19 June 2014

The Mythgard Institute

In the winter of 2012 I was poking around the internet, looking as we all do for god knows what  -- our futures perhaps -- when I came across this guy named Corey Olsen who was calling himself "The Tolkien Professor."  Now I'll admit that my first reaction (okay, it's my default reaction) was skepticism.  "The Tolkien Professor" just sounded a bit geeky, and I'm old enough to remember when geek was not a compliment.  And what was with that definite article, huh?  The Tolkien Professor?  Was that like The O'Neill, The O'Donnell, The Humongous?

But since an essential part of real skepticism is to investigate those things at which we first look askance, and since I have always loved Tolkien, I decided to check it out.  First I listened to the podcasts of his undergraduate classes at Washington College, then to his Tolkien chats and Q&A sessions, and the Silmarillion Seminar (of blessed memory).  As someone who has read The Lord of the Rings so many times that, if I told you how many, you would roll your eyes and assume I was wearing a costume as I wrote this,* I can reasonably lay claim to being a competent judge.

And let me tell you this: Corey Olsen knows his stuff.

Now don't misunderstand me.  The discussions on the podcasts are only very seldom about whether Balrogs have wings (since of course they don't).  Rather, they are serious literary discussions that explore the ceaselessly amazing world of Middle Earth through careful study of the texts themselves.  At the same time they are also lighthearted, full of humor, and untrammeled by ponderous literary theories.  Instead they pay attention to what the author actually wrote.  Inconceivable.

While Professor Olsen's undergraduate lectures are still available through iTunes and his website (www.tolkienprofessor.com), ever since 2012 he has been embarked on a new adventure, creating and building up The Mythgard Institute, which offers graduate courses online for Master's credit and for auditing. (Tuition for both is quite reasonable.)  While many of the early courses have focused on Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and Fantasy and Science Fiction, the range of courses and the number of professors have been steadily expanding.  Most recently, for example, Professor Olsen, a Medievalist and Chaucerian by trade, has offered two semesters on Chaucer.  I have audited both of these classes, and rarely have I had so much fun and learned so much at the same time.  I'm thinking of making a pitch for more Middle English next spring or summer.  How about Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl?

But wait there's more.  In addition to the Mythgard Institute there's also The Mythgard Academy, which since the summer of 2013 has offered free courses on works and authors proposed and voted on by those of us who have made voluntary contributions (think NPR).  But to listen and participate is absolutely free, and if you miss a session the recordings are usually posted within a day or two.  Nor are the readings limited to Tolkien.  We recently had a course on Ender's Game, which raised my opinion of Orson Scott Card as a writer, and in the end of July or beginning of August we'll be starting Frank Herbert's Dune.  I'm very much looking forward to that.

Clearly I am quite pleased to have made this discovery.  I have learned a lot about Tolkien and tons about Chaucer.  I can't find enough good things to say about the job Corey Olsen does.  I just wanted to take the opportunity to say that.


*Don't own one. Never worn one.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.  It's all in good fun.  And the only convention I've ever been to was the first Star Trek convention in New York when I was eleven.  Even then no pointed ears.

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