There are plenty of colleges and universities across the country that offer courses on writer J.R.R. Tolkien and his most well-known work, “The Lord of the Rings.” But few, if any, teach them the way Alma College does.
The class, ENG 180M-01, better known as Lord of the Rings: Middle-earth, is a Spring Term course that gives students an interdisciplinary perspective on “LotR,” leaning hard into Tolkien’s concept of secondary worlds. If you take this class, offered by professors Laura von Wallmenich and Steuard Jensen, you’ll learn what it means to not only think critically about one of the world’s most famous fantasy novels, but to build an imaginary world with its own consistent version of reality.
So, as Gandalf says in LotR: “Go where you must go,” and read on, to learn more about this interesting and unusual course at Alma College!
An English professor’s perspective
Laura is an associate professor of English and coordinator of the American Studies program at Alma College, who has been with the college since 2001. She’s an expert in early American literature who has teaching and research interests in many types of literature, as well as popular culture and film studies.
She comes at LotR with an interest in discussing how it fits into our world. For example, did you know that Tolkien borrowed some of basic narrative forms and topes from Norse and Anglo-Saxon sagas? Did you know that the Elvish languages that Tolkien famously created were influenced by Welsh, Finnish and Greek?
From Laura’s perspective, LotR created a sort of “modern mythology” for a world that was hungry for it, creating a pastiche of already-existing cultures and subcultures. It’s a really interesting take for LotR superfans to consider, one that will make the real world seem bigger and more interesting than you might have thought possible.
A physics professor’s take
Steuard is an associate professor and chair of the Alma College Department of Physics and Engineering, who has been with the college since 2009. While his expertise is in physics topics, like string theory and M-theory, he’s also something of an expert in LotR and Middle-earth.
He approaches LotR with an eye toward the world that Tolkien created, which has different rules and structures than ours, but nevertheless has rules and structures just the same. If you ever wanted to know why, in LotR, elves are immortal and humans are not, ask Steuard. If you want to know the difference between orcs and Uruk-hai, ask Steuard. If you want to know why Sauron’s Ring controls the other rings … you know what to do.
Steuard might not have clear-cut answers to these questions, but it’s fun to try and understand them. It’s a different sort of reading than what an English professor would take — you can definitely see Steuard’s science background influencing his way of thinking about Tolkien — but it’s also really interesting, particularly for people whose interests lie in English and literature.
What do you do in this class?
In addition to reading the texts, Laura and Steuard assign a number of interesting and creative assignments that draw from their own unique ways of thinking about the series.
One fun assignment sees students create their own words, much like Tolkien created his own languages, and use them in sentences. Students are also asked to create their own worlds, along with some characters and artifacts within that world. This will encourage you to be your full, creative self — figuring out what your own passion is and how you might build a world around that.
While the class is very much focused on engaging with the text, there is some discussion about how they relate to Peter Jackson’s famous LotR film trilogy of the early 2000s. You might also see Steuard dress up like Legolas, sing “Frodo of the Nine Fingers” and play the ukulele, but … we’re not going to spoil the ending.
Much like Gandalf the Grey turning White, some things just need to be seen to be believed.
Spring Term makes in-depth study of a single subject as well as traveling and exploring new cultures easy. In addition to fun courses like “Lord of the Rings,” many classes involving travel are offered. See which Alma College Spring Term course is right for you.