Finding our Way

by I.A. Isherwood

I am teaching a new First Year Seminar this year concerning the lives, worlds, and works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. First Year Seminars are designed so that faculty can pursue a topic of interest that may not be their area of expertise. As both Lewis and Tolkien were members of the Great War generation, indeed as both fought on the western front, they are within my purview, but I am not a serious scholar of either. Yet it is exactly for this reason of nerdish insecurity that I am looking forward to moving beyond my comfort zone as we move into the wardrobe.

Why did I choose this topic? Like so many, the first books I remember ever enjoying were the Chronicles of Narnia and Lewis has stuck with me ever since. The first term paper I wrote in high school was on his theological writings, not the liveliest thing for a sixteen year old to read (and completely pretentious, btw). I was somewhat of a late bloomer to Tolkien, discovering his vast rich mythology in college and reading it through as an adult. His world, perhaps more than Lewis, changed the way that I view our world. So I wanted to teach something on these two chaps.

In our lighthearted gabbing today a student said that she was more comfortable with fantasy worlds than our own. I found this really interesting. I have never found escape in fantasy literature. My own imagination is so limited that I don’t see much of a difference between their worlds and ours. Instead, I tend to blend them together. The way that I perceive basic morality and humanity – the way that I conceptualize things like good, evil, pride, empathy, joy, etc. – is deeply influenced by both Middle Earth and Narnia. I would be much less of a human without discovering these writers and their worlds.

So we (and I mean we) will work on becoming better humans this semester through fantasy literature. We will use their works as a departure point for engaging with issues in our own time. We will talk about our childhoods, about creativity, about what it means to live, to hope, to dream, and to work hard to make the world a better place. We will, I hope, do justice to the material.

For Thursday, my students are writing an essay on the question of the purpose of college. In part, this is a diagnostic exercise, but it is also an opportunity for them to demonstrate some articulation on a basic (but important) question. What are they here to do? What is this environment supposed to do? In four years, who will they be? I look forward to their answers.