Honors seminar covers the mythos behind “The Lord of the Rings”


Jack McClellan

Myers collection of works by or about J.R.R. Tolkien.

Iowa State’s honors seminars offer a variety of unusual courses, including a one-credit seminar on Tolkien’s mythology taught by Alan Myers, a professor in biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology.

J.R.R. Tolkien, the author behind “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” has a plethora of other writings set in the same world. Some of his writings were also published posthumously by his son, Christopher Tolkien.

The course covers the contents of the Silmarillion, a compilation of notes and stories edited and published by Christopher Tolkien. Myers said the Silmarillion has been described as a fictional bible, including all the religious and mythological context for the characters within the stories of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

Myers said many people believe Tolkien’s writings are works of genius and that he tends to agree with those beliefs.

Myers said as a veteran of the first world war, Tolkien was exposed to some of humanity’s most heinous feats. Many of the themes present throughout Tolkien’s writings seem to be inspired by the horrors he witnessed during the war.

“So he was witness to like the greatest mass horrendous death that’s ever happened,” Myers said. “He was like right in the middle of it, where like tens of thousands of people were killed in one day and he was right there. So it was a little bit after that, he started writing this.”

Myers said mixing those experiences with Tolkien’s background as a devout Catholic can possibly explain the great depth and complexity of Tolkien’s fictional mythology.

“Tolkien worked on this mythology his whole life; started when he was in his mid-20s to late 20s, and continued working on it until his death in his mid-70s,” Myers said. “Fifty years he worked on it, and the popular parts, the novels, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ are like sections of this much bigger mythology that he developed in his mind.”

Myers said the themes touched on by many of Tolkien’s works reflect the concerns many share over the nature of life and death. For some, these works represent an opportunity to conceptualize these realities outside the context of their own lives.

“That’s what I tried to get across, it’s just some stories that could help you think about the way the world is, and that’s what myths are. Myths are stories that try to explain things that we can’t understand,” Myers said.

Tolkien always tried to get his writings on the broader mythology published, yet Myers said publishers were reluctant to publish the writings because of concerns readers would not be interested.

After J.R.R. Tolkien’s death in 1973, Christopher Tolkien compiled many of J.R.R. Tolkien’s unpublished notes and writings on his mythology. Where publishers previously refused to publish Tolkien’s work, Christopher Tolkien’s edition was published for wider audiences in 1977.

“So you know, some students are like, ‘Oh, I saw the movie, I’ll take the course and see what it’s all about,’ Myers said. “And I have other students that know more about it than I do that are like super into it, and everywhere in between.”

Myers said the final assignment for the seminar is to write a short piece of fiction to fit into Tolkien’s mythology. Myers also said he warns students at the beginning of the course so they can drop the class if they’re not interested in the assignment, yet he said this last semester, many of the students were very enthusiastic about the assignment.

Seth Dalberg, a junior majoring in chemistry, was one of the students who took the seminar last semester. Dalberg said he had not read any of Tolkien’s work or watched any of the movies before taking the class.

Dalberg said part of his reasoning for taking the seminar was to get more ideas for a script he is writing as a personal project.

“I’m a pretty big fan of mythology in general, so it’s just like, I’ve heard a lot of good things about J.R.R. Tolkien,” Dalberg said. “It seems like his work could help inspire me and sort of act as a good reference point for what I want to do, and it just sounded like an interesting course.”

Dalberg said the class format included a few assigned readings followed by a discussion in class once a week. Dalberg said he enjoyed the class’s format, especially the final assignment.

“Tolkien wasn’t a writer by trade, he was a linguistics professor, so as a result, he did end up writing a lot, but he didn’t get everything published. There are still loose ends,” Dalberg said. “So that final project was a really neat part of it because it really let me and all my other classmates harness our creativity to try to sort of fill in the gaps.”

Dalberg said he hopes the course will continue to be offered in the future, though he said honors seminars are sometimes finicky in the way they are offered between different years and semesters. Myers said he has requested the honors program offers the course in the fall 2023 term.

“Overall, I greatly enjoyed the Tolkien’s Mythology class,” Dalberg said. “It was wonderful to learn about such a wonderful mythos, and I definitely plan on continuing to just learn about it in the future and hopefully using it as inspiration for my works in the future.”

Luke Timmerman, a senior majoring in aerospace engineering, said he chose to take the seminar because he and his friends were looking for a course to take together and shared an interest in Tolkien’s writings.

“It was cool to learn just the consistency of a worldview that Tolkien was able to, like, develop with the Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings,” Timmerman said.

Timmerman said the classroom discussions throughout the course were interesting to attend, in large part due to the depth of knowledge Myers was able to bring to the table, including information from Tolkien’s various works as well as outside knowledge.

Timmerman said exploring the themes included in Tolkien’s works in a fictional setting allows the reader to conceptualize difficult topics in a more tangible and meaningful way.

“I think there’s a lot of value in what fiction and fantasy can bring in,” Timmerman said. “It kind of allows you to, like, bring down to earth some more abstract ideas.”

Timmerman also said he enjoyed the opportunity to write an addition to Tolkien’s works as the final for the class. He said the Silmarillion reads somewhat like a history book, giving an overview of events without going into great depth. With the final assignment, Timmerman said he was happy with the opportunity to try and fill in some of the gaps himself.

“That was my favorite part of the whole semester, definitely,” Timmerman said. “I just like picked one event that was like a paragraph in the Silmarillion and wrote six or seven pages just like, going into what I actually imagined that seemed to be, so that allowed me to like activate my imagination.”