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Tolkien's Early Influences: Building a World and a View

Leslie Donovan,                                                                    

Course Description

This course will provide in-depth study of the real life landscapes and early experiences of author, philologist, and medieval scholar J. R. R. Tolkien’s life that shaped the mythic and literary fabric of his fantasy fiction. We will investigate Tolkien’s works not only from a literary perspective, but also from the perspective of how the geography and sociopolitical history of the area in which he spent his childhood and youth influenced his epic vision. To accomplish this, students will gain a thorough knowledge of Tolkien’s early life and juvenile writings (juvenalia) through World War I, when he was 26 years old and had already begun establishing much of the mythological, philosophical, and literary foundation for his later works.

Although students enrolling in this class must already have strong, prior knowledge of Tolkien’s primary literary works (at least The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and preferably also some of The Silmarillion), studying the development of Tolkien’s corpus through the material evidence he produced at a time in his life roughly contemporaneous with that of most UNM undergraduates will offer new perspectives for examining Tolkien’s development as a creative writer and academic scholar. To accomplish this, we will gain a thorough knowledge of Tolkien’s early life and works by reading and discussing central historical works on his life as well as his earliest works. Students also may wish to enroll in the optional 3-credit Tolkien Field Experience course for the second eight weeks, which will culminate in a short-term international field study in Tolkien’s hometown in Birmingham, England.

Readings and Texts

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion 
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Book of Lost Tales I 
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Book of Lost Tales 2 
Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography 
Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 
Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, J. R .R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator 
Additional readings from the following will be assigned: 
Unpublished letters by Tolkien from 1915-1925; poetry published in school literary magazines; selections from The Tolkien Family Album, edited by John and Priscilla Tolkien.

Course Fee


Student Requirements

Attentive and careful reading, responsible attendance, active class participation, weekly blog discussion, 1 short biographical analysis, 1 analytic paper, 1 creative project, 1 interdisciplinary multimedia presentation, and 1 final portfolio.

About the Instructor

Leslie Donovan earned her B.A. and M.A. in English from UNM and her Ph.D. in Medieval Literature from the University of Washington. Her publications include studies of J. R. R. Tolkien, Beowulf, Anglo-Saxon women saints, and Honors teaching. She is also an alumnus of UNM’s Honors College.