Tolkien’s Lesson on Computationality and Creativity–Whilst Smoking His Pipe

You shall not pass....the graph paper!

On a recent visit to the Tolkien exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum, I was fascinated to see process documents related to Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. What most struck me was how Tolkien–who in many ways embodies the kind of creativity teachers in the humanities value–approached so much of his work with computational precision. Take his mapping of Middle Earth. When he was designing his imagined land, he did so on graph paper so he could know exactly how long a distance it was between places and, as a result, write the story more compellingly. Graph paper was essential to his storytelling, computation meets composition. (You can even spy a scorch mark where his pipe is said to have ashed on his map!)

Teachers, parents, and students would be right to pause and reflect on Tolkien’s process. We cannot–or even should not–separate the worlds of the arts and the sciences so breezily.

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