Given my past work for the Thinker, it should hardly come as a surprise that I am a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and his broader legendarium. The world’s expanse is rarely eclipsed even today; every story’s depth is unparalleled; and, ever since I first read The Hobbit, I have been enthralled by Tolkien as an author. For these reasons, I was excited when I heard about the upcoming University of Chicago class “Tolkien: Medieval and Modern.” I became even more excited when I realized the class was to be taught by Professor Rachel Fulton Brown, a great friend of the Thinker with whom I have prayed weekly for the past year.
Though my anticipation for the course could not have been higher, it managed to exceed all my expectations and blow me away.
“Tolkien: Medieval and Modern” was unlike any other course I’ve taken. Unlike similar classes, its goal was neither to situate Tolkien in relation to some other topic or field, nor to simply study him for its own sake. Rather, Fulton Brown set out to help us understand the methods and meanings behind the great works of Tolkien’s legendarium—all before guiding us in creating works of our own within Tolkien’s world. This was particularly significant to me as an aspiring writer.
Our final project was to take everything we had learned and create a project of our own to fit into the legendarium, something Tolkien had hoped his readers would do. My composition was on the Nazgûl, the nine Men who were given Rings of Power and fell under Sauron’s dominion. In creating this project, I used our lessons on style to craft its telling, our lesson on history to incorporate it into the larger body of work, our studies of characters like Fëanor and Boromir to formulate the fall to evil, and, most important, the study of the Ring and Tolkien’s conception of evil to develop its themes.
To be able to write these stories required a great knowledge of Tolkien; thankfully, Fulton Brown’s lectures were phenomenal.
She split the course into two sections: Tolkien’s craft and his stories. The first lectures focused on how he wrote, specifically with the goal of helping us develop our own skills. We considered the nature and necessity of fairy tales, the names and languages Tolkien employed, and “sources” for the stories.
The second half focused on the stories of Tolkien’s world, helping us to build “content” for our own stories. We discussed the music of the legendarium and its relation to the Ainulinadalë (the creation story of the legendarium); the interplay between immortality and death through the lens of elves, men, and hobbits; and The Silmarillion. The lecture on the Ring was the best lecture I have attended while at UChicago, and it genuinely felt like an epiphany when I fully understood the Ring and its stakes. All these discussions enhanced my appreciation of Tolkien more than I thought possible, and I plan to reread the stories soon with all I have learned in mind.
The class was also super fun. It was easily the class I most looked forward to attending, and the readings were great. Although I don’t want to spoil it, the surprise during the class on the Ainulindalë was one of my favorite moments of the year, and we ended with a Tolkien-themed garden party together. It was a genuine joy to be a part of this class.
All in all, “Tolkien: Medieval and Modern” is my favorite class among those I’ve taken at UChicago. It was the study of a subject I love that only enhanced my fondness of it. I learned more than I could have ever imagined and relished every second of it. Professor Fulton Brown is a wonderful professor and crafted an amazing class. If you have the chance, I implore you to take it—you won’t regret it!
P.S. If you would like to see our class discussion posts and the syllabus for the class, they can be found on the course blog. The class will be offered again in spring 2026. Additionally, Professor Fulton Brown has an online course available on Unauthorized.tv; more information can be found here.
* The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.