Thursday, March 18, 2010

REH and other omissions aside, Rings, Swords, and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature a worthy listen

Slowly—too slowly and decades overdue, in my opinion—fantasy literature is gaining a foothold in colleges and universities. Long ignored and/or the subject of sneering intellectuals and defenders of the literary “canon,” works like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are finally starting to appear on a handful of college syllabi. (To geek out a moment and quote Gandalf the Grey, “that is an encouraging thought.”)

For this slowly building acceptance of fantasy literature in academic circles, one has to acknowledge the work of the college professors who have cajoled, pled, or insisted that it be allowed into the hallowed halls of academia. These include men like Tom Shippey (former Chair of Humanities at Saint Louis University and author of J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century and The Road to Middle-earth), Corey Olsen, aka., The Tolkien Professor, an English Professor at Washington College, and Michael Drout, Chair of the English Department at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.

Drout is editor of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Beowulf and the Critics and a co-editor of Tolkien Studies. At Wheaton he teaches Old English (Anglo-Saxon), Middle English, medieval literature, fantasy, science fiction, and writing. He also writes a blog, Wormtalk and Slugspeak, which is definitely worth adding to your list of links.

Drout also wrote and narrated a fine entry in The Modern Scholar audio book series, Rings, Swords, and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature, which is the subject of this post. I recently had the pleasure of listening to it during my commute to work and found it immensely enjoyable, lucid, thought-provoking, and ambitious. It offers prima facie evidence for why fantasy literature deserves to be the subject of academic study.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.


Falze said...

I'm curious as to what people think of Tolkien as inspiration. For example, authors like Brooks and (particularly) McKiernan certainly drew from (cough ripped off cough cough) Tolkien with their early works, but then proceeded to find their footing, so to speak, and turn their knockoff Middle Earths into vibrant original worlds - reading all of McKiernan's works the Iron Tower trilogy now stands out like a sore thumb from the rest, it barely seems to fit. Those are just off the top of my head, I know there must be more.

Reminds me of all the Led Zeppelin clones that put out a knockoff album or two and then found their own groove (I'm looking at you, Rush) and sound.

Tolkien's almost a launching pad...try to come up with something like Middle Earth and something like the ringbearer's quest - once you understand what's involved, do something original with what you've learned.

Sounds interesting, I'll have to see if our library has this.

Trey said...

Your post leaves me with the impression that Drout is something of a snob. The only fantasy that matters in his mind seems to be "epic fantasy."

Where are any of the Weird Tales triumvirate? Or Fritz Leiber?

Or how about the reaction to Tolkien from the likes of Michael Moorcock or China Mieville?

I don't know that it improves the literary acceptance of fantasy to narrowly define out some of its grandmasters or ignore its innovations.

Brian Murphy said...

Falze: Drout addresses that issue in Rings, Swords, and Monsters: Tolkien's influence from the 1960's-on was so pervasive that some authors blatantly imitated him until they could find their own voice (Drout does credit Brooks for becoming increasingly original after The Sword of Shannara. For a time you had to copy Tolkien, or write in reaction to him, but you couldn't ignore him. That's still true (though to a lesser degree) today.

Trey: I agree that there's some gaping holes in the course, but as I mentioned it may be because Drout doesn't consider those authors as fantasy writers. Perhaps he considers sword and sorcery a separate genre entirely, I'm not sure. The course does seem to equate fantasy with multi-volume epic fantasy, and unfortunately ignores shorter formats and the Weird Tales/pulp writers.

Eric D. Lehman said...

I'm actually addicted to these Modern Scholar lecture series. I'll be requesting my library acquire this one, pronto.

Regarding some of the other comments - Sometimes the best part of these is that I disagree with the lecturer!