Talking Tolkien: Q&A with Baylor English’s Dr. Richard Russell

Dr. Richard Russell teaches an English course on the "Inklings," a group of Oxford writers. Abby Roper | Photographer

By Emma Weidmann | Arts and Life Editor

Recently named an Inklings Project Fellow for the 2023-24 year, Dr. Richard Russell is revamping English 3372 — the course on J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis — and creating an undergraduate certificate on the Oxford Christians.

The Inklings Project is an “intercollegiate initiative” from the University of Notre Dame. The program gives resources and grants to professors across the country to help them teach courses on the Inklings, a group of creative writers including Tolkien and Lewis.

Russell answered some questions about the Inklings Project and what students can look forward to in the English department.

Q: How did you become an Inklings Project Fellow?

A: “A couple of friends of mine on campus sent me this call to apply. I didn’t know about it. I thought, ‘Well, it can’t hurt.’ … So I sent in a proposal, and they accepted it. And it’s the inaugural class, so it’s just started, so that’s kind of exciting.”

Q: What is the Oxford Christians course like at Baylor, and how will it change with the Inklings Project?

A: “We do all ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ which takes like a month. And I’m trying to … bring in more of the prehistory of Middle Earth, which [Tolkien] wrote about in a book called ‘The Silmarillion.’ That’s one of the things I’m trying to figure out this year through this project. … The project is designed to help faculty members think through an existing course and how to change it or think about about it more deeply, or to propose something new. It’s a mindset, that revamping.”

“I don’t want to just plug the course. I’m trying to think more deeply about it and about what makes us human. The things that I think a lot of us in the humanities are pursuing are truth, beauty, goodness. And the course seems to really speak to that need in all of us despite our ‘Twitter-verse’ world and virtual world and all that. So it’s a chance to kind of form a community that’s maybe similar to what Lewis and Tolkien had … and just to get together and talk about great literature, and we’re going to have fun doing it.”

Q: The Inklings Project website mentions opportunities for student groups. Will there be community opportunities for students interested in the Inklings?

A: “There was a guy who came [to Baylor] in the spring called Max McLean, who’s from New York City, and he put on this one-man Lewis show, which was amazing. There was a movie that he did of Lewis … called ‘The Most Reluctant Convert.’ But this is kind of volume two of Lewis’ life, staged by this actor Max McLean. So he’s supposed to do now the last third of Lewis’ life, and I hope we can bring him back so we can see those last 20 years or so when he gets married, when he’s writing ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ and all that. So that would be an opportunity if we can get this undergraduate certificate off the ground. I can see a student reading group, you know, things like that.”

Q: Is the literature class with Tolkien and Lewis popular with students?

A: “They’re super interested in it. … It’s usually oversubscribed. There’s always a waiting list, because they’re just very interested in how Lewis and Tolkien thought as Christians, what it means to be human in this world that is sometimes hostile to Christians and then also what it means to create other worlds. … We think of Tolkien as the father of modern fantasy because of ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ And so, so many people who have come since then are indebted to ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ So [students], they’re very, very interested in it. They don’t know how much reading and writing they’re going to do, but they do a lot. They usually read about 3,000 pages for my course.”

Q: What would you say to students who may be daunted by the heavy reading?

A: “A lot of it reads fast, and it’s so enchanting. … You’ll be into that world before you know it, and you don’t want to leave those creative worlds. So just with Tolkien, because ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is about 1,000 pages, we’ll read ‘The Hobbit.’ … So, with all told, probably with Tolkien, it’s 1,500 pages. That’s half the class right there. But after they’ve done that, they’ve done half the reading for the class; only 1,500 pages to go.”