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Faith, fantasy and barbarians in public lectures

Media release
6 May 2008

Faith, fantasy and barbarians to be discussed in public lectures

Issues of faith and fantasy in the lives and writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S.Lewis, and the relationship between Roman Empire and modern-day barbarians will be explored in two forthcoming lectures at The University of Auckland.

Edward James, a Professor of Medieval History at University College, Dublin, is a leading authority on the seemingly disparate research fields of medieval studies, science fiction and fantasy literature. His book, Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press 1994), is regarded as a standard history of the field; The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (Cambridge University Press 2003; co-edited with Farah Mendlesohn) was awarded a Hugo Award by the science fiction community at the World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow in 2005.

In a lecture later this month, Professor James will discuss how both Tolkien and Lewis created fantasy worlds to express their deep commitment to Christianity. Despite their shared faith, an examination of Tolkien's Middle Earth and Lewis' Narnia reveals striking differences between the scholars—as well as their similarities.

Professor James says he became a medieval historian largely because of his interest in Tolkien, whose books he read as a teenager. He says Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is a more subtle expression of Christianity than Lewis' Narnia series, in which Christian allegory is clearly portrayed through the Christ-like Aslan the Lion.

"Tolkien described The Lord of the Rings as a 'Catholic epic', but the author was more interested in representing Christian values than Christian allegory," says Professor James, who notes Tolkien was instrumental in converting Lewis to Christianity. "Of course, there are Christ-like figures in the trilogy— most notably, Gandalf and Frodo. And it's no accident that the Ring is destroyed on 25 March, the traditional medieval date for the original crucifixion. But Tolkien and Lewis approached Christianity very differently in their fantasy works," he says.

Professor James will also deliver a lecture on the barbarian enemies of the Roman Empire. He suggests that barbarians, often cast as having horned helmets, peculiar names and thick Germanic accents, have been woefully misrepresented. He says it is only during the last generation that historians and archeologists recognised barbarians as they actually are: rooted more to 19th century nationalism than to Late Antiquity. Professor James suggests this realisation raises questions around long-held assumptions about the fall of the Roman Empire and the origins of the Middle Ages.

"I want to discuss the links between the 19th and 20th century study of barbarians and modern racialism," says Professor James. "The Roman idea that some people were civilised and some people were little better than animals has a long and very unfortunate history in European, American and, perhaps, Australian and New Zealand thought."

Professor Edward James will deliver his lecture, "How to Recognise a Barbarian" at 4pm on Tuesday, 13 May (Clocktowner room 029). His lecture "J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: Friendship, Religion and Fantasy" will be held at 6:30pm on Wednesday 14 May (Library Theatre B15). Both lectures are free and open to the public. For information phone Lisa Bailey on (09) 373 7599 ext 88907 or email lk.bailey[at]


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