Download Eight Free Lectures on The Hobbit by “The Tolkien Professor,” Corey Olsen

The name Corey Olsen may already be famil­iar to some readers—or at least those read­ers who ven­er­ate the lit­er­ary accom­plish­ments of one J.R.R. Tolkien. And if you don’t know Olsen by his real name, you may know him as “The Tolkien Pro­fes­sor,” his inter­net moniker since 2009, when Olsen, an Eng­lish Pro­fes­sor at Wash­ing­ton Col­lege and life­long stu­dent of Tolkien’s writ­ing, decid­ed to share his own schol­ar­ly work with a pub­lic “eager to be includ­ed in thought­ful, lit­er­ary con­ver­sa­tion” about The Hob­bit and The Lord of the Rings tril­o­gy.

For the past four years, Olsen has pub­lished specif­i­cal­ly online lec­tures about Tolkien’s work, as well as record­ings of his Wash­ing­ton Col­lege sem­i­nars on Tolkien’s fic­tion and aca­d­e­m­ic work. He has most recent­ly found­ed Signum Uni­ver­si­ty, an online, non-prof­it Lib­er­al Arts col­lege that aims to open the expe­ri­ence of high-qual­i­ty high­er ed to every­one, regard­less of their means or their loca­tion. Signum has, in turn, spawned the Myth­gard Insti­tute, which seems (as the name implies) more exclu­sive­ly focused on the fan­ta­sy and sci­ence fic­tion gen­res that are Olsen’s méti­er. (There are also col­lege prep options in Signum and Myth­gard Acad­e­mies).

So, Pro­fes­sor Olsen is busy, and he’s hap­py to be shar­ing his wealth of Tolkien knowl­edge with a very recep­tive pub­lic. His most recent course, an eight-part lec­ture series on The Hob­bit, is now avail­able on his site. (iTunes U also has it as of Jan­u­ary 31st. Watch the pro­mo for the course above. We also have the class list­ed in our col­lec­tion of 650 Free Cours­es Online.) The course comes via the Myth­gard Insti­tute and begins at the begin­ning in a lec­ture enti­tled “Took & Bag­gins” focused on The Hob­bit’s first chap­ter, “An Unex­pect­ed Par­ty.” Record­ed before the release of Peter Jackson’s first install­ment of his tril­o­gy of Hob­bit films, the lec­ture starts with Olsen’s spec­u­la­tions about what those films might look like. He says:

From the begin­ning, I have thought this was a mis­take… a big mis­take to go back­wards. It seems to me that an audi­ence famil­iar with the epic grandeur of Peter Jackson’s tril­o­gy is going to bring expec­ta­tions to a new Tolkien movie that’s going to set a Hob­bit film up for one of two very like­ly fail­ures. Either the movie is going to try tell Bilbo’s sto­ry in the mode and reg­is­ter of the Lord of the Rings, and there­fore strip the sto­ry of the light-heart­ed­ness and whim­si­cal­i­ty that makes it so delight­ful, or it’s going to try to be true to the tone and spir­it of the book, and will there­fore seem kind of sil­ly and child­ish to an audi­ence hop­ing for a suc­ces­sor to Peter Jackson’s films.

This is a very can­ny pre­dic­tion, and such can­ni­ness dis­tin­guish­es Olsen’s approach to every­thing Tolkien. He is attuned not only to all of the schol­ar­ly minu­ti­ae that dis­tin­guish­es aca­d­e­m­ic Tolkien stud­ies, but he is also well-aware of issues of audi­ence recep­tion and the ever-evolv­ing role of Tolkien’s work in pop­u­lar cul­ture. As his first lec­ture con­tin­ues, Pro­fes­sor Olsen makes it quite clear that The Hob­bit was delib­er­ate­ly writ­ten as a children’s sto­ry, and the suc­ces­sive books were meant to be as well. The Lord of the Rings books became more adult, dark­er and more fraught with heavy the­o­log­i­cal and myth­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, as Tolkien com­posed them. This hap­pened in part because Tolkien was writ­ing with his own chil­dren in mind as his read­ers, and as he wrote, his kids grew up.

Tolkien, Olsen points out, was by train­ing a philologist—a schol­ar who spe­cial­izes in the study of languages—so he thought about not only what words mean, but where they come from and when. As such, he intend­ed The Hob­bit to pos­sess a “lin­guis­tic play­ful­ness,” mix­ing ancient and mod­ern words and usages, mak­ing up words a la Lewis Car­roll, to cre­ate a light­heart­ed and com­ic atmos­phere from the begin­ning of the nov­el. Olsen pro­vides us with sev­er­al exam­ples of this method in his first lec­ture. Over­all, his analy­sis is a thor­ough eval­u­a­tion of the nov­el in the terms of its lan­guage, its com­po­si­tion, its many lay­ers of genre and style—drawing from Tolkien’s explic­it­ly artic­u­lat­ed the­o­ries of narrative—and its his­tor­i­cal and lit­er­ary allu­sions. All pre­sent­ed in a very enthu­si­as­tic and acces­si­ble style that is aimed at every adult read­er and lover of Tolkien, not just fel­low schol­ars, who tend to speak a spe­cial­ized lan­guage that excludes near­ly every­one out­side their nar­row coterie.

In the video above—a TED talk Olsen deliv­ered at TEDx Chester Riv­er—he dis­cuss­es how the world of acad­eme, that spe­cial­ized world that excludes almost every­one, had become a sti­fling and rather mean­ing­less place for him when he decid­ed to become the online Tolkien Pro­fes­sor.  Olsen had what he calls an exis­ten­tial cri­sis about acad­e­mia and schol­ar­ly publishing—What’s the point?, he thought. Who’s going to read it? Since most peo­ple can’t access schol­ar­ly pub­li­ca­tions even if they want­ed to, and since he was writ­ing on Tolkien, one of the world’s most pop­u­lar authors, he felt dou­bly irrel­e­vant as a clois­tered aca­d­e­m­ic, since Tolkien fans are every­where. Then he dis­cov­ered some­thing every­body else already knew about the internet—it’s an ide­al medi­um for pub­lish­ing and dis­sem­i­nat­ing any kind of infor­ma­tion, and it’s crowd­ed with peo­ple des­per­ate to learn about and dis­cuss the lib­er­al arts. As more and more aca­d­e­mics dis­cov­er this as well, more also cure their exis­ten­tial malaise by open­ing up their work to every­one online, becom­ing resources, not gate­keep­ers, for knowl­edge.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lis­ten to J.R.R. Tolkien Read a Lengthy Excerpt from The Hob­bit (1952)

Lis­ten to J.R.R. Tolkien Read Poems from The Fel­low­ship of the Ring, in Elvish and Eng­lish (1952)

Fan­tas­tic BBC Footage of J.R.R. Tolkien in 1968

Free Audio: Down­load the Com­plete Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia by C.S. Lewis

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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Comments (2)
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  • Alexov says:

    You have referred here to a TED talk, and giv­en a link to the TED site, but use Youtube as the source for the clip. Would­n’t it be great if you sim­ply used the TED site itself as the link? Then peo­ple who are unaware of it would be more like­ly to go straight there and dis­cov­er the won­der­ful world of vision­ar­ies and inven­tive inspi­ra­tion that TED is. Just a thought.…

  • Veronika says:

    @Alexov TED has a YouTube page dude!

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