English class focuses on the work of Tolkien

Professor Andrew Ervin teaches an alternative English course with a curriculum centered on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. | Harrison Brink TTN
Professor Andrew Ervin teaches an alternative English course with a curriculum centered on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. | Harrison Brink TTN

When Honors Program director Ruth Ost asked students what author they would enjoy a class about, she found one of the most common answers was J.R.R. Tolkien.

“Tolkien comes up over and over again [as an author] that students actually want to read,” Ost said.

Professor Andrew Ervin, who Ost said was enthusiastic about the idea, now teaches an English 902 Analytical Reading and Writing course based on Tolkien’s work.

“[Ervin] loves literature with a passion,” Ost said.

Ervin’s class examines a wide range of Tolkien’s work in effort to gain a deeper understanding of the  writing of the author of the “Lord of the Rings” triology.

The class begins by reading “The Silmarillion,” a collection of Tolkien’s mythopoetic works, which was edited and published by his son, Christopher in 1977. The class then progresses to works like the “Lord of the Rings” texts, “The Hobbit,” and Tolkien’s translation of “Beowulf.” There are also various essays about Tolkien’s work by other authors included.

Ervin said despite the fact that “The Hobbit” is considered a young-adult work, it makes for good discussion because “everyone brings their lives to bear on this book.”

“It’s really no different than if we were doing a writing class based only on Shakespeare,” Ervin said.

Ervin said he considers Tolkien a more contemporary writer with a still-developing body of scholarly work.

“We wanted something that we could look at – a fairly common topic … and look at something with entirely new perspectives,” Ervin said.

Ervin said this class is not an easy course – he said he is a tough grader because it is a foundational course for the rest of his students’ time at Temple.

Tolkien’s works are comparatively lengthy, and students must complete a high volume of reading and writing. Ervin said he understands the demands of the class, though, and makes sure students are able to stay on top of everything.

“It’s easy to fall behind, so I will slam on the breaks from time to time,” Ervin said.

Ervin said he has received a positive reaction from students in the two semesters he has taught the Tolkien course. He said students have been enthusiastic and interested in the material.

With students who are engaged in the literature, Ervin said there is a “willingness to understand the surface of what’s behind the works.”

“A great conversation can make books even more exciting,” he said.

Ost said she feels that Ervin’s class is not in danger of ruining Tolkien for students because of the workload.

“In the hands of a great teacher, you come out wanting more,” Ervin said. “You’re more excited by the text.”

In-class discussions include topics like racism and sexism in Tolkien’s works, and Ervin said the class often has intelligent discussions that do not often end in a consensus.

Because Tolkien’s works are still popular today, Ervin is able to use various forms of media to examine the texts. Recently, his students played the video game “Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor” and discussed whether or not the game was faithful to Tolkien’s ideas.

Beyond teaching, Ervin is a book critic and published fiction writer, and said these occupations help him as a professor.

“I have some sympathy for the decisions an author makes on the page,” Ervin said. “We want to remember the authors we’re reading are human beings.”

Vince Bellino can be reached at vince.bellino@temple.edu.

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