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The Medieval in Middle-Earth: J. R. R. Tolkien and Old English Philology


Admission requirements

Relevant BA-degree. A basic working knowledge of Old English language and literature is required; students who haven’t followed a course in Old English can contact the tutor some weeks before the course starts for an alternative, online means to grasp the basics of Old English.


While J.R.R. Tolkien is best known as the author of The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955), his day job was university professor at the University of Oxford, where he lectured mostly on Old English language and literature. Middle-Earth, the world Tolkien created in his fictional work, was heavily influenced by his academic interests and shows the great debt that Tolkien owed to the language and literature of early medieval England. In this course, we will study Tolkien’s academic publications on the field of Old English, particularly the poem Beowulf, both in their own right and in relation to his fictional world.
Tolkien’s views on Old English literature have been published before and after his death and have had a great impact on the scholarship. His lecture ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ (1936) is possibly one of the most-cited studies in his field, shaping a new literary-critical approach to the poem. Tolkien’s fascination with another Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon, led to the publication of two scholarly essays and a fictional, dramatic epilogue to the poem: The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son (1953). Works published after Tolkien’s death include an edition and translation of the Old English poem Exodus (1982, ed. J. Turville-Petre) and a study on the story of Finn and Hengest that is found in both Beowulf and the Old English ‘Finnsburh Fragment” (1982, ed. A. Bliss). The recent publication of his translation of Beowulf (2014, ed. C. Tolkien), along with notes based on his lectures, provides yet another insight into Tolkien’s understanding of the Anglo-Saxon world and its literature.
Reading Tolkien’s academic work will first of all provide students with a better insight into the culture, language and literature of early medieval England, as well as the methodology of Old English philology. At the same time, it will also illuminate their reading of Tolkien’s fantasy fiction.
The course will be concluded by a student symposium where the students present their own research.

Course objectives

Upon successful completion of the course, students will have:

  • improved their ability to read and interpret important works of Old English literature, both in translation and in the original language.

  • gained a thorough understanding of Tolkien’s development of his mythology and how studying an author’s sources can enhance our reading of his fictional work.

  • further developed their ability to analyse works of literature, to understand these works as belonging to their historical and cultural moments as well as specific textual traditions, and to make interesting and meaningful claims about these works in both written or oral form.

  • further developed their independent research skills.

  • produced a final research paper that represents the very best writing they were able to produce at that moment.


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction

3-hour seminars

Assessment method


  1. Academic blog post of c. 1500 words after Block I
  2. Research paper of 2500-3000 words after Block II
  3. Presentation of 15-20 minutes on selected secondary literature
  4. Participation and preparation of weekly readings

ResMA only:
5. Additional paper (or extension of research paper) of 3000 words, which reflects on the the methodology of source study to approach Tolkien's fiction.

ResMA only:

  1. Additional paper (or extension of research paper) of 3000 words, which reflects on the the methodology of source study to approach Tolkien's fiction.


Element 1) 25%
Element 2) 40%
Element 3) 25%
Element 4) 10%

Element 1) 15%
Element 2) 25%
Element 3) 20%
Element 4) 10%
Element 5) 30%


If the average grade is a 5,49 or lower, one or two of the research papers will need to be retaken. There is no resit for the presentation, participation and preparation (elements 3 and 4).

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

  • J.R.R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (HarperCollins, 2000 or later)

  • J.R.R. Tolkien, Finn and Hengest. The Fragment and the Episode (HarperCollins, 1998 or later)

  • J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf (HarperCollins, 2001 or later)

  • J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, ed. C. Tolkien (HarperCollins, 2014 or later)

  • J.R.R. Tolkien, The Battle of Maldon: Together with the Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, ed. P. Grybauskas (HarperCollins, 2023)

  • Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth. 3rd revised and expanded edition (HarperCollins, 2003 or later)


Enrolment through MyStudyMap is mandatory.
General information about course and exam enrolment is available on the website


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Arsenaal