The Modern Scholar: Tolkien and the West

  • by Michael Drout
  • Narrated by Michael Drout
  • 5 hrs and 15 mins
  • Lecture

Publisher's Summary

The works of J.R.R. Tolkien are quite possibly the most widely read pieces of literature written in the 20th century. But as Professor Michael Drout illuminates in this engaging course of lectures, Tolkien's writings are built upon a centuries-old literary tradition that developed in Europe and is quite uniquely Western in its outlook and style. Drout explores how that tradition still resonates with us to this day, even if many Modernist critics would argue otherwise. He begins the course with the allegory of a tower - a device which Tolkien himself crafted in one of the most famous academic works of all time - as a way to illuminate how Tolkien's works continue and build upon a tradition that goes back as far as Beowulf itself.
Drout's lectures take us on a literary journey that explores Tolkien's most celebrated writings: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. As he brings these works life, he explains Tolkien's technique and themes, which he shows reverberate all the way back though the Western literary tradition. In the end, Drout shows us how J.R.R. Tolkien crafted literary worlds that the reader cares desperately about and wishes to save. Those worlds, in turn, are allegories for a Western literary tradition - a tower - that is worthy of preservation.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Not Drout's or Modern Scholar's Best

I think the world of Michael Drout, and so I was primed to enjoy yet another terrific and insightful work from him. Unfortunately, this series of lectures seems rushed and poorly planned. (In addition, unlike all other Modern Scholar lectures I've purchased, this one did not come with a PDF document containing outlines and bibliographies for the talks.) If you're not familiar with this work, I recommend reading his scholarship or listening to some of his other lecture series.

Drout sets up two very useful ways to think about Tolkien's Middle-earth writings and their relationship to the classic Western literature that inspired and informed them; one is the metaphor of the tower and the ruins, and the other is the concept of "fighting the long defeat." Both are most helpful, and Drout is at his best when he teases out how Tolkien the philologist and Tolkien the medievalist mined the sources he studied to sub-create a new world of his own. Alas, the lectures soon stray from these organizing themes as he considers The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion in turn. That's not to say there aren't gems of information embedded in the lectures - you might say that Drout proves that not all who wander are lost (!!!) - especially with regard to how Tolkien employed framing narratives and the idea of "the compiler." I'm also particularly sympathetic to Drout's well-aimed critiques of the limits of postmodern literary criticism and the disaster of contemporary intellectual property rights and copyright law.

The lectures seem rushed though, as does Drout himself. (His hasty asides sometimes veer into insupportable generalizations of the "X had never happened before" or "only Tolkien did Y" variety, several of which could be contradicted quite easily, or genuine errors; for example, when he's "on script," he identifies Éowyn as Théoden's niece, but when he makes an offhand comment, he calls her Théoden's daughter.) I wish that, since he makes the effort to discuss "Leaf by Niggle," he'd also addressed the related "On Fairy-Stories," which speaks to many of Drout's larger points. I also wish, given his perspective on Christopher Tolkien's efforts in restoring/presenting his father's unpublished works in The Silmarillion and The Unfinished Tales, Drout had addressed the larger History of Middle-Earth volumes, as well.

The final lecture is by far the most frustrating. Unfortunately, when Drout chooses to address Middle-Earth inspired participatory culture, two of the three examples he uses (Peter Jackson's films and the Lord of the Rings role-playing game) are licensed "products," if you will, not fan creations. Even then, his points are disconnected. He fails, for instance, to link the post-Jackson influx of women into Tolkien fandom (which he mentions without explanation) with the explosion of fan fiction, fan art, and costuming activities. His treatment of the films and the role-playing game also comes across as only partially reasoned; he criticizes the films for removing readers' opportunity to imagine Middle-earth actively for themselves, and yet praises the game designers for bringing Middle-earth to stunning visual life for gaming participants.

When he discusses his personal experience with The Long-Expected Party, he does not put the event into its global context of fan-created and fan-run Tolkien conventions and gatherings, a point well worth noting (and supportive of his larger argument). Most disappointing of all, he completely ignores major ingredients in Tolkien-related participatory culture, such as the immense and decades-long phenomenon of Tolkien-based world music, from U.S. country/western music based on The Hobbit and Argentinian folk music based on The Lord of the Rings to German death metal based on The Silmarillion. This is such a widespread and long-lived phenomenon, it begs for mention in any treatment of readers' desire to enter Middle-earth. In the end, listeners would have been better served if the final lecture had been dedicated to expanding Drout's earlier textual analyses.

I got a great deal out of these lectures, as I knew I would, but I don't recommend this as a starting place for exploring Drout's impressive scholarship and insights.
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- Amy "Say something about yourself!"

For Serious Fans Only

Michael Drout lost me a bit in the introduction to this lecture series with a lot of talk about towers and scholars and Beowulf and critics and the West. Well, it evidently all means that our Professor takes his Tolkien very, very seriously indeed and very personally!

I enjoyed his discussion about the pairings of characters and the nature of good and evil as presented in "The Lord of the Rings", his defense of the literary and social merits of the books, and his presentation of the considerable impact that Tolkien's works have had on so many people. I was not so convinced that there was much about "recovering the lost tradition of Europe".

The word "scholar" is used a great many times in the course of this course. If you are a very serious fan of all things Tolkien, then this emphatic (if slightly disorganized) set of lectures may be for you. If your interest is more casual, perhaps you should skip it.

I have greatly enjoyed both Tolkien's books and Drout's other lecture series, but I'm still not sure what he means about those towers!
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- C. Telfair "Audible has changed my life! Dry , itchy eyes were destroying one of my greatest pleasures - reading. Now I am experiencing books again!"

Book Details

  • Release Date: 06-06-2012
  • Publisher: Recorded Books