Mythgard: the gateway drug

MythgardBadge_90x90 Dear Reader!

Mythmoot, Midmoot, Mythcon, Mythgard… What is all this?

Recently I have been spamming my friends and family with emails trying to convince them to sign up to take classes at Mythgard Institute. Not to neglect you, dear Reader, I invite you to check out Mythgard Institute, too: it is a beautiful online school where I’ll be serving as a preceptor in the fall. For a couple of years now, this guy named Corey Olsen, “The Tolkien Professor,” has been my hero. He’s a super smart and fun teacher who got sick of the broken academic system and stepped outside to make his own new mode of online education that really works. I’m a huge fan, and hoping for big things from Corey and Mythgard in the future. I thought maybe you would enjoy hearing about this school and what I’ll be doing. Please note that these are my own thoughts; although I work for the University and also volunteer in an outreach capacity, this post has NOT been checked or approved by anybody else associated with Mythgard or Signum. These are just my own promotional ideas, so I take full responsibility for any mistakes or misleading statements.


Corey Olsen, the Tolkien Professor

The Mythgard Institute, a program of Signum University, is a super exciting opportunity for you to take courses in Tolkien, mythology, fantasy literature, science fiction, or modern and classical languages with dynamic, passionate, brilliant faculty members. I think you might find a course that you would love! “But I don’t need an M.A. in Literature,” you say, or maybe you already have one. OK, but there are four different levels of involvement, and I think maybe one might suit your ongoing appetite for personal enrichment and broad learning:

1. Free Courses. There are always free courses and discussions offered as podcasts. You can get these on the Mythgard website or on iTunes. You can watch them live as they happen, or download them later to listen to whenever. The current course is on Frank Herbert’s Dune. There are lots of other cool past classes and podcasts, such as the ones on each book of Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, one on Ender’s Game, and an ongoing one called Riddles in the Dark about the Hobbit films and adaptation. Do check some of them out! They’re great for listening to as you commute, go for run, wash dishes, or work in the garden.

2. Course Packs. You can buy course packs for past classes at ridiculously reasonable prices and watch them at any time, doing the reading at your own pace. Look at some of these cool classes! How about a class on Sherlock Holmes, or on Harry Potter? You won’t find those in most stuffy academic departments.

fall 20143. Audit a class. You can enroll in an upcoming Master’s-level course as an auditor, which means you get to watch or listen to the classes live (or download them later), but you don’t have to do the writing. That way you can have the involvement of a full student (participating in the in-class discussions if you want) but not have to take exams. Yay!

But these classes start in just one week, so take a look quick! The Fall 2014 courses are: Lewis & Tolkien (taught by Dr. Corey Olsen), Science Fiction Part I (taught by Dr. Amy Sturgis), and Roots of the Mountain: Fantasy Before Tolkien (taught by Dr. Douglas Anderson).

4. Earn Credit. Finally, you can take courses for credit! You could take just one, or you could decide this is the time to re-invent yourself and get a whole M.A. in literature online! — watch out, because this stuff is addictive. Listen to just one podcast, and you might find yourself sliding down the slippery slope into full-blown graduate level studies! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

SignumBadge_300x90If you do take a class, please mention that I referred you (I get a discount when I have friends sign up). And spread the word!

MI_SorinaHiggins2So what will I be doing?

I’ll be on the faculty, serving as a preceptor. Each course is taught by a faculty team: one lecturer and several preceptors. The preceptors lead discussion groups and work with the students on their writing. So I will be precepting for the Lewis & Tolkien course. I’d love to see you there!

Do write and ask me any questions you may have. Cheers.


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The Oddest Inkling at Mythcon part 4: Two Panels and Ten Costumes

costume1Sunday was the last week of Mythcon, so this is my last summary post (but not my last summery post, d.v.). Tomorrow I’ll put up something about Mythgard, and then next week we will have a guest post on Poetry at Present, and the following week will be War in Heaven week! Sorry it’s taken me so long to blog Mythcon; I’ve been struggling with my debilitating migraines again this week. But do stick with this post; all the cool stuff about costumes comes at the end. ;)

Sunday morning, instead of going to church (!), I went to one paper: Kris Swank on “Harry Potter as Dystopian Literature”. Kris is a Mythgard student, and this paper was an excellent example of the living, loving, intelligent ways Mythgard people treat texts.

Then in the afternoon, we had the two panels I was involved with.


Faith and Fantasy panel

The first was the Fantasy and Faith conversation that I posted about when it was happening. The members of this panel were Chip Crane, myself, Carl Hostetter, and Lynn Maudlin. We asked: How does fantasy “fit” with faith? Can fantasy writing effectively express or affirm faith? How or when does it fall short of doing so? Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams are known for their Christian faith, and all three took distinctive approaches toward expressing it (or not) in their fiction. Are these writers successful in their approach? You can listen to a recording of the panel here.


Panel on the Inklings and King Arthur

The second was the “Inklings and King Arthur” panel I’ve been talking about for ages. Here is the description:

The 2013 publication of “The Fall of Arthur” complicated the generic complexities of Tolkien’s work: how does Tolkien’s Arthurian poem fit into the palimpsest of Arthurian legends? how does it map onto Middle-earth? How does it interact with Arthurian works by other Inklings? This panel was presented at Mythcon 45. It represents “The Inklings and King Arthur,” an upcoming academic collection edited by Sørina Higgins. The panelists — Yannick Imbert, Christopher Gaertner, Benjamin Shogren, and Brenton Dickieson — discuss Lewis, Tolkien, Williams, Barfield, Arthurian source materials, MacDonald, and Chesterton.

You can listen to a recording of this panel here, but two of the presenters’ voices did not get picked up by my phone, so you might want to fast-forward through those bits.

Both panels  seemed to be well received, with good questions and discussion afterwards.

arthurOK, but now let’s get to the fun stuff! In the evening, we had a banquet, then the Mythopoeic book Awards, the Masquerade Costume Presentation, a Clerihew Contest, the Not-Ready-For-Mythcon Players, and a late-night Bardic Circle. Only a few people showed up in costume; there were 10 in the “Masquerade.” Chris Gaertner won the day with his King Arthur costume: he even made the local paper. I do think Chris and I made a good angry brother-and-sister costume team (I was Morgause), and Doctor Who stopped by for a visit!  costume2

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The Oddest Inkling at Mythcon part 3: If you can’t win by reason, go for volume

photo(1)Saturday at Mythcon 45 was an excellent day. It began well with a panel on teaching Tolkien at the college level, with Corey Olsen (my hero and new boss), Verlyn Flieger, Chip Crane, Kristine Larsen, and Brian Walter. They talked about getting Tolkien courses accepted on college curricula — no easy task! Corey managed to do get a Tolkien course on the curriculum of his liberal arts college by offering it as an Introduction to Medieval Literature, or, really, a proto-intro-to Medieval literature course. In other words, undergrads who aren’t ready to read, say, The Romance of the Rose or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Pearl or Beowulf might be perfectly ready to read Tolkien in a college course, and from there can be easily led into “real” medieval lit. Kristine Larsen is an astronomer, and has looked at the cosmology and scientific elements of JRRT’s fiction.


Corey Olsen, “The Tolkien Professor”

They all faced challenges getting their schools to admit Tolkien — Verlyn said it was like “pushing a train by hand” — but once in, these courses have become wildly popular and astonishingly successful. Tolkien does everything that any great literature does: he’s got fantastic passages for close reading, yields a wealth of readings via any theoretical approach, he’s packed with all the “Great Ideas” of philosophy and religion, and it’s just a whacking good story. So now English departments sadly shake their heads as they allow Tolkien courses on the curriculum, because it gets students in seats and therefore brings in tuition revenue. Some day they’ll come around to seeing that just because something’s popular doesn’t mean it’s bad, and will rejoice to add Tolkien to their syllabi for the right reasons.

Then my Mythcon afternoon took a nasty turn. I heard two excellent papers by The Reichard brothers, Joshua and Jared. Joshua’s paper was entitled “Matter, Myth, and Meaning: Science, Fantasy LIterature, and the Spiritual Quest.” Jared’s was “Menace, Myth, and Madness: Villiany, Fantasy Literture, and the Search for Self.” Jared’s was extremely interesting, as it combined two topics I’m interested in. The first was something I often encourage my students to write about, as it is a way of connecting literature with something in “real life”: he diagnoses several characters in LOTR with mental illnesses. Then the second topic, which was related, suggested that fantasy literature might have a possible clinical application in helping traumatized kids — a topic I am very interested in.

But it was Joshua’s paper that gave rise to the title of this post. Don’t get me wrong: his paper was very reasoned and reasonable. It included material related to my Inklings and King Arthur topic, and it also presented CSL’s definition of and attack against “scientific materialism.” Here is a blog post (not written by anyone having anything to do with Joshua or Mythcon, as far as I know) that gives a sample of the ways people frequently summarize Lewis-contra-materialist reductionism.

Anyway, Joshua gave a brief definition of scientific materialism as a belief that everything is a random pattern of molecules, and (therefore) without meaning. The room exploded! Four people started yelling at him at once, including one rather unstable woman in the front row who screamed at him that “YOU are the kind of person who tells me I can’t have meaning and beauty and truth and love in my life! YOU are the sort of bigot who refuses to understand that I do have meaning, and it comes from natural law! YOU are the type of arrogant fool who refuses to see things from someone else’s perspective or to admit that anyone else’s view might make sense to them!” and so on and so forth. Joshua stayed calm, pointing out that he hadn’t stated his position at all, but had merely paraphrased Lewis’s position, but the yelling continued until the room needed to be cleared for the next speaker.calvin

I found it exhausting and stressful. Interestingly, however, I talked to a new friend about it over the dinner line, and he said it was “Only a rational academic debate.” So perhaps I misinterpreted.

I’m not 100% sure that Joshua used the correct definition, either. Lewis went through a radical change in his understanding of “scientific materialism” after his notorious debate with Margaret Anscombe, rewriting his definitions of and arguments against naturalism. Without having the texts on hand I can’t be sure, but I have a suspicion that Reichard may have been using the pre-Anscombe terminology. Anyway, it was a lively session, to say the least!

Later in the afternoon, I heard Donald Williams talk about “Text vs. Word: C. S. Lewis’s View of Inspiration and the Inerrancy of Scripture.” His paper was clear and precise. Yet its conclusion was (in very rude summary) that because of Lewis’s unwillingness to subscribe to a position on innerrancy that could conform (anachronistically) to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (the text of which you can get here), thus far was Lewis “unorthodox.” Williams was particularly concerned about the slippery slope of approaching some Biblical texts as myth, and so forth.

photoWell, whatever you believe about Biblical inerrancy, this paper certainly led to one of the most memorable afternoons in my experience: my four panelists, the Tolkien Professor, and I met by a pond in the middle of campus (and ended up IN the pond before the end) and talked about the Bible for two hours. It was a glorious, warm, sunny, gentle summer afternoon, and there we stood with our feet in the water, sharing our denominational stories and approaches to the Biblical text. Happiness!!

And that wasn’t the end of the day, either. It continued with a collaborative reading of Beowulf, alternating readings in the original Anglo-Saxon text and in JRRT’s translation. And THEN, as if that wasn’t enough, we ended Saturday by giving a spontaneous Mythgard-at-Mythcon live broadcast — my first audio appearance with the Tolkien professor! Yay!

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More Mythcon: Reblogged from A Pilgrim in Narnia

Fellow Inklings Blogger Brenton Dickieson has a post up today entitled “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth… Or At Least Pass the Pepper,” about his experiences at Mythcon 45. Here are a couple of my favorite paragraphs; please click on the title above to read the whole post on his blog, A Pilgrim in Narnia.


Chris Gaertner as the wounded King Arthur

…I attended great talks on Neil Gaiman, Harry Potter, H.P. Lovecraft, Beowulf, Terry Pratchett, C.S. Lewis & Carl Jung, and various Tolkien topics. The panels were real features. I was on the “Inklings and King Arthur” panel, and realized I was the least among greats in the weekend panels, with topics like “Faith and Fantasy” and “Teaching Tolkien.”

There are different kinds of folk at Mythcon in sometimes overlapping groups. There was a pretty hardcore Tolkien contingency. I had lunch with someone who was fluent in Tolkien’s languages, and was amazed that whenever someone quoted an obscure passage from the legendarium, heads nodded throughout the room. There was a large Christian contingency, folk who feel that fantasy helps capture the basic existential fact that the universe is made up of more than matter. There were subcultures of neopagans, professors, fantasy writers, theologians, grad students, linguists, and philosophers. There were probably some attendees that were all of these.

…There was a general medieval feeling to the weekend conference. There was always a sword nearby (when needed), and one could often see a Mythcon participant having to sweep back his or her robe sleeve in order to tap out a text message. I heard renditions of “Edge of Night” (Pippin’s song) and the Last Unicorn song. I sat in a room as dozens of people recited the first 18 lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by heart (a useful skill I discovered) while a friend texted an alluring photo of himself as King Arthur to his wife….



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The Oddest Inkling at Mythcon part 2: Screwtape and Beowulf

mythcon-45-logoDemons and Monsters and Myth-making? Yes, please.

Remember I wrote recently that my earthly Eden is a moveable feast? This past weekend, it moved to Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where Mythcon 45 was held. This conference is an enjoyable compromise between a stuffy academic conference and a cosplay fan gatherings. There were many excellent scholarly papers and lots of fun events involving costumes, poetry, and music of many kinds. This is the first of a few posts I intend to write summarizing the highlights of the weekend for me.

Friday afternoon started off auspiciously with what was undoubted the most important paper of the entire conference: “A Cosmic Shift in The Screwtape Letters” by Brenton D.G. Dickieson. In this talk, he took us through ways of analyzing structural elements in the Ransom books, then dropped the big bomb. Are you ready for it? Here it is! scretapeThere is a previously-unpublished preface to The Screwtape Letters that brings the demonic correspondence into the world of the Space Trilogy and The Dark Tower! You can read a bit about it here, in Notes and Queries. In this preface, Lewis-as-narrative-persona writes that he received Screwtape’s letters from Dr. Ransom, who had translated them from the Old Solar language! This is huge. This has almost endless implications for CSL’s fictional universes, providing new and numerous ways to connect them up imaginatively with each other and with those of Tolkien and Williams. Keep your eyes open for future publications by Brenton Dickieson on this topic. I hope they will be legion.

So that was a magnificent start to the weekend. There followed several lame papers, then finally the high point of the day: Michael Drout took the stage to talk about Tolkien’s Beowulf. Ask anybody who attended, and just about all of them will say that this was the best thing that happened in the whole four days. Prof. Drout is a shining example of the perfect teacher: He is enthusiastic, kind, brilliant, funny, and in love with literature. If only every student on the planet could study writing and literature under someone like him! Then we wouldn’t have all this insanity about “English is boring” and “I can’t write” slogging around. Sigh.

Anyway, Mike started out by presenting the same material he wrote about in this blog post, regarding his involvement with trying to publish JRRT’s Beowulf some time ago. He studied the MS and started to work on an edition, but some through nasty circumstances, dropped the project. Instead, he went on to do some very exciting and important work of applying a lexomics approach to Beowulf.

drout3But then he got into the really good stuff: What is actually in this edition of JRRT’s Beowulf? Is it any good? What’s all the padding in the volume? The translation, Mike said, is a little clunky — but then later he revised his opinion after we read chunks of it out loud together! But then again, he said the translation is so good that it’s bad: It’s even better than the poem itself in many places! And then the real wealth, the real value, of this book is JRRT’s commentaries. They are worth the price of the book. They are brilliant, original, and daring. And they’re also a lot of fun.

drout4Mike demonstrated how fun JRRT’s commentaries can be by discussing the lines in which Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother. JRRT talks about just one word, about the use of the point of the sword, and explains that Beowulf must have used a piercing technique rather than a chopping motion. Mike acted this out for us, describing the invisible coils of the snake-like creature winding around his body as “Grappling cruelly she clutched at him,” then pushing the point of his wooden sword against her scaly side, slowly, slowly, until “Through and through the sword pierced her body doomed.”

As if that wasn’t cool enough, his answer to one question from the audience showed his brilliant teaching skills even more. Someone asked, “How is Beowulf relevant for the 21st century? Why still read and study this book today?” His reply was that it shows our struggle with two kinds of evil in vivid, embodied, memorable ways. First, Grendel is an evil as the result of sin: evil that we deserve or that comes as a just consequence of our actions — because Hrothgar is a pagan. Second, the dragon is an evil that does not come as as the result of sin: an undeserved, un-looked-for evil that comes because of the general fallen nature of the world. Michael became very passionate as he explained this, carrying the audience along on his love of the literature and his belief in its relevance. I think there was not one person there who remained unmoved.

And that was the first day of Mythcon 45! More to follow. Cheers.

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