The English department has recently introduced a slew of interesting courses that parallel pop geek literary culture. Courses on Jane Austen and Harry Potter classes were two such first-year seminars offered last semester. This semester, Professor Craig Williamson is teaching a class on two famous fantasy authors, called Tolkien and Pullman and Their Literary Roots, “in the context of their early English sources,” in the words of the course catalogue. 60 students signed up for the 40-student course in the form of a Friday 2-5 pm seminar in Science Center 199: the first English course to be held in a lecture hall. The popularity of the class reflects the department’s willingness to respond to evolving students’ interest in literature.
Williamson, who specializes in medieval literature, initially proposed the course idea to the department last year because many of his students had asked him to teach J.R.R Tolkien or Phillip Pullman. “I had students in my medieval literature classes who’ve read fantasy novels and were hounding me to teach one or both of the authors,” he said. The authors fall within his area of expertise because Pullman is explicitly rooted in William Blake and John Milton, said Williamson. Similarly, Tolkien taught Old English and Middle English poetry at Oxford University and indicated that Middle Earth was rooted in medieval literature. The course can be considered a pre-1830 or post-1830 course for English majors or minors, a distinction the department makes, following the classical teaching of English Literature.
The seminar, along with the new first-year seminars, reflects a new voice in the department at Swarthmore. Williamson said the department was enthusiastic about the course as a bridge between old and new literature. Department Head Professor Peter Schmidt said, “It’s a good example of professors listening to students and departments listening to professors; that’s how change occurs.”
Williamson spent one year creating the syllabus to intertwine old and new texts, background and literary criticism. “I wanted to make the [reading] experience richer and more complicated,” said Williamson. Many of the readings are not necessarily obviously related to the authors, like letters by Tolkien, his translations of old texts, and a literary analysis on the role of riddles in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Additionally, Williamson incorporates some multimedia in the last hour of each class.
The induction of the course at Swarthmore reflects a new interest in the scholarship of these two authors. “Academia is beginning to recognize the importance of these two authors,” said Williamson,. “Tolkien began the revival of publishable fantasy writing…it was a push for [authors like] Rowling and Pullman.” Rutgers University and Wheaton College offer similar courses on Tolkien. Pullman, on the other hand, is still being discovered. “There is not yet scholarship on Pullman,” said Williamson.
Despite academia’s lagged realization of these two authors, professors acknowledge that our generation grew up reading Tolkien and Pullman. Naturally, the class overfilled within the first few days of registration and Williamson received “so many impassioned emails about how important one or both of the authors were to them,” said Williamson; he even received some in Elvish, the language of a species in Tolkien’s trilogy.
Each student has a different story about taking the class. Dan Chung ’10, a prospective English major, has practical and personal reasons. “I wanted to fulfill my pre-1830 requirement. But also, these are well-known authors that most people have a clear understanding of. I want to go one step further in scholarly analysis,” he said. Although he is slightly intimidated by the reading list, Chung said, “it needs to be multi-faceted and voluminous research on it because [the authors] are more difficult to analyze when they are familiar. Tolkien and Pullman are part of my life.”
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