Web Analytics

DIY Syllabi: Fantasy Literature

DIY Syllabi: Fantasy Literature

We start with the Greeks, as usual. This may be quixotic: the Greeks certainly had no notion of “fantasy.” The stories, or mýthoi, they told were part-religious, part-historical. There was no implication that they were false. But unlike the Hebrews, who were famously the People of the Book, the Greeks liked to modify their stories, often on the fly. Some Attic bard would take up the story of Odysseus’ ten-year journey home, which had been passed down by generations of bards under the pseudonym Homer, and improvise, adding a flourish, heightening a scene, imitating the witty, titular hero himself, “man of twists and turns.” The Greeks prized imaginative power – poikilía, cunning craftsmanship — and the talent to make something, poïesis. Daedalus was their ideal artist. If they didn’t know fantasy, they knew its urge.

Greek and Roman Mythology

Peter Struck’s lecture series begins with the idea of myth itself: what does it mean, and how does it work? From there, students examine The Odyssey — what is a hero, and what is a heroic journey? — and then Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days. Next, we’ll read Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Eurpides, the greatest of the Greek tragedians. Virgil and Ovid close the course as the Roman response. While ancient mythology’s direct influence varies on the rest of our syllabus, the archetypes, themes, and tropes will continue.

Bulfinch’s Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch
Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian, and Anglo-Saxon myths, as reimagined by an eccentric 19th century writer from Newton, Massachusetts.

Mythology by Edith Hamilton
The slightly more compact book of myths that would replace Bulfinch’s as the high school standard.

The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer
One of the most (surprisingly) influential books of the twentieth century, Frazer’s study, in its high-minded Victorianism, is one of the first to approach myth from an anthropological perspective.

Man and His Symbols by Carl Jung
Following Fraser’s lead, Freud and Jung attempted to unlock mythology’s meaning through psychology. Jung was probably more successful … who knows. Beware of rabbit holes.

Old English and Beowulf

In 1936, a mild mannered English professor at Oxford published an essay in defense of the 8th century Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, which until then had been treated as artifact more than art. Though the essay was groundbreaking among Oxbridge literary circles — and permanently established Beowulf studies as an academic field — the author took much of the argument for granted: he’d been teaching Beowulf for years and was working on a dragon-filled epic of his own. The Hobbit was published the next year.

Professor Bahr’s course examines Beowulf in its original Old English, a la Professor Tolkien. Students will learn basic vocabulary and grammar, and read excerpts from other major Anglo Saxon works like The Wanderer, The Wife’s Lament, and
The Dream of the Rood, an account of Christ’s crucifixion from the perspective of the cross. Finally, students will work to compose their own poems in Old English.

In Beowulf, especially, we’ll begin to recognize some of the telltale signs of the fantasy genre.

The Monsters and the Critics by J.R.R. Tolkien
Includes Tolkien’s famous Beowulf essay, plus lectures on medieval literature, which we’ll study next.

The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation edited by by Greg Delanty and Michael Matto
Old English poetry translated by the likes of Seamus Heaney, Robert Pinsky, Billy Collins, Eavan Boland, Richard Wilbur, and more.

Introduction to Old English by Peter S. Baker
The main language textbook used in this course.

Medieval Literature: Legends of Arthur

Who was Arthur? Like most mythical figures, he seems to be reinvented every few hundred years. His earliest chroniclers were near contemporaries (5-6th century CE) who wrote of a dragon-fighting, boar-spearing, giant-slaying warrior; these tales occasionally have a political aspect, but the emphasis is on Herculean feats of strength and bravery. (The Celts had heard of Hercules and integrated him into their stories.) By the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain drew Arthur to reflect the political realities of the time. He fights Scots, Scandinavians, Gauls, and Danes to legitimize his reign, unite the kingdom, and expand his rule.

Professor Bahr’s course examines these early sources but mostly concentrates on Malory’s famous Le Morte d’Arthur, which is a culmination of the Arthurian legend: the sword in the stone; Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table; the quest for the Holy Grail; Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere; the death of Arthur by Mordred, and the Lady of the Lake. In particular, this course asks, Why Arthur? What made Arthur so quintessentially heroic — the “once and future king”?

The Once and Future King by T. H. White
Published in 1958, White’s retelling of the Arthurian legend was the most significant since Tennyson’s.

In Search of the Dark Ages by Michael Wood
Based on a much-loved BBC history series, this book explores the mysterious time in which the historical Arthur would have lived.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
Yes, Mark Twain wrote fantasy, too.

Popular Culture and Narrative: Use and Abuse of the Fairy Tale

The fairy tale is another ancient storytelling genre. Shorter and more playful than myth, fairy tales are also among the first pure fictions. Stories about Arthur and Odysseus may have been altered, exaggerated, or altogether made up, but they were based on a real historical tradition (if not real “history”). No one believed that Snow White was the housemaid for seven dwarves. The Brothers Grimm would’ve called it a märchen, or the more highbrow kunstmärchen. A little story.

Dr. William Donaldson’s course examines the origin of fairy tales, their unique structure, their oral tradition, and inherited storytelling techniques. In short, we’ll search for a definition, making use of Freud and Jung along the way. Beyond classic fairy tales like “Snow White,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Hansel and Gretel,” the reading list covers Russian, Celtic, and Scottish tales to compare themes and styles. From there, the course considers the “abuse” of fairy tales, first by the Nazis through 1930s propaganda and then by Walt Disney, whose cartoons have been accused of sexism, racism, and controversial politics. Finally, we move into more “literary” attempts: Hans Christian Andersen, Dickens’s “The Magic Fishbone,” Baum’s “The Queen of Quok,” Philip K. Dick’s “The King of the Elves,” Margaret Atwood, and Angela Carter.

The Classic Fairy Tales edited by Maria Tatar
An anthology of forty-four of the most famous fairy tales, with critical essays on social origins, historical evolution, psychological drama, gender issues, and national identities.

The Interpretation of Fairy Tales by Marie-Louise von Franz
Jung’s most talented and devoted disciple, Von Franz is widely regarded as the foremost scholar in the field, and this book is her most popular.

Children’s Literature in Hitler’s Germany by Christa Kamenetsky
A study of how the Nazis appropriated and corrupted traditional German fairy tales to fit their totalitarian ideology.

The Lord of the Rings

Tolkien needs no introduction, so we’ll spare you. Instead, meet Corey Olsen, your trusty, unimpeachable guide through Middle Earth. (Gandalf?) Originally a professor at Washington College – where he taught Chaucer, Arthurian literature, and, yes, Tolkien — Olsen started The Tolkien Professor in 2009, which includes full lectures from Washington, and founded the Mythguard Institute in 2011, which is the source for our Lord of the Rings lectures.

For brevity, we’ll only cover the trilogy here, but Olsen has an exhaustive catalogue of material. Completists make sure to check out lectures on The Hobbit and The Silmarillion.

The Fellowship of the Ring

After the success of The Hobbit, Tolkien’s publishers at Allen & Unwin wanted a sequel to Bilbo’s adventure in the same vein. It was 1937. When Tolkien handed in his nine-thousand-page manuscript, not only was he past his deadline — it was 1947 – but the story and world of Middle Earth were almost unrecognizable. Bilbo hardly appeared. There were no dragons or quests for treasure. There was an inordinate amount of backstory and exposition. Major characters disappeared for books at a time, and the entire story hinged on one chapter, specifically one scene, from The Hobbit that had previously seemed like a mere detour. (In fact, Tolkien had to go back and edit “Riddles in the Dark” to raise the stakes of Gollum losing the ring.) Most important to the publishers, The Lord of the Rings was a long way from children’s literature.

In Professor Olsen’s survey of The Fellowship, titled “The Road Goes Ever On,” students go chapter-by-chapter through the initial stages of Frodo’s journey, beginning with the famous “A Long-expected Party.” In particular, Olsen examines the elaborate framing that Tolkien put into the story, which required years of false starts, re-writes, and general stop-and-go work. He also follows the tone of The Fellowship, which begins with The Hobbit‘s lightheartedness and gradually moves into much more serious, darker territory, rearing its head in Bree and culminating at Amon Hen. With each character introduction and change in setting, Olsen discusses relevant background story for context.

The Two Towers

Tolkien had intended for The Lord of the Rings to be printed as a single volume, but post-war paper shortages, publishing costs, and sheer size forced Allen & Unwin to divide it into a trilogy. This presented a number of problems for Tolkien, who was understandably nervous about publishers meddling with his meticulously crafted, and therefore fragile, story. One of these problems was titling. Required to couple Books III and IV together — which Tolkien described as “widely divergent” — The Two Towers was decided on. Tolkien initially thought the title got “as near as possible” to bridging Frodo and Sam’s path with the rest of the Fellowship’s, but he later regretted the ambiguity: was it Orthanc and Barad-dûr, or Minas Tirith and Barad-dûr, or Orthanc and Cirith Ungol? (Or for that matter, Minas Morgul?) Tolkien’s letters show that even he was uncertain, and he ultimately decided that the title was misleading.

In any event, The Two Towers is perhaps the trilogy’s most challenging, ambitious book. Even if Tolkien didn’t plan to pair Books III and IV, that was the intended chronology. So while Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli go on a wild goose chase after Merry and Pippin, leading to a whole set of plots, Frodo and Sam strike out toward Mordor. Of course, all this forced Tolkien to expand Middle Earth further – Fangorn, Isengard, Rohan, Gondor, the Dead Marshes, and more; we also get our first large-scale battle. Professor Olsen’s Two Towers course is an extensive, 23-part series.

The Return of the King

Tolkien quarreled with the title of The Return of the King, too — it gave away too much. That’s probably paranoid, but he had a point.

Return is the trilogy’s most focused book, geographically speaking: the zigzagging is over, and the final battle between Gondor’s allied forces and the legions of Mordor has arrived. Still, Tolkien has plenty of surprises left in both character and plot development. The Return of the King is also the longest entry in the trilogy with the Appendices. Professor Olsen covers everything – the pivotal action at Minas Tirith, the Paths of the Dead, and the final showdown inside and outside Mordor. Two sessions are devoted to the Appendices, as well – Númenór, Eorl, Durin, the calendars, family trees, the final fates of the Fellowship, et al.


J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter
The authorized biography of Tolkien has been hailed as a classic, spanning the author’s childhood in South Africa, his service in World War I, and his time at Oxford with The Inklings.

The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology by Tom Shippey
Shippey is the premier Tolkien scholar working today. Here he discusses Tolkien’s happening upon The Hobbit, the role of The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales in Tolkien’s greater scheme, and Tolkien’s son’s twelve-volume History of Middle-earth.

Understanding The Lord of the Rings edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo
A collection of the best essays on Tolkien, from Marion Zimmer Bradley, Verlyn Flieger, his student W. H. Auden, and his friend C. S. Lewis, who’s next on the syllabus.

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis was famous for being loud. His Oxford lectures were boisterous; students reported hearing him from Magdalen College’s cloisters. You might’ve been able to hear him on the Quad, thundering about late medieval literature, the uses of allegory, and arcane Norse mythology. As a proud Irishman, England initially baffled him, and World War I left Lewis bitter, caustic, and staunchly atheist. As has been said before, it’s a wonder he ever spoke with Tolkien, much less befriended him: “At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both.”

Fortunately, their unique taste in literature bound them together, alongside the other so-called Inklings, a literary circle that met by St. John’s College, typically at The Eagle and Child pub. Here, Tolkien, Lewis, and company talked books and traded manuscripts, including The Lord of the Rings and Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. In this course, delivered by Seattle Pacific University, we’ll explore Narnia and its religious underpinnings; Lewis’s storytelling art; his strange friendship with Tolkien; the roles of Plato and Augustine in his work, and his lesser-known poetry.


The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski
The recipient of numerous awards, this comprehensive account of the Inklings covers the group’s surprising plurality of views, fiery debates, and unexpected influences.

The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis edited by Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward
A collection of essays on Lewis’s career as a literary historian, popular theologian, and creative writer.

The Space Trilogy
We’re dipping into science fiction here (!), but Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength are often overlooked amidst Narnia. The shouldn’t be. Incidentally, the next course discusses them.

Rewriting Genesis: “Paradise Lost” and Twentieth-Century Fantasy

Tolkien and Lewis are the unrivaled giants of twentieth century fantasy, mostly because they invented it. But their efforts weren’t unanimously appreciated. Readers and writers alike complained of a stagnation: fantasy literature that mimicked the duo’s model but never individuated itself or advanced the genre. Tolkien and Lewis were fine, the argument went, but the characters were too static, and the plots were too predictable. Plain good versus evil was reductive and dishonest.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was the first major push beyond Tolkien and Lewis, stripping off their religious veneer and replacing it with an explicitly atheist, humanist coat. In particular, Pullman takes Milton’s Paradise Lost and turns it upside down: man is a noble creature; God is the villain (and, in fact, not God.) Professor Mary Fuller’s course is a comparative study of the two, with a philosophical bent: what is the nature of God, and is that nature just? Fuller also examines Lewis’s Perelandra in the ssme context, and covers Miltonic and Biblical criticism from Stanley Fish, Patricia Parker, William Kerrigan, Mary Nyquist, and other scholars.

A Preface to Paradise Lost by C. S. Lewis
Delivered as a lecture in 1941, Lewis’s essay remains one of the most influential pieces of criticism on the poem – “lucid, useful, entertaining.”

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Philip Pullman
Recalling earlier in our syllabus, Pullman updates the Grimms’ famous stories for a modern audience.

Paradise Lost by John Milton, with an introduction by Philip Pullman
The Norton critical edition is linked above, but this edition may be more applicable, with illustrations and an introductory essay by Pullman.


Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell has been described as fantasy, alternative history, Gothic, Byronic, a comedy of manners, and a Victorian pastiche. None are mutually exclusive. Set in 1806 at the the height of the Napoleonic Wars, England is struggling to hold off the Grande Armée when Norrell and his apprentice, Strange, begin to turn the war in England’s favor, using powerful and ancient magic. What follows is a riveting story with impeccable credentials: Hugo Award Award; Time Magazine #1 Book of the Year; People Top Ten Books of the Year; New York Times Notable Book of the Year; Washington Post Book World’s Best of 2004.

Susanna Clarke’s debut novel is by far the newest book taught by Corey Olsen. It’s also among the most extensive, with over 30 lectures.