Find Friendship in “Lewis & Tolkien” with Dr. Olsen

by Dan Kinney

Dr. Corey Olsen is the president and founder of Signum University, as well as an active faculty member: Since the school’s creation, Dr. Olsen has taught classes almost every session, ranging from Tolkien studies to medieval literature. This fall, he is revisiting Lewis & Tolkien, previously offered in Spring 2012. Dan Kinney had a chance to ask Dr. Olsen a few questions about this thought-provoking course.

Kinney: Is this class—which focuses on both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien—geared at long-time fans of these authors, or more for newcomers to them? If both, how is that reconciled? Or, I guess a better way of asking is this: Does one need an extensive knowledge of these authors to enjoy the class, or will newcomers enjoy it equally?

Olsen: The course should, I hope, provide some rich new fodder for thought for students who are very familiar with one or both of the authors—especially if, as is so often the case, they are more familiar with one of the authors than the other. But newcomers will not be left behind. The class won’t presume upon much previous information or reading, and we’ll be starting pretty much from scratch. As is usual in my classes, the focus of the discussion will be on the primary texts themselves, so everyone who does the assigned reading will be able to engage equally with the material.

Kinney: Obviously, people usually associate both Tolkien and Lewis with their best-known works, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, respectively. Will you be looking at these authors’ most well-known works, or more obscure pieces?

Olsen: Some of both. We will read and discuss some of the established classics: The Hobbit and several of the Chronicles of Narnia, for instance. But many of the texts may be new to people. We’ll be studying several of Tolkien’s minor works, such as “Leaf by Niggle” and Smith of Wootton Major, and one of my favorite Tolkien’s pieces, the “Athrabeth.” The course will also feature a careful study of my very favorite book of Lewis’s, his breathtaking mythic novel Till We Have Faces. Far too few people—even among Lewis fans!—have read this book, the most brilliant work of fiction Lewis ever wrote, I think.

Kinney: What is your main “goal” in teaching this class on Lewis & Tolkien and what can students who enroll in “Lewis & Tolkien” expect?

Olsen: The main goal of “Lewis & Tolkien” is a close comparison of the works of these two authors. The two are, of course, very often linked to each other, but I think their works are too rarely studied together. For one thing, I find there is surprisingly little overlap among their dedicated fans. The majority of Tolkien fans tend to be a bit dismissive of Lewis’s fiction, and although lovers of Lewis tend to nod politely in Tolkien’s direction, they rarely immerse themselves. People who study their lives talk about their relationship, but that is rarely accompanied by careful discussion of their fiction. In the class, we’ll put the books side by side, examining moments when the two are wrestling with the same idea or undertaking the same kind of imaginative project. It is a fascinating way to see in action the real similarities and differences in their writing and in their approaches to storytelling.

Kinney: Finally, what would you say to someone contemplating taking this class, especially someone who is on the fence about enrolling in “Lewis & Tolkien”?

Olsen: This class is an unusual opportunity to take a close and impartial look at these two remarkable authors. You’ve heard a lot about their friendship and how they influenced each other—this is your chance to see that in action, to experience that interaction in a rich and direct way. The experience will enrich your understanding of both authors, as well as your understanding of fantasy and myth in general.

Kinney: Having taken this class when it was previously offered, I highly encourage my fellow students to consider enrolling in it today! As Dr. Olsen says, it will definitely expand your understanding of both Lewis and Tolkien and help you appreciate their contributions to literature.