The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


February 3, 2014

Literary fellowship: Tolkien's trilogy inspires thesis, class, lifelong passion

JOPLIN, Mo. — Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,

Seven for the dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,

Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,

One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne,

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,

One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

Dale Simpson calls J.R.R. Tolkien's sprawling fantasy classic an unbridled passion of his. But during the 1960s, when millions of paperback copies of "The Lord of the Rings" were being consumed by an entire generation of enthusiastic readers, Simpson would have nothing to do with it.

It was 1967, the words "Frodo Lives" were being spray painted across college campuses, and Simpson was taking a freshman composition course at Harding University when he read about the origins of the wee Hobbits.

"I read this, and I thought to myself, ÔThis is the most ridiculous thing I've ever read,'" Simpson said. "Little people with furry feet living underground, and I'm supposed to write an essay about this? I think I got a C on it."

While obtaining his master's at the University of North Texas, he once again crossed paths with the 1,137-page book highlighting Frodo's fateful journey to Mount Doom.

It was 1972, and Simpson decided to take another stab at reading the trilogy.

"So I did, and I ended up staying up until 2 in the morning because I couldn't put the book down," he said. "There was adventure. Evil was absolute. There were characters faced with decisions that had effect on life. All of this was overwhelming to me, and I just got lost in Middle Earth."

Tolkien's books played such a pivotal role in Simpson's life that he would use the trilogy to form the basis of his thesis. He received his master's degree in 1974 based on the "The Lord of the Rings." In fact, that thesis, published in a hardbound cover, is now shelved in his Kuhn Hall office on the Missouri Southern State University campus.

In the fall of 1975, English department heads with the University of North Texas wanted to create some special topic freshman comp courses. Simpson proposed a course based on his thesis, consisting of eight written essays as well as reading all three "Lord of the Rings" books.

"The kids were beating down the door to get in," Simpson said. "We had to turn students away that semester. By the time I got the jobs here (at Southern, in the fall of 1979), I'd taught four sections of "Lord of the Rings" to freshmen while I'd been in grad school."

In 1981, Simpson taught his first LOTR-based 298 course at Southern. He would teach it again in 1983. All told, he's taught a Tolkien-related course 11 times.

"I was surprised the other day that I was able to recite the complete ÔRings' poem," Simpson said, chuckling.

Recently, Simpson wanted to research how far back Tolkien-related courses had been taught across American university campuses. He found one Tolkien-related course at a Midwest-based university began in 1979.

"That's the furthest back that I can find on record of anyone teaching Tolkien, and I'd been doing it three years before that," Simpson said. "There were probably people teaching it back in the late 60s, at Berkley or UCLA or Harvard or MIT, but I haven't found it on record."

In all, Simpson has read the book a dozen times. He calls Tolkien's book a masterpiece and Tolkien himself a genius.

Tolkien "invented Middle Earth. And it's not set on another planet or another solar system or somewhere across the universe; it's set in our own world, maybe 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. So in this invented history, he populated with dwarves and men and elves and black riders and Ents, and they each have their own language and culture, and I was just overwhelmed by all this -- that one person could do all that.

"You asked me what attracted me to these books and it's everything. It was everything that he invented."

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