Process of Illumination: Introducing Tolkien Illustrated: Picturing the Legendarium for Summer 2023

Tolkien Illustrated: Picturing the Legendarium course artwork. Medieval-styled picture of a man with a staff and gray beard painting a picture of a man's face.

By Bronwyn Rivera

In Tolkien scholarship, the roads of literature and philology go ever on and on. This Summer 2023, we step off these well-worn paths and enter the visual realm instead. Signum University is delighted to introduce Visiting Lecturer Dr. Joel Merriner and his brand-new literature class: Tolkien Illustrated: Picturing the Legendarium.

Dr. Merriner, whose MA and Ph.D. focused on the relationship between Tolkien illustration and art history, has been sharing his observations on Twitter for many years. Now, he is eager to bring this fresh academic angle to Signum: 

“These two subjects are not separate entities but a sub-discipline that can teach us a great deal about how image and text go hand-in-hand. Tolkien Illustrated isn’t just about Tolkien but the wide, global view of art. As much as I love the imagery we’re used to in the film adaptations, I want to show people a broad spectrum of styles and approaches…traditions in different countries, and aesthetics, and teach students who are interested how to deconstruct the way pictures work. I want to give them a wide world of illustrations.”

This course combines art history, semiotics, and visual methodologies with Tolkien imagery and text. Students will learn how cultural, socio-political, and societal movements influence artists and speak to various demographics throughout history at a global level. From the traditional illustrations of Pauline Baynes, the Brothers Hildebrandt, and Alan Lee to the gritty, humorous contemporary fanart responding to censorship, counterculture, and the tabletop roleplaying game scene, there’s a mosaic of pieces just waiting to be explored and tales to spin. However, Dr. Merriner wants prospective students to know an art-focused background is not required to access and enjoy the class: “You’ll be eased into the nuts and bolts, key terms, and simplified semiotics, not overloaded with theory,” he promises. “I don’t expect anyone to walk away an art historian at the end of the semester. The goal is to help you learn enough to examine various pictures, find links between them, and enhance your understanding of Tolkien’s texts in a new way.”

For those interested in a preview of what the class entails, you only need to look at the stunning artwork created by Dr. Merriner on the course description page linked above. When asked about his idea behind the picture, he explained it as a visual metaphor: “What you’re looking at is Gandalf as a medieval monk, holding a scroll with a Jim FitzPatrick-inspired image of Frodo on it. I’m trying to hint that Tolkien illustration is a mixture of flavors and motifs, like his literary works. So don’t be surprised if you take this class and you’re presented with a Botticelli or Picasso now and then!” 

If anyone is particularly keen on getting ahead in the coursework and projects, Dr. Merriner encourages gathering Tolkien artwork that captures the creative and analytical eye sooner rather than later. Students will have opportunities to test various methodologies and theories on these images during preceptor sessions and demonstrate their understanding of key concepts through a short essay and final paper. 

“Imagery art can be a window into academic inquiry and take you into places you may not have predicted–a bit like Frodo stepping onto the road,” says Dr. Merriner. “This course stands out from others because it relies on visual aspects. It will take some getting used to if you haven’t studied pictures in this way previously, but I’m hoping curious students will sign up for the class, take everything in and say, ‘Oh! This is what I’ve been looking for!’”

Our venture begins on Monday, May 1st, with a one-week break from June 19-23 for Mythmoot X: Homeward Bound. As noted in the course description, Tolkien Illustrated will include two 90-minute live lectures Mondays and Thursdays 10:00-11:30 AM ET (3:00-4:30 PM GMT) and one 1-hour discussion session per week as assigned (4 hours total weekly).

The Pets of Signum pin-up for April: Joel’s editor Britney from Rumania!

Britney Merriner is clearly a Very Good Dog whose black and lime green harness go nicely with her black-peppered fluffy white coat. Her alert ears and darling curled tongue say she's ready for more, even up here on top of a granite-topped hill.