Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Tolkien y Lewis
When I was on my semester abroad in Chile, now 2.5 years ago, I took a class on JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. I found it very amusing to be taking a class on classic English fantasy literature in Spanish, and in fact, I have only read The Lord of the Rings in Spanish translation, for that class. I was the only non-Chilean in the class, and the professor loved me. The class lectures did not focus so much on the literary works of the two authors, but instead on their relationship to each other, their involvement in "los Inklings," and the influences of religion on their lives and writing. I now have tons of notes on the lives of the two, all written in Spanish, and it has turned out to be the class I got the most interesting information out of, even though the other 3 classes I took were the ones that counted toward my major and concentration. All hail the liberal arts education!

With this background, I was interested to find an article on Salon today covering exactly the subject of my Chilean course. If you're interested in reading it, I will say that it briefly covers a lot of the important points, such as both men's fascination with mythology, and in particular the role/appropriateness of Christian mythology in modern literature. I always thought it was kind of ironic, although perhaps more explicable for being as it is, that Lewis was basically the born-again, yet he was the one who decided that writing about Christian mythology and incorporating it into the fabric of his fantasy world was very important, while Tolkien was the lifelong devout Catholic who said that while Christian mythology was an equally valid vehicle of truths as other legends, it was inappropriate to include in a created fantasy world.

Really, though, all that religious rambling is an aside to the thoughts that seeing the article this morning truly sparked. It was actually rather serendipitous to find that Salon update waiting in my inbox this morning, because the subject of Tolkien was heavily on my mind after class yesterday afternoon. A couple of weeks ago, for Methods, I had to write a lesson plan focusing on reading. I decided to use Tolkien's Smith of Wootton Major as the main reading text, after one lesson of pre-reading activities getting the students interested by relating it to the now popular movies. I even had a fun worksheet where the students got to learn the dwarvish runes and translate the text on Bilbo's map. I liked my lesson plan. I may have gotten a little obsessed with it. I thought it would be a lot of fun.

But yesterday in class, my professor realized from something else I said related to a writing activity I did in high school that said Tolkien-based lesson was mine. She said, and I quote, "Oh, right the Tolkien lesson... I didn't want to say anything when I was grading it, but I was just totally uninterested." Gasp! Shock and dismay! (I suppose I might add that I did get a good grade, regardless.)

Don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those people who runs around insisting that everyone has to love Tolkien, that he's just the greatest writer of all time, that The Lord of the Rings is the highest work of literature in all the world, etc, etc. After all, I haven't actually read his main work in English, which many consider to be an act of heresy on my part. But from an English teacher's perspective, you can't diss Tolkien. The man was a linguist, and a philologist in particular. The man truly understood the power of a well-shaped sentence and the choice of just the right word. I chose Smith of Wootton Major because it is a children's story, and thus has somewhat simpler language, but the quality of the writing is not at all diminished by the use of easier vocabulary and simpler sentence structures. It is challenging enough not to insult the students' intelligence by having them read a children's story, and it allows them access to an actual work of literature by a famous author they have no doubt heard of, without the daunting task of actually trying to read the entirety of LotR, which is hard enough for some native speakers. This is a man who loved language more than most other human beings, and that love of English is what ESL teachers, or even just high school English teachers in the US, should be trying to transmit to their students.

On the other hand, it is also my opinion, backed up by personal experience, that teachers who don't appreciate science fiction and fantasy as a genre should not try to teach it. However much they may try to teach the work in question like any other work of literature, their disinterest or disdain shows through. I have a feeling that the way my 7th grade teacher tried to teach Ursula Le Guin's short story "The Rule of Names" ended up turning a lot of students off to the idea that fantasy could be interesting, which I'm sure was only reinforced by my 9th grade teacher's attempt at The Wizard of Earthsea. It was only when I took the sci-fi/fan literature elective at my high school that I found a teacher as interested in reading the books as I was. Ms. Woodbury proved that it was possible to teach sci-fi/fan to students in an inspirational way, even to the people who ended up in the class because all the other electives they wanted, like auto shop, were closed out.

So despite what my professor here may think, I maintain in the spirit of Ms. Woodbury that Tolkien would be an ideal author to teach to ESL or EFL students. Some people just do not have an appreciation for "popular" genres, somehow assuming that sci-fi/fan works are not actually worthy of the term "literature." I state now that this is due to a lack of education. If I am expected to sit through English classes extolling the virtues of Melville's god-awful Billy Budd and Faulkner's Light in August, then English teachers ought to have to try to gain an appreciation for the actual literary merits of works in the science fiction and fantasy genres. To have a professor stating her disinterest in class with a tone of voice suggesting that she obviously represents the majority opinion tells me again that US English curricula are unbalanced, and if we want our students to be motivated to learn English by reading on their own, we need more teachers who are willing to teach them about actually interesting literature. It can't all be textbooks and magazine articles in the foreign langauge classroom, or students just can't be expected to ever achieve the same level of language proficiency that they have in their native language, because their method for gaining new vocabulary and linguistic structures will have been stunted.

But people don't listen to me, and current ESL is stuck in this stupid skills-based, choppy, uninspiring teaching method, and it drives me crazy. So I write my idealistic lesson plans, and rant into the void on this blog. Maybe someone will read some Tolkien now, though. I'm fairly certain it won't be my professor.

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