Another Age, Another Layer: “Race, Gender, and the Other in Tolkien” for Spring 2023

The words "Race, Gender, and the Other in Tolkien's Middle-earth" in golden yellow on a background of a variety of drawn faces of persons of different middle-earth races. the faces have been drawn as in "possibly painted or chalked or something" not drawn as in "quartered"

By Bronwyn Rivera

How do we tackle the most up-to-date issues and questions in our primary age and apply them to the fictional world of Middle-earth? What do the mannerisms of Orcs tell us about otherness? In what ways was Tolkien extremely positive towards difference, and when did his era’s cultural or societal assumptions set him back? Dr. Sara Brown and Dr. Chris Vacarro invite students to explore these questions and more in a new class for Spring 2023: “Race, Gender, and the Other in Tolkien.”

Supplemented by Dr. Vacarro’s and Yvette Kisor’s Tolkien and Alterity, students will read through The Lord of the Rings to analyze and discuss alterity and difference in Middle-earth’s inhabitants, environments, and some of Tolkien’s most distinctive themes and motifs. To do this, Drs. Brown and Vacarro will incorporate a spectrum of critical theories into the texts every week, including gender, queer, and critical race theories, to build students’ confidence and comfort level as they navigate, identify, and dismantle these topics. Dr. Vacarro says, “I hope [students] come away with a better understanding of Tolkien’s attitudes towards otherness and difference, to articulate it for themselves in a conversation or conference paper, to talk about it in theoretical terms…about gender, otherness, religious differences, and to spot these things [in Tolkien’s legendarium] in a rather nuanced way.”  

(We would like students to know that while critical theory is a core element of “Race, Gender, and the Other in Tolkien,” this is not a class dedicated to theory. For those interested in a more theory-focused course, we welcome you to check out “Foundations in Critical Reading and Research,” now available through Anytime Audit.)

Since “Race, Gender, and the Other in Tolkien” is a new course, Drs. Brown and Vaccarro believe it’s only fitting that they teach the class via a new-to-Signum method: team teaching. For all 12 weeks of the course, the professors will deliver each live lecture together, with Dr. Vaccarro covering some topics and Dr. Brown covering others. There will also be times when their respective areas of expertise come together to study the same texts from different angles. To ensure that conversations are as authentic and multifaceted as possible, Drs. Brown and Vaccarro will draw from multiple outside sources, bringing in various voices and perspectives to discuss topics such as race, the connection between dwarves and anti-semitism, and Tolkien’s “squint-eyed Southerner” and orientalism.

In terms of weekly workloads, “please don’t be scared!” is Dr. Brown’s encouraging comment. Students can expect assigned readings, a short paper, a long paper, and a final oral exam: “There won’t be any extra writing expected. The materials will be divided between required readings before each preceptor session and suggested materials for further reading as your own time allows.” For students looking to get a preview on any of these topics before the first day of class, Drs. Brown and Vacarro advise looking into different critical theories. Specific titles include French-feminist theorist Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, Jane Chance’s Tolkien, Self, and Other, and The Body in Tolkien’s Legendarium, also edited by Dr. Vacarro. (Note: these books are not required for the course, nor are students expected to read them all the way through. Dr. Brown recommends looking up reviews on Google Scholar as a starting point).  

The Spring 2023 semester begins on Monday, January 9th, and live lectures for “Race, Gender, and the Other in Tolkien” will take place Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:00-4:30 pm ET. The small-group discussion sections will be scheduled based on the availability of the first students to register. We hope you’ll consider joining us as we unravel the many layers of Tolkien’s life and work, one conversation at a time.

Stella the Cat prepares to discuss the representation of many species in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

Stella Sas, a very wise and perspicacious grey kitty, carefully guards her stack of Tolkien books.