The University's Faculty of English recently announced that it is to open its doors to the public for the first-ever Tolkien Spring School. Oxford Today caught up with Dr Stuart Lee, the event’s organiser, to find out what potential students can expect from the course.
OT: What is the Tolkien spring school?
SL: It's an introduction to J.R.R. Tolkien's life and works — both academic and fiction — for members of the public who’ve read his books, or even just seen the films, but want to explore things in more detail. It will include talks given by academics from Oxford, as well as some invited speakers, and we’ll take the attendees through a range of topics that will help them appreciate his works in more detail.
How did the idea of running the school come about?
I was talking to the head of the Faculty and suggested that we could assemble a rather impressive cohort of Tolkien experts in Oxford, and we thought it would be fun to reach out to the public to pass on some of our research. The faculty's never tried doing anything like this before — it's organized plenty of academic conferences but never something for the public — so it’s somewhat of an adventure. What is nice is that all the proceeds are going towards graduate studentships — so attendees will be helping support graduates.
And what can attendees expect from the school?
Hopefully they'll get a better understanding of Tolkien's life and career. Most people think of him as a novelist, writing The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, but there's a bigger side to him as an academic at Oxford, and that needs bringing out because it affects how you read the books. We'll also try and help people that come along to gain a better critical understanding of the books themselves, and suggest new ways in which they might approach them, as well as providing a background in his mythology and the invented languages he used.
Why’s it so important for people to learn more about his background as an academic?
Well, he was obviously a student at Oxford, but then he lectured in Old and Middle English literature. While people may have heard of that, they may not know exactly what it means. Interestingly, he worked hard but didn't publish his academic work often — so there's a lot of little-known work that’s actually of extremely high quality. You can use that as a bridge to help better understand his fiction.
Will attendees have a chance to explore parts of Oxford that were particularly relevant to Tolkien?
Yes! On the second day the school will finish slightly early and attendees will be able to explore key locations in Oxford relevant to his life. There are some obvious places, like the houses he lived in, the colleges he attended — he was at Pembroke and then Merton — and of course we're going to be having an informal drinks session in the Eagle and Child.
You'll be leading one of the sessions during the event. What will you be focussing on?
I'll be talking about The Hobbit. Obviously I'll be assuming that people have read it, but it really is an introduction that anyone could follow. And I’ll be talking a little bit about the recent film, too...
What was your take on Hollywood’s recent effort?
On the whole, I think it's quite good. Martin Freeman portrays Bilbo very well; the scenery is fantastic. The battle scenes are good, though there are too many of them — but I think that's a fault of [the director] Peter Jackson generally. But the thing I find most irritating is a character called Radagast. He's mentioned once in the book but never appears; in the film, he plays quite a large part. If I'm being cynical, that strikes me as a means of selling more toys.
Finally, do you have a favourite Tolkien anecdote that you're looking forward to explaining to the students?
I think one of the more interesting stories is about how The Hobbit came about. In 1930 he was marking some exam papers when he just wrote down the opening sentence of the novel — "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" — and he had no idea how or why he’d written it. So, he started telling his children about this hobbit, and in the end it became the book we now all know and love.