Delaware Entertainment
Corey Olsen to unveil companion to Tolkien's classic at Acorn Books
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Corey Olsen, of Dover, will read selections from his new book, “Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’” on Sept. 18 from 6:30-7:30 p.m. at Acorn Books in Dover.

DOVER - When Dover resident Corey Olsen was 8-years-old, he read "The Hobbit" for the first time.

It's been 30 years since then. And Mr. Olsen has read "The Hobbit" every year. At least.

Then he wrote a book about it.

On Sept. 18, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is publishing Mr. Olsen's first book: "Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's ‘The Hobbit.'"

"The Hobbit" is J.R.R. Tolkien's prequel to his popular fantasy series, "The Lord of the Rings." The children's book follows the adventures of Bilbo Baggins, who steals a magic ring, dupes trolls, and meets a dragon.

Director Peter Jackson is also adapting the book into an on-screen trilogy. The first movie, "An Unexpected Journey," will hit theaters Dec. 14.

On his book's release date, Mr. Olsen will appear at Acorn Books in Dover. He said he will lead a discussion on "The Hobbit," sign copies of the new book, and read aloud from it.

The book is a chapter-by-chapter companion to "The Hobbit." Mr. Olsen said he hopes to encourage a closer reading of the children's classic.

"I don't want to just rip through it, but to stop and think what's happening," he said.

Although "The Hobbit" was written for children, Mr. Olsen insists it deserves a second look. He said Tolkien unfolds powerful themes in the book: free will, good and evil, greed.

"Bilbo's character development is really complex," he said, "It avoids so many clichés and ends up taking the reader to places they would not really have expected from the beginning."

Mr. Olsen complained that too often, scholars dismiss Tolkien as childish or "black-and-white."

"There's some kind of serious psychological issue that the modern academic world has with fantasy in general," he said.

And Mr. Olsen would know - he's certainly spent some time in the "academic world." He received a doctorate in Medieval literature from Columbia University, and now he's a college professor.

But Mr. Olsen can trace even his academic career back to his favorite author. Tolkien, too, was an enthusiastic Medievalist, and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy itself was influenced by Anglo-Saxon legends.

"I had known that this stuff was in the background of the books, and when I read it I could recognize it," Mr. Olsen said.

"It was like finally seeing for the first time the original of something that you have a picture of."

"The Tolkien Professor"

Mr. Olsen is an assistant professor of English at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., where he teaches classes on topics like Chaucer or Arthurian literature.

But his fans know him for his popular podcast - "The Tolkien Professor." Launched in 2009, Mr. Olsen said the podcast now has at least 10,000 subscribers and several million downloads.

"I got an email from a woman in China who's 12-year-old daughter loves Tolkien, listens to my podcasts, and practices her English with it," Mr. Olsen said.

As an untenured professor, he was expected to get published, he said, but he knew that an academic article wouldn't reach many readers.

So he went to iTunes.

Throughout his career, that's always been Mr. Olsen's goal: to make serious studies more accessible.

"My experience with my podcast has convinced me that I can occupy a space between the academic world and the modern reading world. That fully pronounced gap is very bridgeable," Mr. Olsen said.

"I knew that if I had something to offer, it was probably in that direction - in the ability to take a very serious academic study of a book like ‘The Hobbit' and make it accessible in the modern press."

His podcasts began as a simple series of lectures about "The Hobbit," recording which eventually inspired his book.

But then something changed.

Mr. Olsen wasn't just reading aloud notes. He had subscribers. Across the globe, people were writing to him. They were tired of listening. They wanted to talk.

And so he scheduled call-in sessions and online "office hours." He introduced guest commentators. He posted copies of his class material.

A new kind of education

And then, last year, Mr. Olsen did something radical. He established a university from scratch.

Brand-new Signum University offers courses like "Science Fiction," "Elementary Latin," and "Modern Fantasy."

It is officially based in Hartly, but it's not a brick-and-mortar school - it's online. "I want to take advantage of the fact that, if you don't own buildings, you can keep the overhead much cheaper."

Students at Signum University still take part in live discussions; they "log in" to class using audio-conferencing software. Teachers can even set up video feeds and power-point presentations.

"This model is something we're really excited about. We're committed to using these Internet tools to connect students and teachers, so that you can be unrestricted by geography and not overburdened by debt," Mr. Olsen said.

He added that the school's online interface "has blown people away."

"Nothing in the technology we're using is very innovative," he said, "We're just basically hijacking corporate software."

About 150 students are enrolled at Signum University. They come from everywhere: Sweden, New Zealand, Thailand. "Coordinating the schedules can be really challenging," Mr. Olsen said.

If the school gets accredited, it will be one of only three online universities in Delaware.

It's slated to be certified by the state in a little over a year, he said. It will be fully accredited a few years after that. In the mean time, Mr. Olsen is working on partnerships with other schools.

His "larger vision," he said, is to set up an undergraduate program as well.

And although Signum University mostly offers master's classes, you don't need a degree to audit them.

He's also experimenting with programs for high-schoolers.
"There's a really exciting potential for K-12 students for online programs. Most online programs are like guided self-study. And you can learn that way. But it's a little harder for say, a sixth-grader to have the motivation to learn online," he said.

Last summer, he pulled off a two-day summer camp at Washington College, focused on the "Harry Potter" books, by J.K. Rowling, and "The Lord of the Rings."

The university goes hand-in-hand with another one of Mr. Olsen's projects, Mythgard Institute.

Mr. Olsen describes Mythgard Institute as a "teaching and resource center" for imaginative literature.

The idea, he said, was to give more students the chance to study fantasy academically.

"Many people who are doing work on Tolkien are not in academia. The problem is that universities have always had a monopoly on scholarly resources and stuff," Mr. Olsen said, "So basically, my first goal for founding the institute was to make an online center to encourage this international community that is interested in Tolkien, and extending that to imaginative literature as a whole."

Mr. Olsen said he wants Tolkien resources to be more available to the public.

He's trying to start a free, online journal, and in the meantime, he's negotiating with other publications to get their articles online. He's also set up research grants.

Mr. Olsen isn't sure if he'll be writing more books. For now, he's just excited about the release of "An Unexpected Journey" - his latest podcast series, "Riddles in the Dark," is focused on the upcoming movie.

"I'm very interested with adaptation and in the way that the film interacts with the book," Mr. Olsen said, "It's not that I love every single choice that Peter Jackson made in adapting "The Lord of the Rings," but the fact is, he did a really good job, and it's a really rich source," he said.

After he speaks at Acorn Books, Mr. Olsen's schedule is packed: he'll be interviewed on NPR, speak at the National Book Convention, and host an Internet broadcast. He described his success as "surreal."

"There are six Tolkien scholars, the most respected Tolkien scholars in the world, who read my book and liked it and wrote little blurbs on my dust jacket," Mr. Olsen said.

"I still think of myself as the kid who used to geek out and have Tolkien trivia competitions with my friends in the dining hall at college."

Staff writer Eleanor La Prade can be reached at 741-8242 or