I'm a Nerd About... Teaching Tolkien

Maximilian Murdoch sees links between the fictional realm of Middle Earth and real-world history.

Photo by Drew Anthony Smith
Photo by Drew Anthony Smith

A self-described “unabashed bibliophile,” Maximilian Murdoch ’20 first became fascinated with the world of J.R.R. Tolkien when he discovered “The Hobbit” in the sixth grade. “I was totally hooked and reread it a handful of times over the next year or two before realizing there was more to the story,” he said. “I got my hands on a copy of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ shortly after and dove in.”

Murdoch’s enthusiasm for the works of Tolkien is obvious to those around him. His friends tell him that the two things he doesn’t stop talking about are Texas history and “The Lord of the Rings,” and he sees a link between his love of history and his love of all things Middle Earth. “The same impulse that drives me to seek patterns in the past is what makes a book like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ deeply satisfying to read,” said the history and German studies major. “What attracts me to the study of history is the lack of easy answers and the need to keep investigating, to keep digging in order to make sense of it. In the case of Tolkien’s work, the world he built is deep and complex, and while the stories have narrative closure, their setting begs further questions. It allows me to mimic the historiographical process and look for answers in the body of work he built.”

After a weekend of binge-watching the extended editions of “The Lord of the Rings” films with his Lovett suitemates, one of them suggested that he teach a class on it. The idea took root. This fall, Murdoch, who also has served his college as treasurer and as an O-Week coordinator, will teach a college course titled J.R.R. Tolkien and the History of Middle Earth. His students will study the history of the fictional world described by Tolkien as well as his creative development of that world. The class also will identify the real stories that influenced Tolkien’s writings.

In the meantime, Murdoch is spending most of his summer in Leipzig, Germany, taking language courses at the University of Leipzig’s Herder-Institut, thanks to the Leipzig Fellowship. No doubt he will find some interesting reading along his journeys, even if it’s not Tolkien or even fantasy-based — this time. “What’s important for me is a well-told story more than anything else.”


“Everyone should read ‘The Hobbit.’ It’s billed as a children’s book most of the time, but just because a text is accessible doesn’t mean it has nothing to give. It’s entertaining as all get up and serves as the bedrock for what we consider classic fantasy today. It’s also more morally complex than I think people give it credit for. The quest to slay the dragon is a pretty clear black-and-white case of good versus evil, but the actions of the characters involved in and surrounding the quest create tensions between competing loyalties, and the final conflict cleverly cautions against greed and selfishness.”

- Jenny West Rozelle