CHESTERTOWN, MD—Professor Corey Olsen launched his Web site, The Tolkien Professor, and began offering free podcasts of his lectures to share his passion for the writer’s works and to bridge the gap between academia and the general public. “I wanted to connect with other people who are eager to be included in a thoughtful, literary conversation about the works of J.R.R. Tolkien,” he wrote in his Web site welcome page.
It seems to be working well. Very well.
The Tolkien Professor podcasts on iTunes U, Apple’s site for downloading free audio files of university and college lectures, have steadily risen in the ranks of the most downloaded podcasts, and on December 19 his intro talk, “How to Read Tolkien and Why,” hit number 3. He has been featured for weeks as a “Noteworthy” offering on the iTunes U homepage (http://deimos3.apple.com/indigo/main/main.xml) and keeps company with the likes of an Oxford University series on “The Nature of Argument” and a video on programming for the Mac OS X operating system from Stanford (ranked no. 1 and 2 as of December 22).
“It’s pretty remarkable that he has stayed in the top 20 for so long,” says Nancy Cross, an instructional technologist who helps administer the iTunes U content for Washington College. “I first noticed him at number 17 back at the end of October, and while other lecture series have come and gone, he’s not only survived, but risen in popularity. I think it shows his cross-over appeal.”
Olsen says he’s been amazed by the response from the beginning. “People of widely different ages, nationalities, and backgrounds have expressed their excitement at the chance to be involved in a serious intellectual discussion of Tolkien's works. A lot of people don't get the chance to study Tolkien in college, and even those who did are delighted to have the opportunity to return to it."
The Tolkien Professor site has attracted more than 4 million visits. He figures his podcasts have been downloaded some 850,000 times. He’s thrilled to be proving that good scholarship and popular literature are not mutually exclusive.
Reader comments on the iTunesU page for The Tolkien Professor are effusive: “A family member recently introduced me to this series and I just can’t stop listening. This is such an intelligent discussion of Tolkien’s works but it manages to be really fun at the same time,” writes one. And another confesses, “I can’t figure out how to describe how incredible this podcast is.”
Listeners as young as 12 have sent in questions, a state of affairs that especially pleases the Professor. “I want to be accessible, and if 12- and 13-year-olds are listening, then I’m doing something right.”
The Tolkien Professor Facebook page boasts 1,800 followers, nearly a third of them international. A 12-year-old girl in China wrote recently to share some Tolkien-inspired poems she had written.
Olsen likes the personal engagement with other Tolkien fans. In addition to posting his Washington College lectures, he hosts office hours on Skype to field questions from listeners, and sometimes records Q&A sessions with listeners or chats with students.
From his early forays into Middle-Earth as a grade-schooler entranced by knights and dragons, Olsen was destined to become a medievalist. He double majored in English and Astrophysics at Williams College, graduating with high honors and membership in Phi Beta Kappa, then earned his PhD at Columbia. He came to Washington College in 2004 and three years later won the Award for Distinguished Teaching from the Washington College Alumni Association.
Olsen has taught everything from the Bible and courtly love to Greco-Roman mythology. But Tolkien has a special hold on him. Earlier this month, he launched a new online seminar on Tolkien’s most challenging work, The Silmarillion. The Online Silmarillion Seminar (and support group) covers a chapter a week, and the Tolkien Professor promises that these stories “are even more profound and more moving than The Lord of the Rings,” and will lead readers to understand The Lord of the Rings “in a whole new way.” The seminar consists of a live chat among participants—one of whom is a U.S. Marine serving in Qatar, and the Professor plans to post recordings of those discussions on his Web page.
Tolkien's works really stand out among other 20th-century works of fiction, says Olsen. “He believed that myths are stories that reach beyond fiction and touch Truth itself. When he was young, Tolkien wanted to write a mythology for England; he felt it had never really had a native mythology of its own. What he ended up accomplishing was much more than that. In The Lord of the Rings, he wrote a new mythology for the whole modern world, a mythology for a world that had almost forgotten myth."
Tolkien's works are also fundamentally grounded in Christian theology, Olsen adds, where myths get at the truth of our existence. "This world is not our destiny. That's the reason we feel dissatisfied. Through the mythological world Tolkien creates, we can begin to think about things beyond the mundane world around us.”