The Lord of the Rings: Culture & Audience

Lord of the Rings Culture & Audience

May 5, 2014
12 Weeks
LITA 5309


Robin Anne Reid
Sara Brown
Board Member: Elected Faculty Member; Preceptor
Erin Aust

How did his own culture affect Tolkien? How have different audiences around the world received Tolkien’s works?

This course will focus on a close reading of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings from two closely related approaches: cultural studies and audience reception. Knowledge of either approach is not necessary for taking the course. The class readings, lectures, discussions and assignments will focus not only on the text, but on the modern circumstances of its production and  its reception in the United States and in Europe. The influence of Tolkien’s work on such modern cultural developments as the environmental and anti-war movements as well as on popular cultural productions, such as the emergence of the high fantasy genre which did not exist as a publishing category before the success of The Lord of the Rings, is notable. The extent to which his work was influenced by medieval sources and acted to shape our contemporary understanding of the medieval world has long been studied, and Tolkien scholarship is beginning to develop new approaches to the Legendarium.

During the summer of 2014, this class will investigate the extent to which this initially obscure, lengthy, and extremely complicated fictional work rooted in early medieval European mythology became so firmly entrenched in modern American and European cultures.  We will consider how, from 1965, when the first American paperback edition appeared, to the present, The Lord of the Rings has been engaged in complex ways with the development and circulation of modern discourses such as romantic nationalism, fascism and individualism as well as how it has been differently received in the United States, Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia.

Course Schedule

Weeks 1 – 5 – Tolkien and Fimi

Readings:  The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien; The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien* edited by Humphrey Carter; Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits† by Dimitra Fimi

* This selected edition of Tolkien’s letters from 1914 to 1973, with an excellent index, is a valuable resource for any Tolkien scholar. We will be reading specific letters as a class, but you are free to find/use others in your work.

† Fimi’s monograph focuses on the legendarium including the posthumous work published by Christopher Tolkien, situating Tolkien’s work in the cultural context of his life, from late Victorian and early Edwardian periods to his death in 1973. We’ll be working through Fimi’s monograph in conjunction with The Lord of the Rings.

Weeks 6 – 7 – Cultural Studies: Principles and Applications to Tolkien

The readings for this unit will be three essays: the first, by Cary Nelson, is on the origins and early development of the American cultural studies movement which also covers principles he sees as important to cultural studies projects. The second and third (Aaron Jackson and David Craig) are cultural studies of the influence of World War I and the changes in the constructions of masculinity in Britain in the post-war period on Tolkien’s work. These two essays supplement Fimi’s cultural history.

Weeks 8 – 11 – Audience Reception in the United States and Europe

This unit begins with two essays on American reception of Tolkien’s work (Martin Barter and Joseph Ripp), one a narrative of personal experience and the other an in-depth analysis of the publishing history of the work in both the UK and the US, the informed discussion of copyright issues, and the extent to which the Ace paperback edition and the resulting controversy, which was covered in the media, was a primary reason of the ensuing (and surprising, to the publishers) popularity of Tolkien’s work in the 1960s.

The four final readings (Roger Griffin, Margareta Carretero González, Olga Markova and Niels Werber) explore the varied reception of Tolkien’s work in Italy, Spain, Britain, Russia and Germany.

Week 12 – Final Discussions

The final week will be spent in discussion and reflection, and on the final assignments.

Required Texts

Course History

This course has been offered in the following semesters.

The Lord of the Rings: Culture & Audience Offerings
Semester Preceptor(s)
Summer 2014 Dr. Sara Brown, Dr. Erin Aust