As a baby, Michael Drout looked out of his crib at a map of Middle Earth, the world of fantasy created by J.R.R. Tolkien. By the age of 2, he wore the black hood and cloak of an evil horseman from "The Lord of the Rings."
So it isn't too much of a surprise that Mr. Drout has found a place for Gandalf the wizard and Frodo the ring bearerin his academic career. Drout specializes in Tolkien's writings and medieval and Anglo-Saxon literature as a professor at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass.
"Fantasy - more so than even science fiction - fills in gaps about important human topics that mainstream literature can't or won't deal with," Drout says. "The modernist impulse since World War I doesn't deal with good and evil, the problem with death, and the childlike question of why we have to die. Fantasy does that without pushing us into the religious realm."
While researching his PhD dissertation, Drout discovered an unpublished work written by Tolkien on "Beowulf." The resulting book, "Beowulf and the Critics," was released last month.
"The Lord of the Rings" is "shot through" with references to "Beowulf," Drout says. "His work for pay as a professor and his work for love was all intertwined in his love of language, myth, and history."
Drout is also editing the first academic journal devoted exclusively to Tolkien's works. The journal will be published once a year, featuring articles chosen by outside referees.
The release of the movie trilogy based on "The Lord of the Rings" has increased the popularity of Anglo-Saxon language and literature among students, Drout says. His Anglo-Saxon language course this semester has double the number of students of past years.
But Tolkien's renewed popularity has not yet boosted Drout's status among academics.
"It's never been academically respectable to work on Tolkien, but my English department at Wheaton is open-minded," he says.
As a serious academic, Drout says he no longer dresses up as Tolkien characters. But his 2-year-old daughter studies her own map of Middle Earth hanging over her crib.