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'Tolkien Professor' Corey Olsen brings Middle-earth to iTunes via podcasts

Tolkien is not as popular among academics. Though Tolkien was a language scholar at Oxford, he is not generally counted among the great fiction writers of his century, nor is "The Lord of the Rings" counted among its great books.

Yet, Tolkien scholars and Tolkien classes have multiplied over the years, and Middle- earth fanzines have evolved into academic journals.

"If something isn't going away, that tells you something," said Verlyn Flieger, a Tolkien scholar at the University of Maryland.

Olsen's Web site generated little traffic until summer 2009, when he uploaded his 28-minute introductory lecture to iTunes. He's put up 78 more podcasts, with such titles as "On Dragons and Orcs" and "Tolkien and Food." His lectures have ranked as high as third among top university course downloads.

"Within two months, I had 5,000 subscribers," he recalled in an interview in his office on campus. "And then the people who were listening wanted to talk."

Olsen communes with his growing fan base in periodic Skype call-in sessions and on his Facebook page, answering urgent queries about Tolkien taxonomy. He hosts discussion boards on his Web site and, this winter, is running an online seminar on the posthumous collection "The Silmarillion" for 15 lucky followers.

"He's like a Tolkien evangelist," said John DiBartolo, a Long Island musician, graphic designer and amateur Tolkien scholar.

The questions never cease: Do elves farm? What do orcs eat? Could any living author write a worthy sequel? What does Olsen think of the upcoming "Hobbit" movie? Has he played "The Lord of the Rings" computer game online?

Naturally, Olsen knows all sorts of arcana about Tolkien and hobbits. He likes to note, for instance, that the One Ring of power and its corruptive influence were absent from the first edition of "The Hobbit" in 1937. "Gollum and Bilbo end up shaking hands and waving," he chuckled.

The centerpiece of Olsen's podcast work is a chapter-by-chapter analysis of "The Hobbit" that Olsen hopes to repackage as a book when it is complete. His delivery is swift, affable and erudite.

"English professors as a group tend to rule Tolkien out of the literary canon without blinking," Olsen lamented in the introductory lecture, "largely because fantasy stories about elves and dragons obviously cannot be serious literature."

"He is a fantastic lecturer. He's engaging. He draws you in. I would have loved to have taken a class from him in college," said Dave Kale, 29, a follower of Olsen's podcasts who lives in Los Angeles.

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