Chicago Tribune (Sunday)
Professor whose focus made him an expert on dragons in literature
During 50 years teaching in the University of Chicago’s English and divinity departments, Michael J. Murrin focused his scholarship on genres of epic, romance and fantasy in Western literature.
Murrin analyzed symbols and mythical beasts found in works of literature like “Beowulf,” John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” He became the U. of C.’s resident “dracologist,” or expert on explaining dragons’ roles in literature.
Murrin also was known for his gentle manner and his mentorship of his students.
“Michael was both one of the most deeply learned and one of the gentlest people I’ve known,” said U. of C. Divinity School professor Richard Rosengarten. “I was his student and then his colleague, and in both relationships he was exactly the same person to me. His intellectual temperament was classicist but his behavior was populist … Michael united them naturally and easily.”
Murrin, 83, died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease on July 27 in the nursing facility at the Montgomery Place retirement community in Hyde Park, said his brother, David. He had been a longtime Hyde Park resident.
Born in Minneapolis, Murrin received a bachelor’s degree in 1960 from the College of St. Thomas, now the University of St. Thomas, then a master’s degree and his doctorate from Yale University. His doctoral dissertation was about the English poet George Turberville.
In 1963, Murrin joined the U. of C. faculty as an instructor. He became an assistant professor in 1965.
Murrin taught popular classes about allegory and epic poetry, the history of literary and biblical interpretation, fairy tales, science fiction and fantasy and multilingual medieval Britain. He also co-founded a core course on Greek thought and literature, and he contributed to the Divinity School’s religion and literature program.
“His numerous groundbreaking publications only hint at his vast knowledge of world literature, history,
religion, art and culture, which he brought to bear in classrooms, workshops and wonderfully illuminating conversations with colleagues, students and friends,” said U. of C. English professor Joshua Scodel.
Former students recalled Murrin’s gentle and encouraging manner, even while trying to instill in students a cleareyed view toward texts of all kinds.
“I couldn’t have named it at the time, but what he was teaching me was intellectual courage,” said East Carolina University English professor David Wilson-Okamura, who was a graduate student of Murrin’s in the 1990s. “(His) courage consisted … in seeing and naming things clearly, even when doing so threatens to disenchant the books and stories that you love.
“His highest devotion was reserved for truth. The critical spirit, Murrin once said, destroys some wonders, but if it keeps going, it discovers new ones.”
Murrin helped to oversee the doctoral dissertation of Rachel Eisendrath, now a Barnard College English professor. In an email, she characterized his teaching style as a combination of “great erudition and interpersonal gentleness.”
“In class, he would often focus on a single literary detail, tracing the history of this detail by leading us on an unexpected path through both canonical and lesser-known texts, through multiple languages, through maps and travelers’ accounts and real geographical features that we had assumed were ‘mere’ fiction,” said Eisendrath.
“The view that emerged of major intellectual changes did not result from his making sweeping generalizations about history, but from his reading attentively, looking carefully and seeking out what was surprising,” she said.
Murrin told the Tribune in 1975 that he always had been interested in dragons and in fantasy in literature.
“I developed an elaborate discourse on dragons for the entertainment of my friends, relying heavily on J.R.R. Tolkien,” he told the Tribune. “Then, when I came here to the university, I was teaching ‘The Faerie Queene,’ and I decided the students deserved one large, light lecture a term. Since there is a dragon in book one, that was it, and it has become a tradition.”
Murrin could hold forth on how literature depicted dragons differently by region. For example, Northern European dragons are the fire-breathing variety, he told the Tribune, while Mediterranean dragons were known for devouring humans.
Ultimately, the Age of Reason extinguished dragons from literature, as well as witchcraft, sorcery and the other magical arts and beasts. It wasn’t until Tolkien’s work in the 20th century, and his dragon Glaurung the Golden, Murrin said, that dragons returned to literature in a meaningful way.
Dragons “are great props,” he told the Tribune in 1979. “They have a richness that you don’t get if you try to invent something from whole cloth.”
Murrin wrote books about allegory, Renaissance epics and other subjects, including “The Allegorical Epic: Essays in Its Rise and Decline,” which was published in 1980. His final book, “Trade and Romance,” explored how trade with Asia affected European literature from the 13th to the 17th centuries and won the American Comparative Literature Association’s Rene Wallek Prize.
Murrin retired from the U. of C. in 2013. He was awarded the U. of C. Alumni Association’s Norman Maclean Faculty Award in 2016 for extraordinary contributions to teaching and student experience at the university.
He leaves no other immediate survivors.
A service was held.