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Talking Tolkien

Class based on ‘Lord of the Rings’ languages helps give a weighty college subject more pop

The Dallas Morning News, Dallas, Texas


AUSTIN — The University of Texas students scribbled their names in a strange language. The A’s looked like F’s, the P’s resembled gibberish.

They were in their second day of learning Old English runes, the writing system used by author J.R.R. Tolkien to invent the languages Elvish, Orcish and Dwarvish for The Lord of the Rings.

At UT, the tongues revived by the hit film trilogy are being used to teach the millennial generation this semester. Already, students are raving about the new course, titled “The Linguistics of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.” Both sections of the class are full, and hundreds of students are on waiting lists to get in.

“So far, I love it. I like the visual, seeing the runes on the board,” said Elizabeth Nelson, a 19-year-old UT senior who has three fairy tattoos. A tattoo of the Lady Galadriel is on her midriff. “I like being able to say that I know how to write my name in runes. Lots of my friends are jealous.”

UT isn’t alone in jumping on the Tolkien bandwagon. This fall, three Dallas-area universities will team up to teach a literature class about the trilogy for students from the University of Dallas in Irving, Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas at Dallas.

The trend isn’t new. For at least two decades, some professors have taught popular culture classes about film and TV shows and at times faced ridicule from colleagues. The difference now is that more professors are unabashedly linking movies and books their students adore with traditional, often weighty subjects, from physics to philosophy. Pop culture is no longer viewed as a nonsensical subject.

The idea of connecting traditional classes and popular culture grew rapidly the last five years, said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of media and popular culture. Textbooks such as The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer and Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book about Everything and Nothing helped move the trend along, he said.

“College students know an enormous amount about television, about popular music,” Dr. Thompson said. “If we can use that knowledge to invite them into other kinds of work, it’d be silly not to.”

But professors can’t simply show film clips and play sound bites of popular music.

“If you’re trying to teach Plato using Seinfeld and Simpson, that’s a fine thing to do,” he said. “But if you never get around to reading Plato, you’ve failed.”

At Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., students have been able to sign up for “Beam me up, Einstein: Physics through Star Trek” since 1997. Don Spector teaches the course every other year for nonscience majors.

Dr. Spector shows bits of Star Trek episodes based on whether there’s a physics principle he can teach. Students, for example, watch a clip about a cloaking device. (Translation for nongeeks: a gadget that renders objects, typically spaceships, invisible and undetectable.) Then the class talks about what principles could be used to create the device.

“I have fun with it. I like teaching in this way better probably because they are more engaged with it,” Dr. Spector said. “Physics always has this reputation of being so hard and so out there. It helps the physics to bring something that’s so accessible.”

Lyrical literature

David Gaines, chairman of the English department at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, teaches a literature class based on Bob Dylan.

“It’s not, ‘Let’s just listen to “Tangled Up in Blue” 70 times and go home and listen to it more,’ ” Dr. Gaines said. “It’s a way to engage students with materials they’re interested in and urge them to take that a little further.”

Using the work of Tolkien as the focus for linguistics makes perfect sense, he said. The students think critically about a book they have read for pleasure in the past.

The three Dallas-area schools teaming up for the class this fall will link the Tolkien trilogy to religion, medieval philosophy and other areas, said Dennis Kratz, a UTD professor and dean who will help teach the course.

“What’s really happening today is the old notions of pop culture and high culture, except for the extremes, have blurred,” Dr. Kratz said. “When you redo La Bohéme as Rent, is that high culture or middle-brow culture?”

The Lord of the Rings is a bit of both, he said.

“I just think it’s such a very deep, satisfying, intellectually pleasing work of literature, and yet it’s fun,” Dr. Kratz said.

UT instructor Fred Hoyt, a graduate student, created the Tolkien course to meet a requirement that he create an introductory linguistics class. Both sections of his classes, one with 30 students, one with 70, filled immediately; he would have been able to fill each class 10 times over, based on waiting lists.

Linguistics link

Mr. Hoyt said there’s a logical connection between the famous author and linguistics. Mr. Tolkien was a linguist before he was a novelist. One of the required texts in the new UT class is The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, another author’s interpretation of the invented tongues. Mr. Tolkien based the languages on Old Norse, Old English, Gothic, Welsh and Finnish.

Mr. Hoyt, like many of his students, began reading the author’s books as a child. He said the work gave him a love for new languages, though he didn’t know about linguistics at the time.

“Part of the reason I wanted to offer this course was when I was an undergraduate, I wish I had known about linguistics,” he said. “In my department, there’s more focus on teaching. Linguistics is hard. It’s more like we’re realizing we always could’ve gotten to more people.”

His hope is that some students will want to study the discipline after taking his class.

“It’s not about the movies. The stuff we’re interested in is the stuff left out in the movies,” he said.

Students must read The Lord of the Rings and familiarize themselves with the appendix that explains the development of the languages. They’ll study Old English runes, but they’ll also learn Angerthas Daeron, the Elvish runes that Mr. Tolkien created, and Angerthas Moria, the Dwarvish runes.

They’ll talk about how Elvish sounds melodic and the Black Speech in the trilogy sounds harsh.

“The good guys in his book speak beautiful languages, and the bad guys speak ugly languages,” Mr. Hoyt said.

Students said professors are right to find ways to connect teaching to students’ lives.

“If it’s interesting and relevant, you’ll learn it better,” said Alex Hancock, a junior.

Professors, even when they include popular film or books, are careful to teach in depth, said UT senior Travis Lara.

“It’s not more bells and whistles,” he said. “It’s more involvement with students.”

Eric Lee, an engineering major, never intended to study linguistics until he saw “Middle Earth” in the course title.

“I saw it advertised on the front page of the UT Web site,” Mr. Lee said. “I was like, ‘Cool. I have to take this class.’ “