

Enright, Nancy. “Tolkien’s Females and the Defining of Power.” Renascence, vol. 59, Issue 2, 2007, 93-108.

Ewalt, David M. Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons and Dragons and the People Who Play It. Scribner, 2013.

Gygax, Gary. “The Influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on the D&D and AD&D Games.” Dragon, vol. 95. March 1985. pp. 12-13.

Hammond, Wayne G. and Christina Scull.  J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator. HarperCollins, 2004.

Haydock, Nickolas. The Imaginary Middle Ages: Movie Medievalism. McFarland, 2008.

Hellekson, Karen and Kristina Busse, editors. Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays. McFarland, 2006.

Hutcheon, L. with S. O’Flynn. A Theory of Adaptation, 2nd ed, Routledge, London and New York.

Jenkins, Henry. “About: Aca/Fan Defined.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan.

Pugh, Sheenagh. The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a Literary Context. Bridgend, Seren, 2005.

Rahman, Osmud, Liu Wing-Sun, and Brittany Hei-Man Cheung.  “’Cosplay’: Imaginative Self and Performing Identity.”  Fashion Theory-The Journal Of Dress Body & Culture, vol. 16, no. 3, Sep 2012, pp. 317-342.

Rateliff, John. “Tolkien Moot 2008 MerpCon IV John D. Rateliff  solo speech History of the Hobbit author.” YouTube, 28 Jun 2012.

Reid, Robin Anne. “Thrusts in the Dark: Slashers’ Queer Practices.” Extrapolation, vol. 50, no. 3, 2009, pp. 463–483.

_________.  “Tree and flower, leaf and grass: The Grammar of Middle-earth in The Lord of the Rings.”  Fantasy Fiction into Film.  Edited by Stratyner, Leslie and James R. Keller.  McFarland, 2007.

Russell, Gary.  The Lord of the Rings: Art of the Fellowship of the Ring.  HarperCollins, 2002.

Shank, Nathan. “Productive Violence and Poststructural Play in the Dungeons and Dragons Narrative.” Journal of Popular Culture, vol 48, no.1, 2015.

Smol, Anna. “Oh…Oh…Frodo!’: Readings of Male Intimacy in The Lord of the Rings..” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 50, no. 4, 2004, pp. 949–979.

One response to “Widsith, D&D, Fanworks, and Films: Another Year in ENGL 4475”

  1. […] I’ve written about this type of assignment before in my essay “Adaptation as Analysis: Creative Work in an English Classroom” that is in Katherine Anderson Howell’s volume, Fandom as Classroom Practice: A Teaching Guide (U of Iowa Press, 2018). One of the student projects illustrated and discussed in that essay can be seen here and a review of another year in the course is posted here. […]


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