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Tolkien scholars to discuss 'Lord of the Rings'

Andrea Lynn , Humanities Editor
(217) 333-2177;


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — In anticipation of the Dec. 19 release of the film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic, "The Lord of the Rings," local Tolkien scholars will gather on Friday (Dec. 7) to consider some of the more academic aspects of the work.

The panel discussion on "The Medieval Sources of Tolkien's ‘Lord of the Rings' " is set for 3:30 to 5 p.m. in the Lucy Ellis Lounge of the Foreign Languages Building, 707 S. Mathews Ave., Urbana. The panelists will be Thomas Shippey, English, St. Louis University, author of "J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century" and "Road to Middle-Earth" and a former colleague of Tolkien at Oxford; and Robert Barrett and Alfred Siewers, both in the UI English department.

The event, which is sponsored by the new UI Program in Medieval Studies, is free and open to the public.

According to Siewers (pronounced SEE-verz), who teaches the Tolkien course at the UI, the popularity of "The Lord of the Rings" is "partly a mystery: It's a big book filled with obscure references, and it's fairly anti-technological, although many of its biggest fans are cybertechies.

"But it's also a text that recreates a sense of a whole fantasy world with layers of history, languages and issues of heroism, good, evil, romance, etc. Yet all of this is grounded in important ways: in a fairly realistic narrative style, in landscapes that purport to be a way-prehistoric Europe, in plot themes and characterization and lore drawn from real medieval tradition, and with heroes – the hobbits – who are kind of English-style Everymen but with furry feet. So, there are many points of connection between Tolkien's elfin realms and the ‘real’ earth."

Because "The Lord" draws on ancient traditions and transmits them to modern readers, it acts, in a way, as "a substitute religion to non-believers and as a reinforcer of faith to the faithful. That's why it counts hippies, techies, evangelicals and preppies among its loyal fans."

Tolkien really knew his stuff, according to Siewers.

"He studied how stories worked in ancient tradition, he thought a lot about the interaction between mythology and religion and narrative in relation to the human soul, and he wrote what he described as a Catholic story, which isn’t religious, and a mythology for England, which isn't irreligious."

The book, Siewers said, was such an oddity when it first emerged that publishers didn't know what to make of it. Still, it became "the grandfather of modern fantasy writing, and also was voted by customers in 2000 as 'the book of the millennium.' This, despite the fact that a lot of academic types continue to pooh-pooh it."