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.”