Well, he’s home

Thursday, October 18, 2012


Staff Writer

MILFORD – When Corey Olsen was growing up in Amherst, the Toadstool was his favorite book store and he remembers getting at least two books by J.R.R. Tolkien there.

He and his family moved to Amherst when he was 10 and by then, his interest in Tolkien’s books was already well-established, born of his love for “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

On Wednesday, Oct. 24, he’s coming back to the Toadstool, in Lorden Plaza, to discuss his latest book, “Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit,” and that is precisely what he intends to do with his audience – explore the book, or at least a bit of it.

“I will read a little from my book, but rather than that, I much prefer just to have a discussion about ‘The Hobbit’,” Olsen said in a phone interview Monday.

He will hand out some passages from the book and then ask the audience to talk about them with him, with the theme being “the turning points and development of Bilbo’s character.”

If it sounds a bit professorial, that’s because Olsen, who was in the final graduating class of Milford Area Senior High School in 1992, is an
assistant professor of English at Washington College in Maryland and the president and founder of the Mythgard Institute, an online teaching center for the study of Tolkien and other works of imaginative literature.

While he is certainly a fan of “The Lord of the Rings” – he reads it and “The Hobbit” every year – his book, and his talks, focus on the latter because he thinks it is misunderstood and somewhat overlooked – pigeonholed as a children’s book when it is far more than that.

“People rarely think about it in its own terms,” he said. “They think of it as a chapter in the story of the Third Age of Middle Earth and that’s really not the story. ‘The Hobbit’ was a free-standing book. It is not a prequel to ‘The Lord of the Rings’.”

The upcoming “Hobbit” films are a different story, he said. They are prequels.

“‘The Hobbit’ was not. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was simply a sequel to ‘The Hobbit’ which grew completely out of control.”

And, of course, it became an iconic book that spawned three movies as “The Hobbit” has done.

When Olsen graduated, he went off to Williams College in Massachusetts where he majored in English and astrophysics. He went to Columbia for his masters and Ph.D in medieval literature and now teaches and refers to himself on his website as “The Tolkien Professor.”

He returns to New Hampshire often because his family still lives here. Besides speaking at the Toadstool, he will speak at the Boston Book Festival on Oct. 27.

He has been fascinated by Tolkien’s books since he was 8, when his cousin gave him a copy of “The Hobbit” while he was living in West Virginia.

“There are many things about Tolkien that are really rich and fascinating,” Olsen said. “One thing that really drew me to them was how different they are from other modern books.”

When he was a kid, he wasn’t sure what that was, exactly.

“They just seemed different.”

He’s more attuned to that difference now.

“What makes the books so powerful is what an incredible job Tolkien does building the world that he created,” said Olsen. “There are lots of books that tell interesting stories or create characters that you’re interested in, but there are many fewer works that create a world that you really care about and need to invest in. I think that’s one of the things that makes them so powerful – they draw people in in such a complete way. They’re compelling and deeply satisfying.”

In writing his book, the goal was to write in the same spirit as his classroom teaching, Olsen said.

“So I go through ‘The Hobbit’ chapter by chapter,” he explained. “What I love to do is to read carefully, so I try to encourage people to slow down and notice the stuff that’s going on in the story and see the pattern and the themes that emerge during the course of the book.”

That’s something many people don’t do, he believes, especially with “The Hobbit.”

“Many people will spend a lot of time scrutinizing ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and don’t spend much time in careful study of ‘The Hobbit’ because it has the superficial appearance of being a children’s story, but it is a very thoughtful work,” Olsen said. “Fans retain affection for it, but not so much respect.”

That certainly isn’t the case with him.

“There is so much in ‘The Hobbit’ that is far more complicated than people tend to think,” Olsen said. “What Tolkien does with Bilbo’s character, for instance, is really quite remarkable – the trajectory his character goes through during his quest.”

At the Toadstool, people will get “a little taste of that,” he said.

And, he hopes, a new appreciation for a book that doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

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