One class to rule them all: Dr. Dale Simpson takes students on final trek to Middle Earth

The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy has captivated readers for decades, not to mention moviegoers in recent years.

This semester, students had the opportunity to take a course focusing on its creator, J.R.R Tolkien, taught by Dr. Dale Simpson, who is celebrating his final year at MSSU by sharing the magic of Tolkien’s world one last time.

Dr. Dale Simpson talks about the works of J.R.R. Tolkien during a recent class.

Dr. Dale Simpson talks about the works of J.R.R. Tolkien during a recent class.

Simpson began teaching classes on Tolkien almost 40 years ago while he was in grad school. The first time the class was offered at MSSU was in 1981, and it has appeared on the course listings sporadically throughout the years. The last class was held in 2012 in anticipation of the first “Hobbit” movie Simpson says this semester marks his 10th time teaching the class since 1975.

Although he is now a devoted fan of Tolkien, when the “Lord of the Rings” hype first swept the nation in the spring of 1967, Simpson was unimpressed. His freshmen composition instructor had given his class a sheet of paper brandishing an excerpt from “The Hobbit,” and after Simpson had studied it, he thought it was “the most ridiculous thing” he’d ever read.

Soon after, however, he became aware of “Lord of the Rings” graffiti sprawled across buildings and heard continuous buzz about hobbits. Finally giving in to the call beckoning him to Tolkien’s mystical land of Middle Earth, Simpson sat down and starting reading the series.

“I wound up staying up late into the night until about 2 a.m. because I couldn’t put the books down,” he said. “It appealed to me because I’ve always had a sense of awe at ancient things. Tolkien sets everything in the distant past, but it’s in this world with feigned history, landscape and languages.”

While reading Tolkien’s series, Simpson has discovered allusions to the epic poem “Beowulf.”

“When I was looking for a topic for my master’s thesis, I chose to write about the connections of ‘Beowulf’ to ‘Lord of the Rings,’” Simpson said. “Tolkien is a good Anglo-Saxon writer, and he put a lot of that influence into his works.”

Throughout his years of teaching Tolkien courses, Simpson has been surprised by how many of his students have given him gifts.

In 2001, a student gave him a travel journal with the title “A Hobbit’s Journey, There and Back Again,” and he took it with him on trips, scribbling down stories from his travels. Another student who had gone to New York City brought him back a first edition of “Lord of the Rings” published in 1965 — a pirated version that was never approved by the author. Each year, he’s had people waiting in line to get into his class and has even had to turn people away because the classes became too full.

“This year, almost everyone is there about 15 minutes early,” he said. “They’re enthusiastic about the class.”

Simpson never had the luxury of attending a Tolkien class himself, and instead gained all of his insight through self-research conducted during his spare time. After doing some searching online, he found a list of all the Tolkien courses taught in the world and discovered that the earliest mention of a class was recorded in 1968 — and since Simpson taught his first Tolkien class in 1975, he may have been one of the first professors to ever offer the course.

The final chapter of Simpson’s teaching career is a bittersweet ending, but he knows his love of the author will always persist.

“Tolkien is my passion, and I’m amazed at his craftsmanship as a storyteller, and at the details that he puts into his works of a completely peopled world with different races, different landscapes, and different languages with their own history, vocabulary, phonetics, and their own spellings,” Simpson said. “What a nice way to go out, teaching my favorite subject.”