Recently, Olsen started up a new course at Signum University (where he is both the founder and president) called “Explore the Lord of the Rings on Location.” This free, public course meets every week for a lecture through a chapter in Tolkien’s famous trilogy, followed by a “field trip” in Lord of the Rings Online to locations mentioned. It’s been a highly publicized event so far, with Standing Stone even creating a special lecture hall in Bree for the series. Interested parties can attend in person in the game, watch via Twitch, or catch up with afterward on the series’ YouTube channel.
We caught up with Dr. Olsen to talk about the making of the course, the history behind his university, and his interaction with the long-running MMORPG.
Massively OP: Can you introduce yourself? I’m a little confused about your (former?) position at Washington College and the difference between the Mythgard Institute and Signum University.
Dr. Corey Olsen: Happy to explain all that. I was a tenured English professor at Washington College in Maryland. That’s where I first started up the new school. I resigned my position at [Washington College] in 2013 in order to pursue Signum full-time.
Signum and Mythgard are a little more complicated! I started in 2011 — I offered the first class in Fall of that year. Back then, when I was first beginning, I was seeing this as a slightly more casual project; it was a kind of off-shoot of my Tolkien Professor podcast. That was the Mythgard Institute, and that was how I launched. Very quickly, however, it became clear that this program was a bigger deal than even I had initially foreseen. The classes went really well, and I became convicted that this was something I really should be developing into a serious program. I incorporated Signum University, which was essentially a legal rebranding of Mythgard.
Today, the Mythgard Institute still exists, mostly because it had quickly become a popular brand among Tolkien fans especially. Signum University is the formal institution, the big umbrella. The Mythgard Institute is the center for our public education programming in fantasy and science fiction, operating under that umbrella.
Our Master’s degree program (that is, the degree people can get from us) is a Signum program. But programs like the Mythgard Academy or my new Exploring the Lord of the Rings course (both non-credit open programs) are run under the Mythgard label. It’s all the same people behind the scenes, though!
That makes sense now; thank you for clarifying. How did all of the pieces come together to create this specific course?
Well, there were sort of two threads to that. One was simply my desire to teach my way patiently through the LOTR. I haven’t taught the LOTR in like three years, and I missed it! In addition, it’s now been a while since I published my book, Exploring JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit (2012). Ever since then, people have been asking if I was going to do a similar book on the LOTR. There are several reasons why that hasn’t come together yet, but it is something I’ve been thinking about. And, for me, the first step is to work my way through the book very thoroughly, with students. So that’s another reason I wanted to do it.
The other thread is the LOTRO thread. I started playing LOTRO two years ago, after I heard one of the devs (Chris Pierson) speak at a conference. It was only then that I saw what a fascinating adaptation of Tolkien’s work the game world really is. At that point, getting into the game became an obvious scholarly and pedagogical necessity.
I remember you saying on a podcast a while back that you were resisting playing the game due to a fear of it being too large of a time commitment, but people kept urging you.
Exactly, yes. The turning point was my realization that it could be something I could incorporate into my teaching and scholarship, instead of just having it be a distraction from it. And that has been awesome, really.
In the last two years, we’ve done a bunch of things in LOTRO. We (the Mythgard/Signum folks) have started a kinship and done a bunch of exploring and discussing the world. I began streaming on LOTROstream and then on our own channel a little over a year ago.
The developers have repeatedly and strongly stated that LOTRO was the game of the books, not the movies, and there has been a special emphasis on attention to lore and detail due to that. Some players might not notice it, but for those who care, it’s one of the reasons why it’s such a unique game world.
Oh, absolutely. So anyway, the Exploring the LOTR class, in addition to being something I wanted to do for teaching and scholarly reasons, as above, is also my next step in engaging with the game and the LOTRO community. Since I was thinking of working my way through the books, I thought it would also be fun to use that as a platform for the examination and consideration of LOTRO’s world-building.
So I have to ask: Are you insane? How long will this take? The books contain a ton of chapters, and if you’re doing one a week, the game might not even be around by the time you’re done.
Haha. I took three weeks on Chapter 1, so… yeah. I figure it will take at least two years. I would have been worried about the game’s still being there, before. Now, with the Standing Stone shift, I’m a little less anxious about it.
As for the time-commitment: Well, I’ve been Tolkien Professoring for about 10 years now. I’m kind of in this for the long haul. It’s what I do. A real, in-depth discussion of the LOTR in which I am not rushed along by the restraints of a semester schedule is a luxury I’ve never afforded myself before. I’m really looking forward to it; the first three weeks have been great fun.
How did the special lecture hall in Bree come about? Did you contact Standing Stone, did Standing Stone just do it on their own, or what?
No, I asked for that.
When I came up with the idea of integrating the LOTR discussion series with a LOTRO investigation, I talked to the Standing Stone folks (they were still Turbine then!) and told them what I wanted to do. They said they thought there community would be interested in it, and they asked what they could do to support it. I mentioned a meeting spot, as I thought it would be awesome if we could have a space in the game where we could meet, on every server, that would be easy for even new players to get to. So they built it. I was delighted!
How has the course gone so far? I imagine your team is still tweaking and adjusting the format and details as you get settled into it.
Yes. It’s been great fun. The biggest challenge for me has been the software interfaces and getting adjusted to teaching through those. At Signum, we teach through a webinar interface, and most of my open classes have been offered that way as well. I’m super comfortable in that interface at this point. Now, I’m using Twitch, and also Discord, and monitoring two different chat windows, as well as balancing both my text slides and my LOTRO game interface (and making sure my stream to Twitch is working right). I’ve never monitored so many windows at once! So that has taken some adjustment.
Also, it is hard to maintain the balance between the book discussion (1.5 hours) and the in-game field trip (30 minutes). When I get immersed in the book discussion, I lose track of time, but I now have to not only end more or less on time, but make sure I don’t short-change the LOTRO field trips, which are great fun!
I heard the community by and large has behaved themselves, although there were some attempts at disrupting (this being an online game after all).
Well, yes. Especially in the first week, of course. There was a large crowd! We drew over 400 people that first week, which was awesome. I’ve rarely had more than 100 for any other class I’ve done. But yes, with that many people, there were guaranteed to be some who were spamming AOE effects constantly. That’s gotten better, and I expect that still to improve.
Where have you gone on these field trips so far?
The first week, we went to Hobbiton. In the class, we’d looked closely at the conversation between Gaffer Gamgee and Sandyman the miller, so we went to Hobbiton and looked at the pub, the mill, and Bagshot row. And we went to the Party field, of course, thinking about the party and how LOTRO plays off that in the game.
In the second week, we talked about Bilbo’s trajectory and relationship to Shire culture in Chapter 1, ending with the description of the legends of Mad Baggins. As it happens, LOTRO’s Yule Festival was still going on, and at the festival there is a stage play which tells a version of the legend of Mad Baggins, so we did a field trip to the play, which was really cool.
Last night, we started filling in around the edges of the Shire. We went to Michel Delving, met Mayor Whitfoot, saw the Mathom House, rode through Waymeet and looked at that settlement, and then rode to Bag End.
I love the Mathom House!
Heh. Yes. Sadly, I forgot that I couldn’t get in without rep! I was on Arkenstone last night on a new character, so I couldn’t enter!
In the book, we are going to be in Bag End and the Shire still for several more weeks, so I plan to explore more of the Shire and look at the world-building that LOTRO has done, and how they have envisioned the Shire and fleshed out what in the book are merely names on the map (Needlehole, Brockenborings, etc).
As an expert in the books, I have to imagine that you have spent some time exploring the game to look at these details. Can you provide a few instances where the devs surprised you with details that most people may have missed (or that you didn’t think would be included at all)?
There have been many times when I have been impressed by their attention to detail. For instance, the first time I got to Tom Bombadil’s house, I immediately ran around in back to see if there were lines of beans on poles outside the back windows (that’s what Frodo sees when he looks out the window in the morning). And there were!
When you go to Crickhollow, you can notice that there is a slashed cloak lying on the doorstep of the house, which Gandalf mentions he found there when he tells the story in Rivendell. When you find the three stone trolls in the Trollshaws, you will notice that one has an old bird’s nest behind its ear, just as Strider describes.
There are lots of things like that — almost anything explicitly mentioned in the books gets put in, with few exceptions. I find that completely delightful.
Acknowledging that LOTRO is an online game that takes liberties with the source material for the sake of gameplay, are there any places or details that are incongruous with the books? Any errors you’ve spotted?
Well, there are compromises, but even those are thoughtful. The most obvious is the game’s working to give players magic-users to play. Magic, of course, is quite complicated in Tolkien. Or perhaps quite simple. In any case, it is not prevalent, and certainly not very D&D-ish.
Don’t besmirch my Lore-master, sir.
Heh. Exactly. And the Rune-keeper, even more notably.
But both of those classes, though there is no true parallel in Tolkien for the kinds of spells they cast, are still contextualized in basic Tolkienian ways. I love the emphasis both on lore and on runes and words. All of that is in fact very powerful and important in Tolkien. So they even there, they didn’t allow themselves just to import something completely foreign. They have contextualized it appropriately, in a way that I find satisfying. It still isn’t native Tolkien, but it is sufficiently naturalized not to jar. At least, so I find it.
There has been some discussion in the community as of late what Standing Stone could do after it finishes up with Mordor. Do you have any preferences for future regions to be added and explored?
Well, I want to go back and scour the Shire, of course! And I would like to see the Grey havens. Other than that, though, I am torn. The game could continue on to Rhun and Harad, following the quests and wars of King Elessar and Eomer, that get mentioned in that one fortuitous sentence in Appendix A. That could keep them occupied almost indefinitely.
Honestly though, instead of forging ahead into the Fourth Age, I would rather have them go backwards. I would love some historical campaigns, whether they be instance series or whatever.
They do a lot of flashbacks in quests.
Yes. More of that! Imagine a whole, long instance chain of the war of the Last Alliance! Or the invasion of Eriador by Sauron in the Second Age. Or the war with Angmar and the fall of the North Kingdom.
That quest where we met Sauron back when he was still more or less mortal was pretty chilling.
Definitely. Yes, I’ve enjoyed those instances and session plays when they do them. I’d love more of those, and more elaborate. Again, a series for the Last Alliance war that was more like a volume of the epic quest chain in its scope would be awesome!
Thank you for your time, Dr. Olsen! We appreciate your insights and encourage people to check out your lecture series.