Michael Murrin, leading scholar of allegory and ‘dracologist,’ 1938–2021

Scholar remembered for personal kindness, expertise on interpretation of European legends

Michael Murrin, a leading scholar of the genres of epic, romance and fantasy in the Western literary tradition, died July 27. He was 83.

The Raymond W. and Martha Hilpert Gruner Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities, Murrin was a treasured member of the University of Chicago faculty for 50 years.

A specialist in the history of criticism and allegorical interpretation, Murrin traced the tessellations of reality and fantasy in medieval, Renaissance and early modern European literature. Throughout his career, he read original works in more than half a dozen languages—including Italian, Persian and Old Norse.

Among his subjects of inquiry were Beowulf, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and numerous other poems, books, myths and legends.

Murrin sought to unveil the deeper meaning behind the symbols, tropes and mythical beasts that appeared in such works. As UChicago’s resident “dracologist,” or dragon expert, he introduced thousands of non-academic readers to his nuanced understanding of the creature’s enduring cultural potency.

“Throw in a dragon, and you have an entirely different kind of fiction,” he told the Wall Street Journal’s Fred Klein in 1974. “The reader is asked to take seriously a really irrational sort of creature. He has to cope with a whole series of problems he hadn’t considered before. And that, in fact, is what is continually happening to us.”

According to Murrin, dragons are among the allegorical figures present in the fantasy genre that set it apart from other forms of storytelling. For example, Murrin argued that early Europeans did not believe in dragons in a literal sense, but that dragons served then—as now—as vivid, rich and complex symbols which could illuminate human concerns from economics (hoarding gold) to destruction and plague (fire or poison breathing).

“Michael Murrin’s central question in his long career as a writer and teacher was always how, in different registers and scales, literary representation encounters a real that exceeds it,” said his longtime friend and colleague, Bradin Cormack, a professor of English at Princeton University.

Murrin also studied the impact that early European trade in Asia and the Middle East had on the European imagination. By comparing maps and travelers’ accounts with texts, he elucidated the connections between reality and fantasy for his students.

“In class, he would often trace the thread of a single literary reference through time,” said Rachel Eisendrath, PhD’12, one of Murrin’s last doctoral students and now an associate professor of English at Barnard College of Columbia University.

“After immersion in what could seem like minutiae, he would help us look up and see the larger picture that had come into view—a picture of major intellectual shifts that had occurred over time. By his example, I learned that rigorous scholarly studies could be illuminated from within by wonder.”

In addition to his primary appointment in the Department of English Language and Literature, Murrin held secondary appointments in the Departments of Comparative Literature and in the Divinity School.

Born March 25, 1938, in Minneapolis, he attended the College (now University) of St. Thomas and Yale University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1965. He began teaching at UChicago as an instructor in 1963, before he received his doctorate, and became an assistant professor two years later. In 1967, he won the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

Murrin would go on to spend his entire academic career at UChicago, where he was noted both for his scholarship and his gentle, engaging manner with students and colleagues. Many recalled the characteristic warmth and generosity he displayed during office hours, lunches and walks around campus.

“Though decades have passed since I was his student, he is still teaching me,” said his former student, David Wilson-Okamura, AM’93, PhD’98, now a professor of English at East Carolina University. “In a lecture, he said that, while reason can destroy cherished illusions, it replaces them with something richer. I didn’t grasp that, not fully, but I wrote it down; and years later I understood. He was teaching us not to be afraid of truth, that it would somehow kill faith or ruin romance.”

Murrin taught classes on allegory and epic poetry, the history of literary and biblical interpretation, fairy tales, science fiction and fantasy, and multilingual medieval Britain. His classes were highly engaging, according to his close friend Joshua Scodel. Murrin was known for such dramatic gestures as leaping onto a desk to recite a Homeric speech.

Scodel, the Helen A. Regenstein Professor in English and Comparative Literature, remembered Murrin as “a dear friend and a wonderful mentor” who offered surprising, invaluable critiques of work-in-progress based on his vast erudition.

Murrin was a co-founder of the Humanities Core course “Greek Thought and Literature,” and a faculty contributor to the Divinity School’s Religion and Literature program (now known as Religion, Literature, and the Visual Arts).

“The range of Michael’s appointments across the University indexed his versatility,” said Richard Rosengarten, an associate professor of religion and literature in the Divinity School. “He was deeply learned—even encyclopedic—and also wry, humane, generous and patient. He wrote pithily and incisively; most of us needed twice as many words to say half as much as Michael.”

In 2016, Murrin was recognized with another honor: the Alumni Association’s Norman MacLean Faculty Award, bestowed for extraordinary contributions to teaching and student experience at the University.

That same year, Murrin was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The illness, Scodel said, meant that Murrin was unable to live out in his final years the phrase he loved to quote from T.S. Eliot: “Old men ought to be explorers.” Nonetheless, Murrin had spent a lifetime exploring. He considered it important to visit the places that he studied in literature and traveled extensively in Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.

“I vividly remember several evenings at his apartment when he shared slides of his travels,” said his former student Seth Lerer, PhD’81, now a distinguished professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego. “The last time I saw him, he told me wonderful stories of his trip to Mongolia; his joy in his reminiscences was lovely and affectionate.”

“He loved what he called ‘rubble heaps’: a good set of ruins to explore,” said his friend and former student, Charles Ross, PhD’76, now a professor emeritus of English at Purdue University. Ross recalled how Murrin walked biblical and historic sites, including the Horns of Hattin, Masada, Nazareth and Belvoir Castle near the Galilee.

In 1974, Murrin and Ross visited a castle—the Rocca di Scandiano—that belonged to Matteo Maria Boiardo. Boiardo wrote the Orlando innamorato, an epic poem which was the subject of a chapter in Murrin’s noted book The Allegorical Epic: Essays in Its Rise and Decline  (1980).

Murrin was also the author of three other influential books from the University of Chicago Press: The Veil of Allegory (1969), History and Warfare in Renaissance Epic (1994) and Trade and Romance (2013). He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Guggenheim Fellow.

“Murrin traced allegory, trade routes, seafaring technologies, and the history of warfare before and after guns, with equal verve,” said his friend and former student, Peter Struck, AM’91, PhD’97, now a professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania. “He did all this with a gentility of manner, rooted in deep respect and innate care for both the work and the people engaged in doing it.”

Murrin also shared the literary works he loved with family and friends. His brother David remembered how Murrin’s nephews and nieces looked forward to his visits at Christmas, during which Murrin would read tales like Beowulf and L. Frank Baum’s Oz series out loud. In interviews with the Chicago Tribune in 1975 and 1979, Murrin said his own love of the Oz books led to his early fascination with dragons and fantasy literature.

In addition to the many people whose lives he touched, Murrin left behind an impressive library: The Oz portion was inherited by a niece, while his collection of 16th and 17th century editions and other rare books are now held in the Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center.

He was predeceased by his sister Marilyn and brother John, a historian of colonial America and the early republic at Princeton University, and is survived by his brother David and sister-in-law Sandra; many beloved nieces and nephews; and numerous friends.

An announcement of a memorial service, to be held in the fall, is forthcoming.