Jed Wyrick teaches one of Chico State University’s more unconventional classes: “C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien: Theology and Myth.” An assistant professor of religious studies, Wyrick launched the course last year, his eighth at the university. It reflects his academic background—he received his bachelor’s in classics (Greek and Latin literature) from Brandeis University in Massachusetts and, in 1999, received his Ph.D. in comparative literature (specializing in ancient Greek, Hebrew and Yiddish) from Harvard University.
When were you first exposed to the writings of Tolkien and Lewis?
I first read The Hobbit when I was in third grade. At first I didn’t understand it and I don’t think I liked it. I read it again a few years later and I couldn’t get enough of it. Eventually, I got into The Chronicles of Narnia and other fantasy books. I didn’t like reading about reality. For a while I read only books about animals. I couldn’t care less about people, but give me talking animals and I was there. One of my favorite books was Watership Down, which is about a family of rabbits.
How did “C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien: Theology and Myth” get started?
The Department of Religious Studies had a course called “Religious Dimensions of Literature,” and I was inspired by the title. One kind of literature that has religious dimensions in it [includes] the works of Lewis and Tolkien. Since I started teaching “Religious Dimensions of Literature” in 2002, I always taught Tolkien and Lewis. The only time I really added to those authors was when I taught the course in London one semester and included H.G. Wells and George Orwell. I suggested a name change to the department and to offer the class regularly as a way of publishing the course. I thought that the name the course has now would intrigue students in a way unlike many other courses at the university.
Why did you choose to focus on Tolkien and Lewis?
Those two authors are some of the first writers of the 20th century who started to understand the importance of myth. For Lewis, it was that myth isn’t untrue and that it doesn’t necessarily conflict with his belief in Christianity. Lewis actually became a Christian through studying myth. For Tolkien, myth is a product of the world. In order to have myth you have to have cosmos, language, people, geography and history.
When was the first time the class was offered?
I believe it was 2007. My very first class had about 12 to 15 people. Right now I have 30 students and of those, maybe six are taking it for religious studies majors and minors. The rest are all taking it just because they want to.