Monday, October 20, 2008

Working Tolkien into my college papers - Part 1

I have already described my year-long Lord of the Rings-related high school project in my post on Quenya. In that post, I made reference to a paper I wrote in college on the story of Beren and Lúthien in The Silmarillion but said that it was a story for another day. Well, that day has come.

It is a wonderful thing, working your geeky obsessions into school papers. It makes the project that much more fun, and it is always easier to devote time to produce a good paper when it is fun to work on. It's not that hard to work your fandom into projects in elementary and middle school; I can't remember how many book reports I did on Redwall in grade school, and I actually was introduced to the Shannara series when it was on our suggested reading list one summer. But such opportunities diminish once you get further along in your education and learning becomes more serious. Teachers try very hard to make school fun for kids, but as you approach college, you're on your own--you have to find your own motivation. My Quenya project was a rare opportunity to do something somewhat... frivolous?... for a twelfth-grade project, mainly because the whole "Hero's Journey" project idea was, frankly, a little frivolous for a twelfth-grade curriculum. But what happens when you go off to a highly esteemed Ivy League school (or any respected institution of higher learning), where your parents aren't paying $40,000+ a year for you to learn to speak Elvish? The fun and games are over. That is, unless you find the right classes, or are creative, possibly devious, and always unapologetic of your geekiness.

I wrote papers based on the world of J.R.R. Tolkien in two of my classes in college. One of these classes was innately conducive to Tolkien papers--hence my enrollment in said class--while the other was a class where my Tolkien-related project was a little far from the beaten path. That paper deserves its own post, so I'm breaking this into two parts--one for each of the classes I just described.

Heart of the City comic by Mark Tatulli, 4-5-03

Freshman seminars are great. Professors like them because they allow them to teach a small class on whatever narrow subject they dream up, and students like them because the professors can be very good at dreaming up cool subjects and are likely to be nice to a class of freshmen who want to take a course on their favorite topic. I remember as an upperclassman being totally jealous of freshmen for their freshman seminars, but it's not like I had my time. I was lucky enough to take a freshman seminar, taught by an English professor who actually specialized in Beowulf, entitled "Merlin and Magic." When I saw The Hobbit on the sample reading list, I just had to apply. The required reading included a good bit of Sir Thomas Mallory, some Tennyson, versions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Orfeo translated by Tolkien himself, as well as The Once and Future King, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and, yes, The Hobbit. Not a bad reading list, indeed.

For one of the papers in the course, we were directed to write a comparative paper. One of the stories for the comparison had to be a work we had read for class, while the other could be of our own choosing. As I mentioned above, the class had read Sir Orfeo, the cheerier medieval adaptation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (Orfeo only has to confront the Faerie King, not Hades himself, and there's a happy ending). I noticed that the story had strong similarities to the story of Beren and Lúthien--Tolkien's story was likely influenced by the famous myth--and so marched myself over to the bookstore to buy a copy of The Silmarillion and got to writing my paper.

The crucial similarity between the two tales is this: Orfeo is the most gifted harpist in all the lands; everyone upon hearing his music believed that "to joy of Paradise [they] had strayed." When his love is stolen away by the Faerie King, he travels to the Faerie Kingdom to confront him. When the Faerie King, furious at Orfeo's uninvited appearance, angrily asks him why he has invaded his halls, Orfeo says he is "but a wandering minstrel poor" come to offer his minstrelsy, and he begins playing on his harp. The music is so beautiful, the Faerie King offers Orfeo anything he wishes. Naturally, he wishes for his wife. She is returned to him, and they leave the Faerie Kingdom and live happily ever after. In The Silmarillion, Lúthien is the most beautiful singer in all the lands; "Keen, heart-piercing was her song.... The song of Lúthien released the bonds of winter, and the frozen waters spoke, and flowers sprang from the cold earth where her feet had passed." When her love Beren is taken prisoner by Sauron, she and Beren use song to find each other. But in more a striking similarity to Orfeo's story, when Lúthien confronts Morgoth to retrieve one of the Silmarils, she offers "her service to sing before him, after the manner of a minstrel." She is able to charm Morgoth with the hypnotizing power of her song, providing her with the opportunity to escape with one of the Silmarils. Both Orfeo and Lúthien, when confronting a threatening and powerful ruler holding something they wanted, offered their service as a minstrel and through the power of their music were able to obtain that which they desired.

Looking back at my paper, entitled "Music as Magic", I think I got a little carried away with my interpretation of the use of music as magic in literature as a reflection of our perceptions of music in the real world. I suppose my writing seminar freshman year had taught me to be ambitious with any paper and to reach beyond the apparent confines of a simple assignment (such as "comparison paper"). But the professor gave me an A on "Music as Magic", so it's all good.

As part of the final exam for the class, I wrote an essay on Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories" essay, in which he criticizes those who dislike and discredit Fantasy for its "arresting strangeness." In my short essay, I take up Tolkien's fight, expanding on some of his arguments (and providing examples from the texts we read) in an attempt to defend the literary value of the Fantasy genre from those who compare it to dreams or delusions and say it is only appropriate for children because its unreal material does not affect our real lives and thus does not matter. Essentially, what I argue is that Fantasy should not be disparaged by likening it to mere dreams or delusions because of two critical differences. First, while the rules of Fantasy may not correspond to the rules of the real world (or as Tolkien calls it, the "Primary World"), worlds of Fantasy do operate according to rules that make sense within the boundaries of the Fantasy worlds. In contrast, because of their lack of rules and control, dreams may appear to make sense at the time but will not make sense upon waking, and delusions may never have made any sense at all. Second, the suspension of disbelief required when reading Fantasy literature is both conscious and willing, unlike with dreams or delusions, and therefore the meaning found in Fantasy does not dissolve when one steps away from it back to the Primary World.

Yeah, so it wasn't really the greatest paper, but did I mention that it was timed? (I probably had an hour and a half for this part of the exam.) Anyway, I think I got an A on the exam, so again, it sufficed. The best part is that I took this exam in the engineering library, and as I paused to look around at all the other engineering students working away, I thought smugly, I'm writing about Fantasy and Tolkien--what are you working on right now?

Well, that's the scoop on the Tolkien papers I wrote for my Merlin and Magic freshman seminar. Not bad for school work, huh? In my next post on Wednesday, I will describe in detail my term paper for a class called The Mechanics of Solids. Can't wait, can you?

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