ENGL 4475 Studies in Medievalism: Tolkien and Myth-making

ENGL 4475 Studies in Medievalism Tolkien & Myth-making

Fall 2019 – Winter 2020    ||   Full-unit course   ||  Tuesdays and Thursdays 12:00-1:15 || Classroom: Seton 529

The course at a glance
Interested? Read more…
The fine print: pre-requisites & ENGL or CULS requirements
Questions? Get in touch
Reading List
Evaluation and student projects
Course poster

The course at a glance

Medievalism is a field of study that examines responses to and recreations of the Middle Ages. This year’s course will focus on the extensive writings of  J.R.R. Tolkien, a medievalist and fiction writer who adapted medieval sources to create his own body of myths. Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium can be seen as the expression of a twentieth-century writer who is responding to some of the crucial events of his time, such as the two world wars, but who is doing so through the lens of medieval languages and literatures. In our full-year study of Tolkien’s major works, we will examine how Tolkien worked as a myth-maker and how subsequent writers and other artists have extended his mythology.

In the first term, the focus will be on understanding the medieval literature in which Tolkien was immersed and on examining how he remade such sources in some of his stories and poems. We will study theories about folklore and mythology that Tolkien redefined in his fiction and in his medieval scholarship.

By the second term, while continuing our examination of Tolkien’s major fiction and some medieval texts, we will also consider contemporary forms of myth-making in the numerous adaptations of Tolkien’s stories in professional and fan genres — in fan fiction, art, video, drama, and film. Theoretical readings on adaptation, myth, medievalism, oral tradition, and fandom will be included throughout the course.

Dragon, by Tolkien

Interested? Read more….

Because this is a full-year course, we have lots of time to explore numerous issues and approaches, and there are enough assignment options for you to follow your particular interests. Read Evaluation and Student Projects below to get a better idea of just a few of the possibilities.

Beowulf. Directed by R. Zemeckis, 2007
–Beowulf. R. Zemeckis, dir.

The title of this course, Studies in Medievalism, indicates the overarching theme and approach to the material. Medievalism is an expanding field of study  that goes beyond simply pointing out how medieval elements are reused and recreated in later periods. In fact, medievalism questions the boundaries that we construct between historical periods and between the borders of distinct disciplines. It asks us to be aware of our attempts to understand the past from a pastist or presentist view. Medievalism also leads us to inquire into the professionalization of literary studies and the role of the amateur or fan in creating historical understanding. It leads us to examine concepts of authenticity and anachronism, as well as to recognize the function and representation of the medieval as other, as the “all-purpose alternative” to modernity, as critic Lee Patterson put it. Theories of translation, performance, and adaptation play an important part in understanding medievalism.

The Shores of Faery, painting by Tolkien
The Shores of Faery, painting by Tolkien

The sub-title of the course, Tolkien and Myth-making, indicates our more specific path to exploring medievalism in the modern and contemporary world. You will have an opportunity to study closely not only Tolkien’s best known works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but also other texts such as The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, and The Fall of Arthur.  You will develop a fairly extensive knowledge of Tolkien’s fiction, as well as his critical writing in “On Fairy-Stories” and “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Tolkien’s theories about and practice in writing fantasy, myth, or folktales will be set against prominent myth theorists who preceded him, such as Max Müller and Andrew Lang, and other theorists of the modern period as well.

Odin on Sleipnir
–Odin riding his horse, depicted on a medieval runestone

In order to understand Tolkien’s work, we will also read some medieval literature. Tolkien was a medieval scholar whose academic career was devoted to the study of the language and literature of premodern texts, which permeated his imagination. Through the year, you’ll gain knowledge of some of the major works of medieval literature. We’ll read (in modern English translations) some Old English, Old Icelandic, Finnish, and Middle English texts.

Beren and Luthien. Copyright Rebecca Power
–Student Project: Beren and Luthien. Copyright Rebecca Power

Our study of Tolkien’s work does not only involve his medieval influences. He was, after all, a twentieth-century writer, and this course also examines Tolkien as a modern writer. He is often seen as a writer responding to the trauma of his experiences in the First World War and living through and seeing his sons fighting in the Second. Other themes in his work, such as industrialization, environmentalism, heroism, or freedom and surveillance address modern and contemporary themes, while his handling of gender and race afford opportunities for further study.

Our study of medievalism and myth-making will not stop with Tolkien’s work. Tolkien’s creation of a body of myths and legends has opened the way for others to engage with his Middle-earth mythology. To follow this myth-making impulse, we’ll engage with some concepts from fandom studies and particularly with adaptations in various genres, from the Peter Jackson films to video games to fan works such as fiction, art, cosplay, and vidding. One of the special features of this course is that you will have the option to create  your own adaptations of Tolkien’s work, as you can see in some of the illustrations on this page. You can read more about one student’s adaptation project, “An Imagined Dystopian LotR Film” here.

The fine print: pre-requisites and ENGL or CULS requirements

Tauriel, The Hobbit. Jackson, dir.

Although the minimum requirement for an upper-level seminar course such as this one is successful completion of one unit of literature at the 1000 level, it is strongly recommended that you have some experience in a 2000-level English course before registering in a senior seminar. No previous reading experience in medieval literature or in Tolkien is required for this course. Please contact me if you have any doubts about your eligibility.

English Majors & Honours historical requirements
For English Honours students who need to fulfill historical requirements, this course counts as a half unit of credit in medieval literature and a half unit of credit in modern literature. For English Majors, the course may count as a half unit, pre-1800 literature course.

Cultural Studies students
ENGL 4475 also counts as an elective in the Cultural Studies program.

Questions? Get in touch

You can email me at anna.smol@msvu.ca if you have any questions about the course. During the rest of this term, you can drop in during my office hours on Tuesdays or Thursdays 1:30 – 2:00, but please note that my hours are more irregular during the exam period and the summer terms, when I am frequently working elsewhere on my research. Please email me to arrange an appointment if you’d like to meet to discuss the course at these times.

Reading List

Leah 1.JPG
–Student project: The Tree of Tales, copyright Leah Phillips

Fall term:

The Silmarillion
The Children of Hurin
The Hobbit
Tree and Leaf: “On Fairy-Stories” and “Mythopoeia”
“The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son”

other modern texts:
Selections from World War I poetry
Selections from G.B. Smith,  A Spring Harvest

from Old Icelandic:
Selections from the Poetic Edda
“The Deluding of Gylfi” from the Prose Edda
The Saga of the Volsungs

from Old English:
selected poems such as “The Wanderer,” “Deor,” “Widsith,” “The Battle of Maldon”

from Finnish:
selections from The Kalevala

Winter term:

The Lord of the Rings
“Leaf by Niggle”
Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”
The Fall of Arthur

from Old English:

from Middle English:
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Other, mostly modern – contemporary:
Films by Peter Jackson, Bakshi, Rankin & Bass
selected fanfiction

While you will be expected to read secondary sources relevant to your research projects, the entire class will be reading in common excerpts from the following theorists and critics throughout the year:

Susan Bassnett, Translation Studies
Roland Barthes, from Mythologies
Kathleen Biddick, from The Shock of Medievalism
J.J. Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”
Carolyn Dinshaw, from How Soon is Now?: Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time
T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”
John Miles Foley, How to Read an Oral Poem
James Frazer, from The Golden Bough
Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny”
Matt Hills, from Fan Cultures
Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation
Julia Kristeva, from “Approaching Abjection”
Andrew Lang, “On the Method of Folklore”
Claude Levi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth”
Max Müller, from Chips from a German Workshop

Student project (below): Doors of Durin by day and by moonlight. Copyright Jenny Davison

Evaluation and Student Projects

As a 4000-level seminar course, this is a small class in which you will be expected to participate fully  — by asking questions, being willing to discuss the texts, and thinking hard about theoretical and literary concepts. Over the course of a year, we’ll get to know each other quite well. Of course, you’ll be asked to do research and to write essays (the exact assignments will be announced closer to September).

One feature of this course is that you will have the option to do creative work — writing, performing, singing, painting, filming, photographing — there are all kinds of options for those who want to try something new or to bring into play talents they already know they have. To give you an idea of the range of possible topics, here are a few past students’ projects:

  • a research paper on the Zemeckis 2007 film adaptation of Beowulf
  • a research paper comparing the representation of women in The Lord of the Rings (Eowyn) and in The Fall of Arthur (Guinevere)
  • a short story about a single guy living in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia who ends up in an unlikely adventure (a parody of The Hobbit)
  • a creative movement performance piece illustrating the marring of the elves in The Silmarillion
  • an adaptation of Tolkien’s Beren and Lúthien story in Old English-style alliterative verse
  • a rap based on The Lord of the Rings
  • a painting illustrating Tolkien’s theories about myth and fantasy
  • a translation of an Old Icelandic poem into American Sign Language
  • a sculpture recreating the Doors of Durin in The Lord of the Rings
  • photographs for imagined scenes in a dystopian adaptation of The Lord of the Rings

All of the creative arts projects require a research-informed written analysis of the work; all of the standard research papers require the same level of creativity and attention to craft and execution as the other projects.

I always try to break up major assignments into workable units with manageable deadlines and to give ample guidance in producing these works.  More details about the evaluation scheme and assignments will be given in class.

Below:  student project by Shelby MacGregor– scenes from an imagined dystopian LotR film.  1.  The Black Gate is Closed;  2. Eowyn

The Black Gate is closed

Eowyn by Shelby MacGregor

See more here.


A detailed syllabus will be handed out in class and posted on the Moodle site. Updated weekly assignments and readings will always be listed in the weekly outline on Moodle.

Student Office

Glaurung sets forth to seek Turin, by TolkienImage:  The image at the top of this page is a detail from Tolkien’s painting, “Glaurung sets forth to seek Turin” which was first published in the Silmarillion Calendar 1978. See Tolkien Gateway for information.

6 responses to “ENGL 4475 Studies in Medievalism: Tolkien and Myth-making”

  1. […] I have an essay in the book, “Teaching Tolkien in the First-Year Literature Survey Course,” which is based on my experience in teaching a section of English 1171 in my department here at Mount Saint Vincent University. In this course, I teach Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring in the context of other works in the English literary tradition. (For an upper-level course dealing with more of Tolkien’s works, you can check out my English 4475: Tolkien and Myth-making webpage). […]


  2. […] 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. […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: