Current project: Tolkien and myth-making

I can trace my readings of Tolkien to various stages in my career: I was introduced to The Hobbit in a high school class, then I read The Lord of the Rings as an undergraduate (wasn’t every college student reading Lord of the Rings in the 1970s?). As a graduate student, I read Tolkien’s seminal essays on Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon and worked out of his edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As a new teacher assigned to a children’s literature course, I read Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories” as background to teaching The Hobbit, and later on, in teaching Old English, I would return to Tolkien’s medieval scholarship. So, in a small way, either as a fiction writer or as a medieval scholar, Tolkien has been a continuing presence in my career, but it was only after the Peter Jackson movies came out in 2001 that I, like so many others, was drawn back into and engrossed by Tolkien’s fantasy world. The movies made me go back to the books; the books made me seek out scholarly writings about and by Tolkien; and all the while I was discovering the wealth that online fandom had to offer. The scholarly field of Tolkien studies exploded with new activity: a new peer-reviewed journal, numerous publications, international research projects, academic conference sessions. I became part of that activity. I won’t describe all of my Tolkien publications and presentations in detail; they are listed here – but generally they have dealt with Tolkien as a writer about war, both from a medieval and a modern (WWI) perspective; with gender and sexuality, particularly medieval and modern masculinities; with Tolkien’s visual imagination and his theories of fantasy; with adaptations of Tolkien’s work in various new media; and with the teaching of The Lord of the Rings.

My current project is to complete a book-length discussion of Tolkien and myth-making based on what I have learned (and where it is leading me). I have been fortunate enough to be able to go to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where I have examined some of Tolkien’s manuscripts and unpublished works, and to the Tolkien Archive at Marquette University in Milwaukee where I have delved into the extensive collection of Tolkien fanzines and other fan materials. My study focuses on Tolkien’s concept of mythopoesis, on his patterned use of history and the way that some Anglo-Saxon materials find their way into his own myth-making, as well as on the storytellers who have followed Tolkien and engaged with his mythology in various media. While I hope that the book will shed light on some of Tolkien’s ideas and creative processes, I also aim to discuss more broadly the appeal of medievalism and processes of adaptation from the Old English period to our contemporary digital age.

I am also working on a continuing project with my colleague Jeff MacLeod on Tolkien’s painterly style. Jeff and I have already co-authored an essay on Tolkien’s visual imagination, and we have lots more to say on the subject!

The image used at the top of this page is Tolkien’s drawing of The Tree of Amalion, which has been published in J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator by Hammond and Scull. It is also widely available online.