Tolkien Syllabus

When you're on the job market, one of the aggravating recommendations they give is to compose a number of upper-division syllabi for courses you might someday teach. In theory, having such syllabi makes you look more prepared. In reality, by the time you're ready to teach such classes (and assuming you ever get a job), you're probably older and wiser and have updated your pedagogy considerably. 

Anyway, regardless, I'm working on a Tolkien syllabus. There's a couple of good resources out there: a Waymeet for Tolkien Teachers website, as well as the recent book edited by Leslie Donovan, Approaches to Teaching Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

There's any number of ways to do a course like this, but I decided on a single-author course that covers Tolkien's life and works. The major question is this: what works should one require in a 15-week course devoted to Tolkien? I came up with the following list:

  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary, One Vol. Edition, 2005. ISBN: 978-0618640157. (Any post-1994 edition acceptable.) 
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. 1967. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2012. ISBN: 978-0547928227. (Any 3rd edition acceptable.) 
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. Tree and Leaf: Including “Mythopoeia.” Boston: HarperCollins, 2001. ISBN: 978-0007105045. 
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. Smith of Wootton Major / Farmer Giles of Ham. New York: Del Rey, 1986. ISBN: 978-0345336064. 
  • Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. ISBN: 978-0618057023. 
  • Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth: Rev. and Exp. Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003. ISBN: 978-0618257607

The Shippey book and the Carpenter biography seem like obvious choices to me, although I'd use them as supplements rather than spend on class time on them. Otherwise, my reason for the works by Tolkien are as follows:

LoTR and Hobbit are the obvious ones here. I'd skip The Silmarillion, not because it's not important, but mostly because it's not a very accessible text for undergraduates. Granted, Tolkien courses tend to attract Tolkien fans, but skipping S is my attempt at accommodating the newbies.

In terms of Tolkien's non-legendarium writings, "Leaf by Niggle," "Mythopoeia," "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son," and Smith of Wootton Major all offer major pathways to Tolkien's life and way of thinking. (Plus, they're all relatively short.) My favorite non-legendarium text is actually Farmer Giles of Ham, but that's a bit harder to fit into the framework of Tolkien's life. (It might, however, potentially be an attractive way, given the mutual Oxford-connections, to introduce students what the heck Tolkien was thinking when he created Tom Bombadil.)

I'd skip Tolkien's major essays, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" and "On Fairy-stories," partly due to time constraints. (Even so, I think OFS is a bit over-rated in terms of practical literary criticism.) I'd also skip providing much in the way of Tolkien's medieval sources. For one thing, I'm not a medievalist, and a teacher has to play to their strengths. For another, reading and discussing such texts as they deserve would take too much class time. Nonetheless, I'd probably supplement Tolkien's works with handouts of certain medieval works. Pairing "Homecoming" with The Battle of Maldon is an obvious choice, as is the Earendil poem and the sections of Beowulf that Tolkien lifted for Aragorn et al's approach to the king of Rohan.


  1. Interesting choices – I am grateful for you sharing your thoughts here :)

    I am not particularly impressed with The Hobbit (agreeing wholeheartedly with the author's own critique of the book), so I'd like to see someone skip it Рpossibly including instead something from the Silmarillion mythos such as e.g. The Children of H̼rin, or possibly hand-outs from the History of Middle-earth series ... the Athrabeth, anyone?

    Your comment about On Fairy-stories also piques my curiosity :) I am not sure what you mean by “practical literary criticism” in this context? Personally, I have found OFS useful as a framework and vocabulary for discussing Tolkien's own work, but I haven't tried applying it as a framework for other authors (and I am not entirely sure of how useful it would be for that, unless the author is very strongly inspired by Tolkien also at this theoretical level).

  2. Hi Troels,

    Thanks for the comment. I'm less infatuated with The Hobbit than I used to be, and I can certainly see myself doing something like you suggest with something from the Silmarillion mythos.

    What you noticed about applying OFS to other authors is exactly what I meant with my remark about "practical literary criticism." I know some people really admire OFS, but I just personally haven't found the categories of escape, consolation, recovery to be that useful. (Eucastrophe strikes me as more applicable, but still hardly universal.) I'm on the edge even about applying these categories to Tolkien's own work. On one hand, yes, definitely -- how can you not? On the other hand, sometimes I thought the OFS categories miss out on some important issues. For example, OFS's distinction of "escape of the prisoner" vs. "flight of the deserter." Sure, escape of the prisoner sounds better. Nonetheless, the metaphor also emphasizes (1) individual over social processes, and (2) suggests that there's something we need to escape *from*, or that the current state of the world is a kind of prison. OFS, however, absolutely IS the first place one should go to start talking about Tolkien. :)


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