English 525TK: The Lord of the Rings

About the Course

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings has had a bumpy ride through critical circles, so much so that its critical reception is almost as important as the work itself. When The Lord of the Rings was first published in the 1950s it was panned by most critics, whose taste was founded on high modernism (Yeats, Pound, Joyce, Beckett, and the like). The Lord of the Rings seemed to them profoundly different from those works which were canonised as the great novels of modern literature, that it was dismissed as puerile and irrelevant to the history of "the great tradition". Nothing could be further from the case. The critics failed to realise that their modernist tastes were themselves determined by a reaction against Victorian literary conventions, and that Tolkien's work, begun almost half a century earlier, owed much to these conventions. They also failed to account for the fact that Tolkien was an Oxford scholar of philology — medieval language and literature — and that the literary context against which The Lord of the Rings was composed was that of the Middle Ages, a period whose literature they had little time for. The lack of attentiveness to the literary qualities of Tolkien's writing manifested most obviously in the continual misspellings of the names of his characters, as well as of the author's own name.

But by the 1960s The Lord of the Rings had become a phenomenon, embraced by the Counter-Culture, especially in America. Sales sky-rocketed, and Tolkien fandom reached proportions which anticipated today's fans of Star Trek or Harry Potter. This, of course, merely added to the critics' dislike (and envy) of Tolkien. It made not a jot of difference that Tolkien himself disapproved of such extreme fandom, or that some critics began to defend The Lord of the Rings by arguing that it was also a product of modernism. Academics continued to spurn Tolkien and (probably aided by the length of the work) denied him a place in the university curriculum. Regardless, Tolkien's popularity continued to grow, and publishers began accepting manuscripts which were obviously derivative of The Lord of the Rings from other writers. By the 1970s an entire genre of 'fantasy' literature existed in bookshops. That a new genre should have grown out of the Tolkien phenomenon was surely an argument for the literary significance of The Lord of the Rings, and new critical movements beginning in the last quarter of the 20th century began to make that possible.

Slowly academics began to look at The Lord of the Rings as something other than a modernist novel (failed or otherwise). During the 80s, academics were heavily influenced by works like Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth, and they equated Tolkien's creation of his own world with the world of mythology. They began to examine Tolkien's writing as myth, subjecting it to Jungian interpretations or similar analyses which draw on the interplay between psychology and story-telling. This critical fashion began to fade in the late 1980s, and the last decades of the twentieth century saw critics focusing on Tolkien as a scholar, asking how Tolkien's interest in languages and medieval literature shed light on the art and meaning of The Lord of the Rings. Polls of readers in the 1990s consistently showed that the popular readership judges The Lord of the Rings to be the best book of the twentieth century, and the release of a film version in 2001, suggests that this strange work strikes a chord with the world of today. Perhaps that is why T.A. Shippey declares Tolkien to be the author of the twenty-first century.

But nothing in the fantasy genre has had the same impact on the popular imagination until, arguably, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. Tolkien probably would have found both of these series distasteful, but their cultural impact and re-use of medieval source material for a modern audience make have made them a focus for study of "medievalism" (the revival of medieval aesthetics in modern times) and popular culture.

Reading The Lord of the Rings therefore prompts us to ask not only what the meaning of the work is, but also what it tells us about how we have read literature during the past century. The Lord of the Rings blends the ancient with the modern and the scholarly with the popular. It asks us to determine what kind of a work it actually is, and in doing so asks us to define what makes good literature and how our attitudes to literature have changed in the past hundred years.

Course Objectives

Students in this course will:

  • Acquire a knowledge of The Lord of the Rings and the medieval literature which informs it.
  • Acquire knowledge of the historical and cultural background which informs The Lord of the Rings, as well as a familiarity with the issues that have been discussed in Tolkien scholarship.
  • Learn to read and discuss The Lord of the Rings for enjoyment and for its insight into the human condition.
  • Demonstrate the skills associated with the professional practices of literary criticism, including writing and formatting conventions, research skills, and methods of analysis.
  • Demonstrate the ability to synthesise their knowledge and skills as part of a culminating experience for the English major.


Course Information

  • Thursday
  • Time: 4:00 PM - 6:45 PM (Course Number 20908)
  • Location: Jerome Richfield 352
  • Office Location: Sierra Tower 803
  • Office Hours:


The primary text for this course will be The Lord of the Rings. We will also be reading other texts from handouts distributed on Canvas.

For your final project, you may need to purchase works by Tolkien, depending on the direction of your project, although many will be in the library.

Coursework and Grading

Your grade will consist of the following elements: preparation and participation, a set of translations, a journal assignment, and a final project.

Preparation and Participation

Preparation and Participation will make up approximately 10% of your final grade according to my discretion. I will assign points based factors such as on-time attendance, classroom participation/disruption, bringing your textbook to class, and so on. For further information on factors that can influence your grade, see under Class Policies below.


Throughout the semester we will be translating some Old and Middle English texts into Modern English. Your translations will be worth 20% of your final grade.


Throughout the semester, you will keep a running journal consisting of significant passages with annotations about why you think the passages are significant. This assignment is worth 20% of your final grade.

Final Project

In the second half of the semester you will design and complete a final project. This can be a traditional literary criticism essay, or it can take another form by prior arrangement with me. You may also choose to do a collaborative project, if you want to take on something ambitious that needs multiple people.

Class Policies

By enrolling in this course you agree to be bound for the purposes of this class by the policies below, which serve as a formal legal agreement. You may reject these policies by dropping the class within the time allotted by the University.


Grades are A, B, C, D, or F and can receive a plus or minus. To receive a grade other than a WU, you must have completed more than half the coursework (no exceptions).

Since students in English courses are expected by society at large to be acquiring writing skills, I privilege grammar, spelling, and editing in my grading. Work containing distracting numbers of typos, spelling mistakes, or grammatical errors will be graded primarily on these criteria on a sliding scale which may supersede any percentages given in the Coursework and Grading section above. That is, the more distracting these factors are, the more they are worth (up to 100% of your grade). A rough guide to what is distracting is any sign that might give an employer pause when evaluating a job application.

Make-Up Tests

I will only administer tests once and am not required to provide you with the opportunity to take make-up tests if you miss them at the assigned time. I will only administer make-up tests if 1) you have a legitimate excuse recognised by the university, 2) I am able to do so without adversely impacting other students either by taking time from my other duties or by creating conditions that would give you an unfair advantage for the purposes of grading.

Extra Credit

In some semesters opportunities may arise for non-required activities such as guest lectures, and I will offer extra credit for attendance at or participation in these activities. I will always offer this extra credit to the entire class. Because my time commitments do not allow me grade extra assignments, I do not award extra credit to individual students for any reason. I keep to this policy very strictly.

Preparation and Participation

Enrolling in this class requires a commitment to participate in a community of learners in which you agree to contribute to and not to detract from the learning environment. In order to receive full credit for participation, you must do the readings in advance, bring assigned textbooks to each class, be prepared to discuss the materials, and complete all assignments. You must also arrive to class regularly, arrive on time, and remain in the class room for the duration of the class period. For disruptive behaviour, I reserve the right to increase the proportion of your final grade allotted to participation, as I feel appropriate.

Inappropriate Use of Technology in Class

Ringing and/or vibrating cell phones in class disrupt my concentration and that of your fellow students, inevitably lowering the quality of the learning environment. If your cell phone goes off in class, I reserve the right to impose penalties to your grade or to ask you to leave the classroom, as I deem appropriate.

If you have a computer or smart phone in the classroom, it will be very tempting to check your e-mail, read Facebook, or generally surf the web for purposes unrelated to the class. Resist. If I catch you engaged in these activities, I reserve the right to impose penalties to your grade or ask you to leave the classroom, as I deem appropriate.

Academic Honesty

It is extremely important that all aspects of your work are come by honourably. Efforts to gain an advantage not given to all students are dishonest and regarded as an extremely serious matter by the academic community. Consequences range from probation to expulsion. University policy stipulates that plagiarism, the submission of another person’s work as your own, is a violation of academic honesty, even if it arises out of ignorance or oversight, rather than deliberate cheating. Enrolling in this class means that you agree to abide by my decision regarding the appropriate action to take in cases of academic dishonesty. If you have any questions about plagiarism, paraphrasing, quoting, or collaboration, please consult me.


CSUN values an inclusive learning environment, where we respect the varied perspectives and experiences of a diverse community. Students and faculty each have responsibility for maintaining a respectful space to express their opinions. Professional courtesy and consideration for our classroom community are especially important with respect to topics dealing with differences in race, color, gender and gender identity/expression, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, disability, and age.

As a “responsible employee” at CSUN, I am required by federal and state laws to report incidences of harassment and discrimination to the campus Title IX Coordinator if they are disclosed to me. If you have experienced harassment or discrimination and do not want the Title IX Coordinator notified, instead of disclosing the experience to me, you can speak confidentially with CSUN’s Care Advocate by calling (818) 677-7492. For more information regarding your university rights and options, please visit the University’s Title IX website at http://www.csun.edu/title-ix.

Add/Drop Policy

Students should make sure that they follow the university’s add/drop deadlines, outlined in the Schedule of Classes. According to university policy, drops are only allowed after the set date when “a) there is a serious and compelling reason–specifically the student’s emotional or physical health or financial condition is clearly in jeopardy, and b) there is no viable alternative–including repeating the class”. Students will need to provide documentation on official letterhead–a letter, on official stationery, from a doctor or an employer–to support their reasons. No adds will be allowed unless a student can provide documented proof–e.g., a clerical error–for the reason for the tardiness. Please make sure to meet the deadline!

Withdrawals and Incompletes

The standard grade if a student fails to complete the work for a class is a “WU”. This is the equivalent of an “F”, but the grade may be changed if you re-take the course at a future time. This grade is also assigned to students who have not attended after the first few classes of the semester but have not officially “withdrawn” from the course.

I may assign an Incomplete (“I”) if and only if you meet all of the following conditions:

  • You have completed the vast bulk of the assigned work;
  • You are passing the class;
  • You fill out and bring to me a Request for an Incomplete form (also available from the English Department office), on which I detail exactly what is still needed for completion of the course.
  • I can make no exceptions to this policy, even if it affects your financial aid.

Once you take an incomplete, you have a year from the date recorded on the form to complete the requirements of the course and have your grade changed; therefore, you should submit work early enough to allow me to grade your work and fill out the necessary forms to assign you a new grade.

Keep in mind that, after you take an Incomplete, any grading of your work becomes an added burden on my busy timetable during the following year. Therefore you should not expect the normal amount of comments on your work or any extra teaching beyond my normal office hours.

The schedule below is an approximation and may be adjusted over the course of the semester. Please check back for changes. In addition to the readings listed below, it is recommended that you read Introducing the Literature of the Middle Ages and Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-Stories". The former provides essential background on the literary period that was Tolkien's primary inspiration, and the latter is perhaps the fullest expression of his literary theory.

Date Assignments
Jan. 22 Introduction and Background
Jan. 29 Reading:
Feb. 5 Reading:
Feb. 12 Reading:
Feb. 19 Reading:
Feb. 26 Homework:
Mar. 4 Reading:
Mar. 11 Reading:
Mar. 25 Reading:
  • The Lord of the Rings, Book IV
Apr. 1 Reading:
  • The Lord of the Rings, Book V
Apr. 8 Reading:
  • The Lord of the Rings, Book VI
Apr. 15 Reading:
Apr. 22 Final Projects Workshop
Apr. 29 Final Projects Workshop
May 6 Final Projects Workshop
May. 13 Final Projects Due


Dictionaries and Linguistic Resources

Works by J.R.R. Tolkien

The following is list of the most significant publications for the study of The Lord of the Rings. Some works appear in multiple anthologies and reprints, making it hard to cite which edition or year of publication you will find. However, the publication dates given here give some sense of the order and period in which Tolkien produced his works. Many of Tolkien's essays and minor works can be found in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (Acacia Press, 1997) and A Tolkien Reader, 2nd edn. (Ballantine, 1989).

  • The Hobbit, first edition London 1937, fourth edition London: George Allen & Unwin, 1978; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978.
  • 'Leaf by Niggle', first published in The Dublin Review, January 1945, 46-61; also published in Tree and Leaf, Smith of Wootton Major, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son, London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1975.
  • Farmer Giles of Ham, first edition London: George Allen & Unwin, 1949; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950; also published in Farmer Giles of Ham, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1975.
  • 'The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorthelm's Son', first published in Essays and Studies 6 (1953), 1-18; also published in Tree and Leaf, Smith of Wootton Major, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son, London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1975.
  • The Lord of the Rings, in three volumes:

    I. The Fellowship of the Ring, first edition London: George Allen & Unwin 1954, second edition 1966; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954, second edition, 1967.

    II. The Two Towers, first edition London: George Allen & Unwin 1954, second edition 1966; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955, second edition, 1967.

    III. The Return of the King, first edition London: George Allen & Unwin 1955, second edition 1966; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956, second edition, 1967.

A considerable amount of Tolkien's work was published after his death by his son Christopher and others. The most important of these is The Silmarillion (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1977; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), which Tolkien was working on at the time of his death, and Humphrey Carpenter's edition of Tolkien's Letters (Houghton Mifflin, 1981). In addition, Christopher Tolkien has been steadily publishing his father's working drafts of all his texts along with considerable editorial commentary:

  • Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1980; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980).

The History of Middle Earth, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1983-; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984-) in twelve volumes. The early drafts of The Lord of the Rings are published as The Return of the Shadow (1988), The Treason of Isengard (1989), The War of the Ring (1990), and Sauron Defeated: The End of the Third Age, the Notion Club Papers and the Drowning of Anadune (1992).

Also relevant are two of Tolkien's editions on Old English poems, edited for publication after his death, the introductions of which give insight into his literary ideas:

  • The Old English Exodus, ed. Joan Turville-Petre, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.
  • Finn and Hengest: the Fragment and the Episode, ed. Alan Bliss, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983. 

Reference Works

Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1977; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Wayne Hammond and Douglas A. Anderson, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography, Winchester: St Paul's Bibliographies; New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Books, 1993.

Judith A. Johnson, ed. J.R.R. Tolkien: Six Decades of Criticism (Bibliographies and Indexes in World Literature 6), Westport, Conn., and London: Green, 1986

David Day, The Tolkien Companion.

David Day, Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (Simon and Schuster, 1992).

Colin Duriez, The J.R.R. Tolkien Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to his Life, Writings, and the World of Middle Earth.

Karen Wynn Fonstad, The Atlas of Middle-Earth (Houghton Mifflin).

John and Priscilla Tolkien, The Tolkien Family Album.

Richard West, Tolkien Criticism: An Annotated Checklist, 2nd edn. (Kent State, 1981).


Reviews dealing with the reception of The Lord of the Rings can be found at the reviews page.

The most recent scholarship on Tolkien's work is to be found in the journal Tolkien Studies, which is in the Oviatt Library (PR6039.O32 Z488 or online).

Important books are listed below. Note that this list is somewhat dated.

T.A. Shippey, The Road to Middle Earth (Allen & Unwin, 1982; second edition, Grafton, 1992).

T.A. Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).

Robert Eaglestone, ed., Reading The Lord of the Rings: New Writings on Tolkien's Classic (London: Continuum, 2006). I have an essay on Service in The Lord of the Rings in this volume.

Glen Goodknight, ed., Proceedings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference, 1992.

Randel Helm, Tolkien's World.

Neil Issacs and Rose Zimbardo, ed., Tolkien: New Critical Perspectives (University of Kentucky Press, 1981).

Rayner Unwin, The Making of the Lord of the Rings.

Jane Chance, The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power, rev. ed. (UPK, 2001).

Jane Chance, Tolkien's Art: A Mythology for England, rev. edn. (UPK, 2001)

Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, ed, J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator (Houghton Mifflin, 1997, rpt. 2000).


Coming up with an exhaustive (or even up-to-date) list of links to material on the web would be a horrendous task. I list only a few useful links here. Remember to beware of anything you see on the web!

Background Sources

This is not an exhaustive list of literary influences on Tolkien but a few of the most influential texts along with other useful reading on early English literature. For a more complete list of Tolkien's sources, see Appendix A of T.A. Shippey's The Road to Middle-Earth.

Anglo-Saxon Poetry, ed. S.J. Bradley (London: J.M. Dent, 1982; Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1982, reprinted 1995).

Beowulf. The text is available in multiple translations. Tolkien wrote a preface for the translation by J. R. Clark Hall and C.L. Wrenn. I would recommend avoiding Seamus Heaney's 'translation', which makes the poem sound Irish.

The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, ed. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Kalevala, translated by Keith Bosley (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

Norse Poems, ed. Paul B. Taylor and W.H. Auden (London: Athlone Press, 1981).

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1975; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975). The translation by Marie Boroff available in most anthologies of British literature is also excellent.

Snorri Sturluson, Edda, translated by Anthony Faulkes (London: Dent, 1987).

Also, check out the Electronic Beowulf.