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From Tennyson to Tolkien: The Middle Ages & Modern Literature, 1840-1940 - ENG00064H

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  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Matthew Townend
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2024-25

Module summary

‘Long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green…’

This module will explore the many ways in which the Middle Ages were re-discovered, re-imagined and re-interpreted in the century between the accession of Queen Victoria and the start of the Second World War. In this period medieval language, literature, history and folklore all provided an inspiration for many writers, both for creating innovative and imaginative story-worlds and for mounting a powerful critique of many aspects of modern life and modern thinking.

We will begin with Tennyson’s influential re-telling of the legends of King Arthur in his Idylls of the King, and end with J.R.R. Tolkien’s equally influential re-imagining of northern antiquity in The Hobbit. Among the other writers we will consider will be William Morris, Rudyard Kipling, and Edith Nesbit, plus a whole host of less well-known writers, and we will range widely across poetry and prose (both fiction and non-fiction). Among other issues, we will explore how the idea of medieval liberty inspired radical thinkers to critique modern capitalism; how the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans played a formative role in the making of modern national and regional identities; how the medieval discourse of chivalry was both celebrated and denounced in the First World War; how the study of old words changed how many writers thought about literary language; and how medieval legends and folklore led to the birth of modern fantasy writing, and exerted a profound influence on twentieth-century children’s literature.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2024-25

Module aims

The aims of the module are to introduce students to a wide range of modern literature inspired by the Middle Ages, to explore the ways in which medieval language, literature, history, and folklore contributed to literary and cultural movements in the period 1840-1940.

Module learning outcomes

On successful completion of the module, you should be able to:

  1. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with a wide range of modern literature inspired by the Middle Ages;

  2. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with the cultural, historical, and political contexts of such literature;

  3. Evaluate key debates within the relevant critical fields dealing with such literature;

  4. Produce independent arguments and ideas which demonstrate an advanced proficiency in critical thinking, research, and writing skills.


Task Length % of module mark
3000 word essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

  • You will be given the opportunity to hand in a 1000 word formative essay in the term in which the module is taught (usually in the week 7 seminar). Material from this essay may be re-visited in your summative essay and it is therefore an early chance to work through material that might be used in assessed work. This essay will be submitted in hard copy and your tutor will annotate it and return it two weeks later (usually in your week 9 seminar). Summary feedback will be uploaded to your eVision account.


Task Length % of module mark
3000 word essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

  • You will receive feedback on all assessed work within the University deadline, and will often receive it more quickly. The purpose of feedback is to inform your future work; it is designed to help you to improve your work, and the Department also offers you help in learning from your feedback. If you do not understand your feedback or want to talk about your ideas further you can discuss it with your tutor or your supervisor, during their Open Office Hours
  • For more information about the feedback you will receive for your work, see the department's Guide to Assessment

Indicative reading

Key texts for this module include:

  • Alfred Tennyson, Idylls of the King
  • William Morris, News from Nowhere and The Story of the Glittering Plain
  • Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook's Hill
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.