Yeah, But Is It Art?

December 13, 2001

Nick Marinello
Phone: 865-5714

It's been named in numerous readers' polls as the greatest book of the 21st century, yet it is rarely taught in university classrooms. Translated into more than 20 languages, it may well be the best-selling novel of all time, yet it couldn't buy its way into the literary canon of academia.

It is The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien's massive work of fantasy that will be brought to the big screen this month in a highly anticipated feature-length film. Reflecting Tolkien's original story, which is told in three books, the film is the first installment of a trilogy that will be released during the next two years.

With merchandising tie-ins with Burger King and toy manufacturers, the names of LOTR characters Gandalf, Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee will become as familiar to the American public as that of Osama bin Laden. Despite--or perhaps because of--this popular appeal, academics are apt to treat Tolkien's work gingerly, suggesting a certain caution in embracing the books too tightly.

One Tulane faculty member even declined to comment on the books, though he admitted that they were key to sparking his interest in his particular academic field. A few intrepid profs did venture comments. Tolkien was a medievalist, notes Mike Kuczynski, associate professor and chair of the English department. Kuczynski's field is medieval manuscripts.

"My interest in the books is to the extent to which they are a popularization about ideas and attitudes toward the Middle Ages." While LOTR, which was published in 1954-55, stands as Tolkien's masterwork, his fantasy world of Middle Earth was originally imagined in the children's book, The Hobbit, published in 1934.

Before his foray into fiction Tolkien, a linguistics and literary professor at Oxford University, was probably best known (and only in academic circles) for an article on Beowulf. "It was groundbreaking work," says Kuczynski. "It was the first serious scholarly treatment of Beowulf as a myth." Kuczynski suggests that Tolkien's interest in children's literature emerged from his scholarly preoccupation with the Middle Ages.

"He had a medieval attitude toward storytelling and the relationship between text and image," says Kuczynski, who points to early editions of Tolkien's work that contain the author's own illustrations. "This is reminiscent of Middle Age manuscript illumination," he says.

Kuczynski, however, admits that professional medievalists don't get too involved in the popular versions of the subject. In fact, there may even be a prejudice against it. "There is definitely a tension among professional medievalists with this kind of thing," says Tom Luongo, assistant professor of history who specializes in medieval European history.

"We fight a kind of battle with fantasy and dress-up organizations and, for a lot of us, the impulse is to reject that."

Still, Cynthia Lowenthal, the interim dean of Newcomb College and an English associate professor who has taught both 18th-century literature and contemporary science fiction, believes there is something in the magical that is broadly appealing.

"I think it is interesting that both Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings are being released as films simultaneously," she says, adding that scholars who write dissertations in medieval literature are often the ones equally interested in science fiction and fantasy. "It seems to be a freer imaginative space," she says, and adds that in terms of fantasies like LOTR, "There is a kind of nostalgia for a past where creatures like fairies and other beings are part of the fabric of everyday life."

"While LOTR is not about the Middle Ages, but rather, an imaginative world incorporating facets of medieval society, culture and technology, it does have a powerful attraction," says Luongo. "Tolkien's world presents a culture that appears exotic and if that attracts students, then that is not bad." In fact, he says, "it may facilitate the serious study of history to know that our own expectations and social norms are not automatic."

Lowenthal says that genres such as fantasy and science fiction are too often presumed to be merely formulaic and thereby are not embraced as serious work. Yet, she says that if a work persists, if it maintains a hold on readers imaginations, then it should be taken seriously.

Kuczynski agrees, and says he intends to read LOTR in preparation for a portion of a course entitled "The Medieval Imagination," which he is co-teaching this fall with Bill Tronzo, professor of art. The last unit of the course will touch upon the influence of medieval imagination on 20th-century text, as well as modern attitudes toward the Middle Ages. Interestingly, the influence that medieval texts exert on modern literature may ultimately influence interest in medieval studies.

"In terms of The Lord of the Rings film, I would draw a parallel with a film such as The Name of the Rose (1986), which got a lot of people interested in the study of the Middle Ages," says Kuczynski. "Medieval studies took off. I think Tolkien's work has the potential for that."

Luongo agrees. "There's no question that Tolkien gets a lot of people interested in the Midde Ages. I daresay a lot of professionals were once hobbit fans. But we get over that and go on to do lots of more boring stuff."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000