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HSTEU 370 B: J.R.R. Tolkien: A Mythology for England

Meeting Time: 
TTh 12:30pm - 2:20pm
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Professor Robin Stacey
Robin Chapman Stacey

Syllabus Description:


      To the horror of many modern-day critics, J.R.R. Tolkien has several times been selected in national polls in the U.S. and Britain as the author of the twentieth century, beating out such worthy opponents as James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway.  The recent success of Peter Jackson’s film version of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s best known work, has served to increase his popularity even further. This course takes on the challenge of understanding Tolkien in the context of the many different pasts he negotiated in the course of creating his complex mythology. Tolkien was first and foremost a philologist:  what became Middle Earth had its origins in his habit of inventing complex language systems for which he then felt compelled to construct entire new worlds and populations. He was a medievalist, a specialist in the northern mythologies of early England, Scandinavia, and the Celtic lands; the heroes and monsters of those early tales fired his imagination from his earliest boyhood and continued to animate his scholarly and popular writing throughout his adult life. He was also a devout Catholic who combined complex Neo-Platonic theological notions of good and evil with the fatalism of the Germanic myths. But if Tolkien was a man of the past, he was also a person caught up in some of the most dramatic trends and events of his own day: the trench warfare of World War I, in which he lost two of his closest friends, the battle of the Somme, from which he was himself invalided out, and the various social and economic changes sweeping over his beloved land of England before and after World War II.

            All of these aspects--combined with his popularity as an author, of course--make Tolkien an ideal figure through whom to introduce students to the importance of myth as a way of understanding the challenges we face as humans living in the modern world.  The themes of this course are the themes with which Tolkien and his contemporaries were so fruitfully preoccupied: the relationship between language and myth, religion and the existence of God, the nature of good and evil, the possibility of heroism in an age of total warfare, the age of the machine and its impact on the environment.   At issue also are the ways in which Tolkien and his work have been received and interpreted. Was he, as many have argued, a racist whose only terms of reference for the depiction of evil were black and white? Was he a sexist, unable to imagine women in positions of real independence? An ivory tower sort, complacently divorced from the realities of the world? How can one possibly explain the appeal of a work like The Lord of the Rings in an era of feminism and sexual liberation, racial integration, popular anti-war protests, and the rise of technology? All will be important issues for us as the class progresses.

Class Requirements

The course as a whole revolves around in-class discussion of the readings; sometimes reading for one day in a week will be heavier than for the other, so it is important for students to read ahead when this happens. Some weeks are also heavier in terms of reading than are others; again, advance planning is important. As you assess the reading for a given day, please remember to look at both hours in the class session; as you assess the reading for a given week, please remember to look at both days of the week. Occasionally, I will lecture on various Tolkien-related subjects, and there are some movies scheduled as well, some mandatory and some optional, as will be indicated on the syllabus.  Class participation either in discussion or on the class discussion board is an extremely important part of the class and will count for 20% of the grade.

Alas, the fates (and UW) have decreed that everything must be online, and unfortunately, breakout discussion groups cannot be recorded through Zoom.  This means that all aspects of the class must be attended synchronously, since I expect there to be a fair amount of breakout group work in these sessions.   The good news is that we are small enough that I hope to be able to create at least some sense of community in the class.  Moreover, since my experience has been that all of us Zoom-users are happier if we are given regular breaks, so we will stop every half hour for questions, and a breather, and maybe even an online game or two.    Tolkien is fun as well as serious, and I plan to explore both of those sides to him during the quarter!

I am very sorry that it will be necessary for us to spend so much time online.  I infinitely prefer things in person, as I'm sure you do also. Moreover, I know that many of you may be or find yourselves during the quarter struggling with computer access, uncooperative internet shenanigans, overly participatory pets or children, and sheer unmitigated STRESS, so we just have to do our best and let it go at that.  I totally get that--this will be only my second time teaching online, and my first time with a mostly-discussion class.  We will all just have to be kind to each other and keep one another in the loop as to what is happening.  Between now and the beginning of class, I will be giving thought to other things we might do to make things easier and more fun for us all!



There will be three main assignments:  a midterm assignment on authors of the First and Second World Wars; a final essay or creative project; and a final exam to be held at the time set aside for us in the UW exam schedule.  Requirements and topics for these papers will all be outlined in detail and made available on the class website at a later date. The following books are required for the course.  All except TFMR are available for purchase at the University Bookstore.  PLEASE NOTE THAT THE HOBBIT AND THE LORD OF THE RINGS MUST BE READ BEFORE THE CLASS BEGINS IN JANUARY.   We will of course be reading large parts of these works along the course of the quarter as well, but it is important for how the class progresses that we all be able to refer to characters and events from these particular works right from the get-go.

Required readings:

1)To be read before the course beginsJ.R.R Tolkien, The Hobbit (any complete and preferably authorized edition)

2) To be read before the course beginsJ.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (any complete edition)

3) J.R.R. Tolkien/Christopher Tolkien, ed.,The Silmarillion 

4) J.R.R. Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader
5) Humphrey Carpenter, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (abbrev. Letters below)

6) C.S. Lewis, Perelandra

7) J.R.R. Tolkien/Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth (abbrev. Unfinished Tales below)

8) J.R.R. Tolkien, Smith of Wooton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham


1) J.R.R. Tolkien, The Children of Húrin

 2)  Turgon/Smith, ed., The Tolkien Fan's Medieval Reader  

Catalog Description: 
Explores J.R.R. Tolkien in historical context. Influence of the nineteenth-century philosophy and folklore, World War I, Germanic mythology, Oxford Christianity, and the Inklings. Primary themes include language as a source of myth, fate and free will, religion, technology and nature, heroism and war, race and evil.
GE Requirements: 
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Last updated: 
October 28, 2020 - 4:50am