In honor of the kids going back to school, this will be the first of several posts about the great teachers I was fortunate enough to have in my academic career. To kick things off, let me tell you about Professor Verlyn Flieger.
credit: Tolkien Gateway
Back in the mid-1980’s, as a young English Literature major at the University of Maryland College Park, I was, like many of my friends, a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings. However, almost all of my literature instructors and professors at UM taught the same-old, same-old authors: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, etc. for British lit; Hawthorne, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Melville, etc. for American (I will never forget one professor blissfully exclaiming, “I bow down to Faulkner!”).
Dr. Flieger, however, didn’t do same-old, same-old. She taught sci-fi and fantasy, medieval lit and myth, and Tolkien. A whole course on Tolkien and his works. Oh, hells yes, I took every class she offered.
For those of you too young to remember, you must understand that before Peter Jackson won Oscars and raked in billions with the LOTR movies, before comic books and superheroes were widely read and adored by anyone over the age of 12, sci-fi and fantasy was usually not taken seriously by many people, and most especially by academics.
Oh, sure, there had been Star Trek and Star Wars, which, if mentioned at all, were only noted for their special effects. Other than that, both were considered by non-fans to be a bit silly, and mostly for kids.
If you pressed, you might get a Baby Boomer or two to sheepishly admit that he or she had at least heard of, or even read some–not all!–of LOTR back in the college, in the late ’60’s or early ’70’s, when they were also experimenting with weed and free love and other hippiness. But they certainly would never read “that junk” now.
No, all that fantasy and sci-fi, we were told, was “weird” and “meaningless,” only for losers who had never grown up. It was empty-headed, superficial “escapism”: certainly not to be studied critically, certainly not “art,” certainly not “literature.”
Dr. Flieger didn’t see sci-fi and fantasy that way. Not one little bit.
I thought that in her course “Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction,” we would read Asimov, Bradbury, and Heinlein; Howard, Moorcock, and Lieber. Instead, we read Zamyatin’s We (a precursor to 1984), LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, Eddison’s A Fish Dinner in Memison. I struggled with some of the selections: it wasn’t until I re-read Voyage last year that I appreciated it.
For “Studies in Mythmaking,” an all-Tolkien course, I thought we would read LOTR, and I’m sure we did (if not, then we read it next semester in “Medieval Modes and Modern Narratives”–my memory’s fuzzy because that was back in 1987). But we also read The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s invented mythology. Dr. Flieger also introduced me to Tolkien’s superb essays, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” and “On Fairy-Stories.”
So aside from getting to read a lot of lesser-known works, what did I get from my classes with Professor Flieger?
- A better understanding of the roots of the English language. Tolkien was a linguist first, and his writings grew out of his love for languages. Dr. Flieger gave many examples of how Tolkien carefully chose his words by looking at their earlier forms.
- A deeper appreciation for LOTR. Most people think of LOTR merely as the prototypical fantasy epic. Some folks think it’s boring; some think it’s too long; some think it’s racist; some think it’s simplistic, outdated and corny. But after studying under Dr. Flieger, I believe that LOTR is one of the most important pieces of 20th Century literature.
- A broadened consideration of what constitutes “science fiction” and “fantasy,” and what they were good for. Before I took Dr. Flieger’s classes, “science fiction” was, to me, lasers and spaceships; “fantasy” was swords and magic. The “point” of writing sci-fi or fantasy was merely to tell cool stories. Professor Flieger showed me that not only were the “boundaries” between sci-fi and fantasy nebulous (I touch on that here), they weren’t important at all. Of more use was sci-fi and fantasy’s ability to separate, disassociate the reader from the “real world” so as to illuminate that “real world” in new ways.
- The inspiration to break new ground in speculative fiction. After studying LOTR and The Silmarillion with Dr. Flieger, I determined that there’s really no point in trying to write typical fantasy stories about elves and dwarves and orcs: Tolkien did it best, and mined all that’s worthwhile from those tropes. So when I wrote Dragontamer’s Daughters, I was determined to do something different and not commit the sin of Eregon, which merely apes LOTR without understanding it.
To give you a better flavor of Professor Flieger’s teachings, let me quote from Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, her analysis of his work (all quotes are from the 1983 first edition):
In the King James version the opening sentence, “In the Beginning was the Word,” gives word as the translation for the Greek logos. To St. John and his audience, logos would have conveyed—co-equally with word—“speech,” “reason,” “organizing principle,” and “cosmic harmony”; all of these concepts would have been apprehended as the same phenomenon. To translate such a word, as we are forced to today, by selecting any one of those meanings is to arbitrarily separate the word from that cluster of concepts which it was meant to express (p. 40)
The critical nexus of the essay [“On Fairy-Stories”] is the section in which Tolkien discusses the writing of fantasy as an act of sub-creation. He describes it as the making of a Secondary World in imitation of God, the maker of the Primary World. God is the Prime Mover, the First Creator; man must therefore be a secondary creator, or sub-creator. But for Tolkien, this is a high calling; to be second best to God is no mean accomplishment. (p. 42)
Tolkien’s use of hoard suggests lust for possession, and to anyone familiar with the stories of northern mythology it will inevitably recall the dragon’s hoard which in the tales of Sigurd and Beowulf, the two greatest northern heroes, leads only to destruction and death. Here (in The Silmarillion) Tolkien is expanding an idea which he explored in a somewhat different context in The Hobbit, where the fall of Thorin Oakenshield is the direct result of Thorin’s greed for the dragon hoard, and in particular for the Arkenstone, a Silmaril-like gem. The idea was clearly one that occupied Tolkien, for it is of course the thematic cornerstone of The Lord of the Rings, wherein lust for the Ring, “the precious,” leads to the downfall of those who possess it, and very nearly destroys Frodo before it is itself destroyed. (p. 100)
In addition to Splintered Light, Dr. Flieger has written several other books about Tolkien, as well as the fantasy novels Pig Tale and The Inn at Corbies’ Caww. You can find links to to her other works on her site, and I urge you to read them.