“Creative Connections” with J.R.R. Tolkien: Teaching Anthropology with Imaginative Literature

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  • posted byLeah McCurdy
  • dateFebruary 11, 2016
  • commentsComments Off on “Creative Connections” with J.R.R. Tolkien: Teaching Anthropology with Imaginative Literature
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In Part One of an ongoing series, Leah McCurdy (University of Texas, San Antonio) shares her ideas for integrating imaginative literature into the anthropology classroom.

Lord of the RingsHow do J.R.R. Tolkien, his legendary stories, and other examples of imaginative literature relate to anthropology? The possibilities are endless. You can make “creative connections” in your classroom and engage students in a dialogue about the resonance of anthropology and its themes to many of their favorite imaginative universes.

Imagine a class in which your students are as excited to talk about anthropology as they would be to talk about their favorite films or books. One way to realize this kind of student engagement is to infuse popular culture and widely-admired imaginative literature into your courses. Particular examples offered in lectures, such as the connection to J.R.R. Tolkien discussed below, and even semester-long themes from pop culture, such as the Anthropology of Superheroes course offered by Dr. Jamon Halvaksz, pique student interest. Most importantly, this strategy gets students thinking about their favorite things and anthropology in new and interrelated ways.

This strategy of integrating imaginative literature into non-literature courses reminds me of an active learning technique I mentioned in a previous post on assigned readings. Heather Parrott and Elizabeth Cherry (2011) suggest asking students to develop “creative connections” of assigned reading content to pop culture, media, trends, or life experience as a way to assimilate the information through things with which they are already very familiar. When struggling in the unfamiliar territory of archaeological methods or anthropological theory, we can encourage students to make connections to famous book and movie plots or to the predicament of a beloved heroine as a way to transition from the known to the unknown.

Here I want to focus on a “creative connection” to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings which is relevant for courses on archaeology and anthropology. In a documentary called “The Real Middle Earth” (Multi Media Arts & Holm 2007), Helen Armstrong suggests that Tolkien’s experience in working with archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler may have influenced plot elements of The Hobbit (also Forest-Hill 2014). In the late 1920s, Wheeler excavated a third-century Roman-Celtic temple located at Lydney Park in England (Crowther & Pearce 2002). His and prior excavations uncovered various curse tablets that are small pieces of lead inscribed with petitions to the presiding god (Crowther & Pearce 2002; Forest-Hill 2014). One curse tablet of particular interest referred to a deity named Nodens (ibid). Wheeler commissioned Tolkien, noted philologist and Anglo Saxon scholar, to interpret the etymology of this name (see Tolkien 2007). The curse tablet upon which Nodens’s name appears contains additional intrigue. The Latin inscription reads as follows (see Crowther & Pearce 2002):

To the god Nodens: Silvianus has lost his ring and given half [its value] to Nodens. Among those who are called Senicianus do not allow health until he brings it to the temple of Nodens. [This curse] comes into force again.

Many LotR fans wonder whether Silvianus considered this ring as precious as Gollum considered the One Ring and whether Silvianus despised Senicianus as much as Gollum cursed all the “Bagginses.” Silvianus’s ring is made doubly famous because scholars believe that it may have been recovered from the town of Silchester in the eighteenth century (Forest-Hill 2014). Suffice it to say, it is a gold ring.

More interestingly, locals refer to the hill upon which the temple to Nodens sits as “Dwarf’s Hill” (Multi Media Arts & Holm 2007). Iron Age and Roman Age Britons mined this hill for iron ore, creating a complex of tunnels upon which Celts eventually built Nodens’s temple (Crowther & Pearce 2002). Did dwarves mine these hills in days gone by? Armstrong posits that learning of these finds through his scholarly association with Wheeler’s excavations may have sparked such imaginative trails of thought in Tolkien’s mind (ibid). This archaeological experience may have ignited connections of Old Norse tales and inspirations from Wagner centered on dwarves, lost rings, and significance of a ring for the fate of an entire (fictional) universe.

This is an interesting example of the influence of realistic archaeology on imaginative literature and one of the most beloved fantasy authors of all time. I plan on using this example early on in introductory archaeology courses to grab students’ attention and to model “creative connections.” I may show a film clip of a Gollum monologue and perhaps try some dramatic acting (if I can sustain a Gollum-like voice) to enliven Silvianus’s curse. My friend and colleague, Professor Deb Moon, suggests developing a creative writing assignment whereby students derive something of interest from class content (an ancient myth or an intriguing burial, etc.) and use it as a basis to develop their own imaginative story. We may find that this assignment could inspire new, emerging writers and other artists to produce works to rival those of Tolkien. Students focusing on writing, art, philosophy, or theology may find this assignment much more engaging and fulfilling than a typical research paper.

This example is also excellent because it is ripe for use in discussions regarding the interdisciplinary nature of anthropological research. Wheeler collaborated with Tolkien to explore the linguistic significance of an archaeological artifact. Tolkien’s analysis provided important insights into an unknown Celtic deity of the Roman period. This example can also spark a discussion about the contextualization of writings in their time period with analogies to documents which one may study archaeologically or ethno-historically. Further, Tolkien’s writings relate to a variety of other topics in four-field anthropology including “ecological sensitivity” (Multi Media Arts & Holm 2007) and the repercussions of industrialization. The character of Treebeard embodies Tolkien’s sentiments about the significance of trees and ecological systems. Sauromon’s destruction of the forests around Isengard through Orc industry is an extremely reprehensible act in The Lord of the Rings. The Ents punish him through isolation in his tower with only Wormtounge for company.

As a professor, I do not want to be holed up in my ivory tower like Sauromon. Such examples allow us to step outside the bounds of anthropological content to creatively connect to something for which many students already hold passion. By way of these connections, students may find more interest in anthropology, derive more motivation to put in effort in the class, and develop a passion for anthropology. Lastly, I will be a much more excited and enthused teacher if I can sneak in a reference to Tolkien or Harry Potter or my favorite superhero once in a while. Imagine if you could engage with such topics during every class period! Check out my next post for more.


Forest-Hill, Lynn. 2014. “The Inspiration for Tolkien’s Ring.” History Today 64.

Parrott, Heather Macpherson & Elizabeth Cherry. 2011. “Using Structured Reading Groups to Facilitate Deep Learning.” Teaching Sociology 39: 354-370.

Tolkien, J.R.R. 2007. “The Name ‘Nodens.’” Tolkien Studies 4: 177-183.

Multi Media Arts (Producer) & Ian Holm (Narrator). 2007. The Real Middle Earth [Film Documentary]. United States: Janson Media.

Crowther, C.V. & Pearce, J. 2002 “Curse Tablets of Roman Britain.” Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents, Oxford University.

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