Tuesday, December 09, 2003

The Wisdom of Students

In the final meeting of my senior seminar on Tolkien and Le Guin, I asked students to make some kind of judgment about the value of fantasy literature, particularly these two authors. Now these students are senior English majors; they don't just read fantasy by any means; they've had a full complement of courses in the traditional canon and beyond.

Yet to a one, they thought that Tolkien belonged right in with all of the other great writers they had studied. "He's trying to do different sorts of things than they are," one said. "So he set himself some major aesthetic goals, and met them. Isn't that the definition of a great writer?"

Another student talked about Tolkien's heroes: "We've got all of these books, hundreds of books, with anti-heroes or failed heroes: Gatsby, Absalom, Absalom! Beloved, Sun Also Rises, Catcher in the Rye... but can the anti-hero even work when you haven't had a regular hero? And is there even a regular hero in Tolkien? Aragorn, maybe, but Frodo and Gandalf really save the world (one directly, one through inspiration), and neither of them fits the hero template. If Normal Mailer is a genius for coming up with an anti-hero, isn't Tolkien more of a genius for coming up with a hero without supernatual powers who also isn't an anti-social, violent, destructive, self-involved jerk?

I love my students.

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