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Guest speaker explores the mysteries of Tolkien

Published: April 24, 2014
Section: News


As part of the Martin Weiner Lecture Series, Maria Cecire, assistant professor of literature and director of experimental humanities at Bard College, was invited to speak about Tolkien’s works on Thursday. Tolkien is well known as the creator of the world of Middle Earth and the writer of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Cecire’s talk, entitled “Unfashionable Creatures: Tolkien’s 1931 Curricular Reforms and the Fantastic Imagination,” discussed the disenchantment of the modern view in regards to magic and imagination, through the lens of Tolkien’s and C.S. Lewis’ work.

Cecire is the founding director of the experimental humanities program at Bard College, where she teaches courses like medieval literature. She has received a Rhodes Scholarship for her work and the Alden Media Trust Lab Grant. She also makes documentaries about medieval film. Her manner was forthright and clear, punctuated by easy smiles and a comfortable stance.

She stated, “Tolkien conveys a disdain for the literary views and practices of the time.” Instead, he sought the “enduring narratives in medieval literature.” The preoccupation with the dragon in “Beowulf” was tied to the dragon’s position as the chief enemy of the gods. Tolkien himself argued that the “dragon is a symbol of a fight between our soul and its adversaries.” Tolkien states that the “dragon in legend is a potent creation of man’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold.”

Tolkien decried Oxford English School’s B Course, accusing it of summarily dismissing the first 600 years of recorded English literature. He also proposed a method to fix the problem, suggesting studying “language and literature together” and “disregarding parts of the 19th- and 20th-century literature, as it has no imaginative value.” This curriculum, created by Lewis and Tolkien, existed at Oxford’s English School from 1931 to 1970. Students first read medieval and Old English texts and then moved into Shakespeare. Later they learned the “literary course proper,” which dealt with more modern literature. Student responses proved that they favoured this new version of study. They were also still “required to read ‘Beowulf,’ ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ and Chaucer.” Tolkien and Lewis constantly spoke of the education received from reading these texts in their original languages.

Cecire combined many quotes from Tolkien and Lewis and used them to back up her argument. She explained how jazz music and Hollywood fever spread quickly through Britain after World War II, and the United States slowly became known as the byword for modern. Tolkien sought to go back to the Old English roots, to create a sense of English nationalism. However, he was wrought with sadness at the fact that he could compile no agreement of works, nothing bound in the language and soil of England. Everything he brought together was Norse, Germanic and Celtic.

Tolkien believed fantasy could bring the secular beyond religion—and, as Cecire stated, “many readers found in Middle Earth a secular path to religion.” Tolkien believed that “most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.”

There is a clear link between “The Hobbit” and “Beowulf”—the first scene with the dragon is a distinct parallel. Ultimately, the “destruction of the dragon Smaug falls not to Bilbo but to a grim-faced human named Bard … the scenario echoes the dragon’s waking in ‘Beowulf,’ when a servant steals a cup for his master.” While Beowulf dies in his epic, Bard survives and leads his people, marking an embodiment of the past in the present. “The Hobbit” promotes the need for the mythology of the past through Bilbo’s disbelief of the prophecies of the old songs. Even Gandalf, in the last conversation in the book, states, “Of course! And why should they not prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself?” The past prophecies aid the death of Smaug and the creation of a new world after the dragon’s death.

Cecire spoke deeply and passionately about Tolkien and Lewis’ reforms of the Oxford English curriculum and how they restored traditional ancient texts of the English language to importance. They created a form of literature that took the modern reader past modern beliefs and literatures and back through religion to fantasy and imagination, to the world of parables and morals, of imagination entwined with history. She stated that Tolkien and Lewis “had an enormous effect on keeping medieval literature and fairy tales extant and circulating in modern literature, creating new audiences for the works.”