Tolkien & Tradition

Disclaimer: The information on this page is provided as an overview. The course outline, readings, and assignments may be subject to change in the final syllabus as determined by the lecturer and/or preceptors.

How does “The Story of Kullervo” relate to Kalevala? How does Sigurd and Gudrún relate to The Volsung Saga? How does The Fall of Arthur relate to the medieval Arthur legends?

Tolkien once said his immediate response to reading any medieval story was to want to write one like it.  He did.  Three times. “The Story of Kullervo” came from the Finnish KalevalaSigurd and Gudrún was his take on the Icelandic Eddas; and The Fall of Arthur was inspired by the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthure and the Stanzaic Morte Arthure. We’ll read each of these works in the context of its particular literary tradition to explore how Tolkien fits/alters/extends/compresses traditional material to make it his own. The course divides naturally into three segments each devoted to a mythic story and Tolkien’s treatment of it. You will learn to evaluate Tolkien’s works both individually and comparatively, judging them in the context of each other as well as of their sources as read in class.

Notes for Summer 2024: This Flex course includes recorded lectures by Dr. Verlyn Flieger and will be precepted by Dr. Sara Brown and Erin Aust. The Summer 2024 term will include a 1-week summer break during the week of June 17, 2024.

Course Schedule

Week 1: Background

  • The folklore movement, myth, language, romanticism, nationalism.
  • Lönnrot, Proto-Kalevala 1834, Old Kalevala 1835, Kalevala 1849. Folklore or fakelore?

Week 2: The Orphan — Tolkien and Kalevala

  • Tolkien and myth.  Language & languages. Kalevala essays pp. 246-277  “I would that we had more of it left”
  • Kalevala essays continued

Week 3: Tolkien and Kalevala

  • Runos 31–33 — Kalervo’s Offspring and Ilmarinen’s Wife
  • Runos 34–36 — Kullervo and his Family

Week 4: Tolkien and Kalevala

  • “The Story of Kullervo” pp. 214-227
  • “The Story of Kullervo” pp. 227-245

Week 5 (September 23 – 26): The Hero — Tolkien and the Volsungs

  • Norse worldview. Sources: Snorri Edda, Codex Regius, Völsungasaga
  • Tolkien and the North from Andrew Lang to Beowulf to the Kolbítar

Week 6: Sigurd

  • Sturluson, Gylfaginning pp. 7-19, Bellows Mythological Poems Voluspø
  • Sturluson, Gylfaginning pp. 99-104, Bellows Heroic Poems Gripispo, Reginsmol, Fafnismol

Week 7: Sigurd

  • Tolkien, Legend  Volsungakvitha pp. 59-126
  • Legend Volsungakvitha pp. 127-180

Week 8: Gudrún

  • Bellows, Atlakvitha
  • Legend  Gudrúnarkvitha

Week 9: The King – Tolkien and Arthur

  • Arthurian tradition from Geoffrey to Malory to Tennyson
  • Tolkien, the Waldman letter, The Notion Club Papers

Week 10: Tolkien and Arthur

  • Benson, Alliterative Morte
  • Benson, Stanzaic Morte

Week 11: Tolkien and Arthur

  • Tolkien, TheFall of Arthur Cantos 1 – 5
  • “The Unwritten Poem”

Week 12: Tolkien and Arthur

Wrap-up and class discussion

Required Texts

The links are provided for convenience only, and we encourage students to purchase texts wherever they wish.

Further required reading will be provided to registered students in the final syllabus.

Course History

This course has been offered in the following semesters.

Summer 2024Dr. Sara Brown & Erin Aust
Spring 2021Dr. Sara Brown
Fall 2018Liam Daley
Fall 2016Erin Aust
Fall 2013Liam Daley

Course Artwork

Course artwork adapted from an original illustration by Breana Melvin. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

This course helps students learn to evaluate Tolkien’s works both individually and comparatively, judging them in the context of each other as well as of their sources.

START: April 29, 2024

DURATION: 12 Weeks

ID: LITC 5301