Drout presents one lecture to rule them all
Students, faculty, and even some children came to the Wean 7500 lecture hall last Thursday to hear “How to Read J.R.R. Tolkien,” a part of the Carol Brown Lecture Series sponsored by the English department. Giving the lecture was Michael D.C. Drout (DC’90), who currently teaches Old and Middle English, science fiction, and the works of Tolkien at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. The lecture addressed the reasons why Tolkien works have remained a mainstay in popular culture, and Drout discussed the ways in which Tolkien managed to make parts of his works seem genuinely old.
Tolkien is “easy to read,” Drout said, “It’s part of popular culture, not literature.” When polled, a high percentage of readers claimed that reading Tolkien was a different experience than authors like James Joyce, because it did not require the same in-depth thought process.
Drout described how Tolkien uses the least knowledgeable character as the main point of view — for example, the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings — and what Drout calls the epistemic regime, in which characters make casual references to events and people that the main character and the reader do not understand. These elements work together to create the sensation that the reader and main character are sharing experiences and feelings.
Drout also discussed how Tolkien was able to create the impression that his works are part of a larger “textual tradition” by using broken references, which he compared to physical ruins. “Gaps and inconsistencies are the most interesting parts of a text,” he said, referring back to missing pages and sections from works like Beowulf, and pondering whether readers would enjoy these works as much if they understood every single reference.
The use of the least knowledgeable character, the epistemic regime, and the impression of a textual tradition all work together to “entwine the past and present together” and create a sense of nostalgia in Tolkien’s works.
The textual tradition serves to distance the reader from the text and enforces the “absolute pastness of the past”; at the same time, the desire to understand it creates the “intense love for the unrecoverable past,” Drout said.
Drout seemed a natural lecturer, punctuating his discussion with jokes and anecdotes about his time here at Carnegie Mellon — he even managed to throw in a story about his booth-building days with Phi Kappa Theta. At times, he took on a more personal tone, emphasizing his close relationship with English department faculty — most significantly professor Peggy Knapp, whom he cites as the reason for his career focus. These casual references to his personal experiences circled back to his main points about nostalgia and cultural references.
The lecture was able to pinpoint aspects of the text and writing style that make Tolkien’s works enjoyable, without taking away the joy of reading — something that literary analysis often does. All you wanted to do at the end of the lecture was pick up one of the novels to really see how well Tolkien pulled off the sense that his stories were part of a larger cultural context.