Tuesday, September 06, 2005

First day of class, one week later

Like many, I try to do more than just cover the syllabus on the first day of class. In composition courses, I usually try to get them to talk about their experiences with past writing courses, with their notions of "good" writing, and I begin introducing rhetoric, the rhetorical context and rhetorical triangle, and argument. In literature courses, we start thinking about some key ideas or themes. For instance, with the last literature course I taught, Science Ficiton, I brought in the opening pages of two science fiction and two mainstream novels which I used as a starting point for such issues as the novum, "science fiction thinking," cognitive estrangement, etc. This time around, as I'm teaching an Introduction to Literary Studies, I brought in two brief passages, one from a novel and one from a poem retyped to look like prose. Both are by Tolkien and portray Tom Bombadil and Old Man Willow:
Snippet 1
Up woke Willow-man, began upon his singing, sang Tom fast asleep under branches swinging; in a crack caught him tight: quiet it closed together, trapped Tom Bombadil, coat and hat and feather.
"Ha! Tome Bombadil, what be you a-thinking, peeping inside my tree, watching me a-drinking deep in my wooden house, tickling me with feather, dripping wet down my face like a rainy weather?"
"You let me out again, Old Man Willow! I am stiff lying here; they're not sort of pillow, your hard crooked roots. Drink your river water! Go back to sleep again, like the River-daughter!"
Willow-man let him loose, when he heard him speaking; locked fast his wooden house, muttering and creaking, whispering inside the tree. Tom, he sat a-listening. On the boughs piping birds were chirruping and whistling. Tom saw butterflies quivering and winking; Tom called the conies out, till the sun was sinking.

Snippet 2
“What?” shouted Tom Bombadil, leaping up in the air. “Old Man Willow? Naught worse than that, eh? That can soon be mended. I know the tune for him. Old grey Willow-man! I’ll freeze his marrow cold, if he don’t behave himself. I’ll sing his roots off. I’ll sing a wind up and blow leaf and branch away. Old Man Willow!”
Setting down his lilies carefully on the grass, he ran to the tree. There he saw Merry’s feet still sticking out—the rest of him had already been drawn further inside. Tom put his mouth to the crack and began singing into it in a low voice. They could not catch the words, but evidently Merry was aroused. His legs began to kick. Tom sprang away, and breaking off a hanging branch smote the side of the willow with it. “You let them out again, Old Man Willow!” he said. “What be you a-thinking of? You should not be waking. Eat earth! Dig deep! Drink water! Go to sleep! Bombadil is talking!” He then seized Merry’s feet and drew him out of the suddenly widening crack.

The first is from Tolkien's 1934 version of "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil," which was published in Oxford Magazine.* The second is, of course, from The Lord of the Rings.

It's pretty clear that the poem is a poem even though I've changed the stanzas to look like prose paragraphs, and when you read it out loud, it's got a regular rhythm which can be broken back into its stanza form:
Up woke Willow-man, began upon his singing,
sang Tom fast asleep under branches swinging;
in a crack caught him tight: quiet it closed together,
trapped Tom Bombadil, coat and hat and feather.

Even though almost none of them had spent little more than a day or two discussing versification when reading a Shakespeare play, they could all explain why they knew the poem was a poem and where the line breaks should be. Tolkien wasn't trying to write high Modernist poetry, but then, Modernist poetry really can't capture the spirit and the tone of Bombadil, or the Hobbits for that matter.

We used these snippets to discuss what literature is (Literature vs. literature), what their notions, expectations, and experiences with literature and literature classes are, and the like. It not only served to introduce them to some of the concepts and issues we're to cover this term, but it gave me a chance to assess where they're coming from, how they've studied literature in the past, and a bit about what they know.

*The much more commonly known 1963 version of "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil," published in such works as The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book and The Tolkien Reader, has been rewritten to better conform to the Bombadil that makes his way into The Lord of the Rings -- I believe my dissertation director, Tom Shippey, discusses this revision and how the poem helped Tolkien develop the early part of The Lord of the Rings in his book J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, though it could be in his The Road to Middle Earth. You can also read a bit about the versions of Bombadil at Bromwell School's "The True Story of Tom Bombadil."

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