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Course Uses Lord of the Rings to Provide Philosophical Insight









 

Course Uses Lord of the Rings
to Provide Philosophical Insight

Author J.R.R. Tolkien created a world of epic fantasy where hobbits, elves and the other inhabitants of Middle Earth bore witness to the ongoing battle between good and evil.

This semester, “Fantasy and Philosophy,” Fordham’s senior values seminar that addresses the moral and religious themes of classic works of epic fantasy, is exploring Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. With the aid of recent scholarly criticism, the course looks at ways in which the author's trilogy sheds light on moral experiences and encounters with evil in the real world. In addition, students draw parallels between Tolkien’s novels and the work of philosophers and theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine and Aristotle.

“The goal of the course is the same as every senior values seminar: to bring out those moral, ethical and philosophical themes that are most interesting in The Lord of the Rings and that are really the heart of Tolkien’s vision,” said Davenport, an assistant professor of philosophy.

To visually convey Tolkien’s unique viewpoints and philosophy, the course’s creator and instructor, John Davenport, Ph.D., shows students illustrations of life in Middle Earth and scenes from the recently released movies.

According to Davenport, Tolkien’s use of character development draws on themes from ancient Greek philosophy such as how choices shape character and how human beings’ capacity for good must be carefully nurtured so as not to be perverted. Tolkien believed, as Aquinas did, that hatred and malice stem from the root of all evil—pride.

“Tolkien tries to show you what he thinks is the inner structure of the human spirit,” said Davenport, a faculty member at Fordham since 1998. “In his story, he expresses the nature of the human will, and then what we try to do as a class is determine whether or not his viewpoint is persuasive.”

Davenport is the author of an essay in the forthcoming book The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy (Open Court, 2003), the next volume in a series on philosophy and popular culture edited by Fordham alumnus William Irwin, Ph.D. (FCO ’92) (the series includes Seinfeld and Philosophy, The Simpsons and Philosophy, and The Matrix and Philosophy. The Simpsons and Philosophy volume has already sold more than 150,000 copies).

In addition to those seniors in the class fulfilling the values seminar requirement for graduation, many other undergraduates have enrolled, armed with an eager desire to learn more about Tolkien, the man behind the myth.

“I think that interpreting The Lord of the Rings through classical philosophy is a good approach to classical philosophy, making it a little more real, a little more approachable,” said sophomore Lara Fenyar. “Tolkien was obviously a Christian and he probably took a lot of his inspiration from Christian thought and Christian beliefs, so to learn a little bit more about Augustine and how his theories apply to The Lord of the Rings is also very interesting.”

—Ryan Thompson

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To visually convey Tolkien’s unique viewpoints and philosophy, the course’s creator and instructor, John Davenport, Ph.D., shows students illustrations of life in Middle Earth and scenes from the recently released movies.

Photo: Chris Taggart


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