University of Notre Dame

Introduction to Medieval English Literature (or The Literature Tolkien Loved)

Course Number: ENGL 13186-10
Instructor: Kathryn Kerby-Fulton

This course is designed to introduce students to the great genres of English literature, using medieval works particularly loved by J. R. R. Tolkien. Using the Norton Anthology of English Literature, supplemented by some texts originating in the Viking age, students will be introduced to the genres of epic, lyric, romance, comedy, saint’s life, and drama. The list includes famous texts representing diverse Northern European cultures, and ranging across heroic, chivalric, spiritual, and social themes (among the latter, the roles of women, slaves and non-Christian peoples). Among the earliest modern interpreters of the Middle Ages was Tolkien, both as a novelist and as an Oxford professor of medieval literature and language. He was a philologist, meaning literally “a lover of words,” a scholar of Old and Middle English, Old Norse, runes, and several medieval languages. Medieval works have also inspired a large array of modern writers and filmmakers with re-workings of Beowulf and Arthurian legends. In the final weeks of the course, students will lead the class in oral presentations and discussions aimed at understanding the medieval texts in relation to Tolkien or other modern renderings, or, if they prefer, in relation to other medieval sources they have enjoyed reading. Having learned to analyze the medieval material using professional literary methods, with access to scholarly editions, glossaries, and published articles (some by Tolkien), students will have an unusual chance to appreciate the sources of famous literary motifs in their original contexts.