Corey Olsen - "the Tolkien Professor"

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Corey Olsen - "the Tolkien Professor"

Post by Lúthien » Tue Apr 23, 2013 3:32 am

Hi,

I don't know if you've ever heard of Corey Olsen? He's an English professor at Washington College (having studied Medieval Literature).
He's nicknamed "The Tolkien Professor" because he lectures a lot about Tolkien. He's also uncharacteristic for not sharing the disdain that most of his colleagues have for fantasy / fairy-stories in general (which alone is enough to make him interesting).

He puts all of his lectures online, both on iTunes (as podcasts) as on his own website at http://www.tolkienprofessor.com/wp/lectures/courses/

I've been listening to some of them, especially the ones about the poems "Sir Launcelot" and "Sir Launfall" (not certain about the spelling) because I didn't know them yet and I can certainly recommend those if you care to broaden your knowledge!

I've also listened to the first of his (long) series of lectures about the Silmarillion and even though I'm apparently so familiar with the contents that there's not much new in there - but! - in the lectures he also always incorporates discussions with his students and in there very interesting topics surface - such as a discussion about whether or not the Ainur had any free will in their performance of Iluvatar's music, introducing the Roman theologist Boethius who has some pretty interesting things to say about God existing outside of Time (which might be of interest to Dave in particular) - especially because this resolves the paradox of "free will vs. predestination".

Anyhow, Mr. Olsen has a very balanced and level-headed view on Tolkien. Of course he doesn't quite go as far as we do, but I never would expect that from a scholar at a regular university. I really like what he's doing.

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Re: Corey Olsen - "the Tolkien Professor"

Post by Lúthien » Wed Apr 24, 2013 3:45 pm

I also posted this on IV, because it might interest some there as well. Lisa reacted quite enthousiastically, and I answered to her tonight because it struck me - even in some of Corey's lectures about the Silmarillion - how many people have this compulsory inclination towards analysing the non-analysable :)

- my answer -
There are dozens of podcasts: some 30 about the Silmarillion; about the same number about "Fairy & Fantasy"; a whole series called "Riddles in the Dark": I don't know what those are about - it seems strange to talk that long about just the Riddles in the Hobbit, so I suppose it's a bit broader than that.

And they're not short either: some run for a good ninety minutes (though some are also shorter). Lots of material there, in any case.

Today I was listening to the first (of three) episodes about the Silmarillion chapter "the Story of Beren & Luthien" - I had listened to the first two podcasts of the series, but was curious what he (and his listeners) had to say about that story.

And there's where I am running into something that seems as if it is popping up all the time of late: I'm referring to the propensity that so many people have - especially scholarly inclined people - to want to explain, or analyse. It is as if the story simply cannot be enjoyed without resorting to analysis: this propensity has - in my eyes at least - something compulsive about it.
One of the things that was mentioned, for instance, was that Lúthien letting hang down her hair from the tree house in Hirilorn in order to make the guards fall asleep reminded them so much of the fairy-tale of Rapunzel.
Now, I have read that story. But despite that I read and listened to the Silmarillion many times - never once did Rapunzel "letting her hair hang down" enter my mind. Sure, there's long hair, hanging down, involved in both stories. And it's both being done from a place higher up. But yeah, so what?
For some reason, this seems to be tremendously meaningful. But I don't see it. It means exactly nothing to me - it's as if they were mentioning that they colour blue was mentioned in another story, or the word "Castle".

I admit that in the case of Corey Olsen it's a mixed bag. His lectures are certainly interesting - or have interesting parts in them. But this weird Compulsatory Analysis of Things-that-Bear-no-Analysis - or at least, that gain nothing at all by analysis - is also manifest there.

I'm actually in the middle of writing an article about it for the Dutch Tolkien Society magazine (called Lembas). I got that idea because of two articles that appeared in two consequent recent issues written by a certain Dana Oosterhof - in which the author tries to shoehorns Foucault's theories about power and control onto the Lord of the Rings.
Apart from that these articles were awfully written and full of factual errors, it struck me in particular how completely pointless they were. Really, if people would want to set up a unit measure for Pointlessness - such as the Ampère for electrical current, or the Second for time - it should be called the Oosterhof.

I already wrote a little spoof on Unquendor's Facebook page:
Recipe for a quasi-intellectual postmodernist-scholarly article about Tolkien

Ingredients:
- 1 book by JRR Tolkien ie. LOTR
- 1 to 2 Fashionable Philosophy books "for dummies" (Foucault for Dummies, Postmodernism for Dummies)
- a couple of hours to spare
- a text editor
- a blog / magazin / etc. to post the result to

We start off by taking the Fashionable Philosophy books-for-dummies and reading them (diagonally will do).
Take notes of the more obtrusive notions.
After that, we turn towards the Tolkien book and read it. If you are short in time, a summary will do.
When you finished reading the Tolkien book (or the summary), you take one of the 'obtrusive notions' from your notes and combine it pair-wise to persons or situations encountered in the Tolkien story.
It doesn't matter how: it's perfectly OK to pair Foucault's Panopticon with a person such as Galadriel or Sauron, or an object such as a Palantir.

Of course you do not need to go that far: it's just an example. Literally anything goes here.
In this way you too can write in no time flat a controversial, provocative article such as:

  • Whinnying out of Nowhere: the Rohirrim's Deus Ex Machina
  • Towards a Deconstruction of Friendship: Betrayal and Deceit in Tolkien's LOTR
  • Dawgs from da Shire: Sam as the essential Hip Hop Hero
  • The Wizard's Utilitarianism Explained: Gandalf and Saruman as the poles on the Existential Axis
  • Tom Bombadil as Manifestation of the Cosmic Gegenschein
  • Towering Failure: Weathertop as the Male Chauvinist's Waterloo
  • Wie das schmeckt, wie das duftet - aber was solls ja dann doch? - oder: Das knusprige Unbehagen des Seelischen in die Vielfältigen Frühstücks-Kultur die Hobbits *[/b]
These are just a few examples of what's possible!
Of course I'm poking fun at it here, but the thing is that I am really utterly bewildered about the "why" - why on earth would anyone write an article in which they compare Sauron's power - but also Galadriel's! to Foucault's Panopticon?
What drives them to do that? What do they hope to accomplish with it?

No matter how hard I try, in what remote corners of my mind I seek for a clue - even if I were to stand on my head: I don't get it.
That's the gist of those nonsensical articles. Of course I just made them up, but they are authentically "reverse engineered" from the all too real bewilderment that comes over me when I see someone shoe-horn such a simplistic analysis on a subject that is many orders of magnitude too complex for it - or even, that simply does not lend itself to be analysed ... because, for instance, it doesn't need analysis?
When such a writer then smugly states that "And with this, I have conclusively shown that Bombadil shares all characteristics of Derrida's L'Absence Profonde par Négation Sociale **" as if they just discovered the Higgs Boson or a new miracle cure for winterfeet or a really profound philosophical insight - I can't stop thinking of "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity".

But don't let this keep you from listening to The Tolkien Professor .. most of it is interesting. Maybe the ones that are not about the actual works of Tolkien are even the most interesting.


* How it tastes! How it smells! But heck - what then? - or: the Crunchy Discomfort of the Psyche in the Hobbit's many-faceted breakfast-culture.
** Deep Absence by way of Social Negation

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Re: Corey Olsen - "the Tolkien Professor"

Post by Hareth nic Handir » Sun Apr 28, 2013 7:20 am

Hi Luthien and everybody, glad to get back into circulation for a change!

anyway.... I've actually met Corey Olsen, at the Festival in the Shire conference a few years ago, and he is indeed one of those rare genuinely-interested academics who take Tolkien, fantasy and fairy-tale seriously. The 'analysing the unanalysable' problem is one which as far as I can see just goes with the territory of academic study like this; I hope somebody will correct me :-) but it appears to be an endemic problem. If your career is based on applying theory to text, drawing comparisons and making declarations as a result, then it's awfully tempting to just go for it, whether or not it's remotely relevant or interesting to anybody outside the academy - or even of the slightest real significance in terms of the story and how people appreciate and understand it. I'm sure a lot of these people are under the happy delusion that it matters a tinkers' whether or not Galadriel's behaviour fits with Foucaultian theory. It does rather miss the points of a) Did her writer know about any of that; b) would he have cared a jot even if he did; and c) does it teach the rest of us mere mortals anything that actually enhances our understanding of the story if she does or doesn't?
Oh, and d) that example should teach us never to trust an edited text! Check out DC Kane's 'Arda Reconstructed' on the subject of Galadriel, and how you need to read deep into JRR Tolkien's own unchanged words to really understand the author's vision of the character, post-LotR. But how many happy little paper-writers would bother, hmm?

Now, I've co-written three books on JRRT, so I speak from some knowledge - and an exasperated rejection of fuzzy literary theory in favour of historical fact and those unfashionable virtues, close attention to what a writer wrote and what they knew.
To take up your example, Rapunzel and Luthien share nothing but hair, one small motif in a large web of story for both characters. Since all the rest of their tales are completely unlike each other, well, sorry, that isn't relevant. Tolkien clearly wasn't even trying a 'Man in the Moon Came down too Soon' making-serious of a 'simple fairytale' (ahem). They're different stories, and that's that.
By contrast, I'd suggest that knowing that in Tolkien's young manhood a lady name of Loie Fuller had the superstar status and worldwide recognition of a Michael Jackson or a Madonna is relevant, since at multiple points her dance performances match those ascribed to Luthien - read the relevant bits in Tolkien's poetry, and look Fuller up. Seeing Fuller and her modern heirs in performance may give us a visual aid towards imagining what Tolkien is writing about; it may also get us to ask useful questions, since where an author admits personal experience is a big factor, history does become relevant.
As I hope that shows, Alex and I were and are writing in the hope that far from leaving people thinking, 'This is totally irrelevant to my appreciation of the story', they might just think, 'I never looked at it like that before, and that IS interesting; it does tell me something new that enhances my understanding'. I don't suppose we got there all the time, but at least we were trying. And we never ever said our view was the only possible one or even more valid than others, either.

It's a difficult balancing act, and Corey is writing/broadcasting mainly for students who have to know a lot of that theoretical stuff whether it's any use or not - occupational hazard of being an undergrad in any field, in my experience :-) Having to sift it out is wildly frustrating, I know, but getting any 'in depth' discussion that takes this type of material seriously is useful. You just have to take the rough with the smooth....

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Re: Corey Olsen - "the Tolkien Professor"

Post by Lúthien » Fri May 03, 2013 5:23 am

Hi,

I listened to some more podcasts by him and while he (and his students / audience: not all are made for courses) does indeed have a fundamental tendency to compare motifs, behaviour and other patterns that occur in the stories it is not so dominant as I feared it might have been (apart from that Lúthien vs. Rapunzel moment, which felt very weird to me).
In general, people seem to be able to retain a good deal of internal engagement. And that approach indeed yields some interesting points, though by no means any major ones - but I suppose that I am much more familiar with the material as most of his audience is (who often admit finding the Silmarillion a "difficult read").

But his best podcast until now was one short one I listened to yesterday, titled "How to read Tolkien and Why" in which he advocates the same approach as I would do: try not to analyse; don't take it as an allegory (of the heavy-handed sort); leave Tolkien "as a person" out of it and don't get all frantic over possible sources (ie. "where did he get it from?")

He even goes well into Tolkien's subcreation-idea. Actually, I think that his view here and - say, Stephan Hoeller's - are nearly identical. Which is pretty amazing, and hope-giving, for an academic.

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