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College of Liberal Arts
University of Mississippi

Literature on Location

A photo of Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland. Photo by Gabrielle Newman

Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland. Photo by Gabrielle Newman


In March, for the eleventh time, Beth Spencer taught Fantasy Fiction in the UK—after a three-year hiatus because of COVID restrictions.

Focused on the timeless works of British fantasy authors, the course gives students a chance to craft their own creative works throughout the semester. During spring break, they head to Edinburgh and London to visit the haunts associated with JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, JK Rowling, and Neil Gaiman.

Statue of Sir Henry “Harry Hotspur” Percy in the Alnwick courtyard. Photo by Gabrielle Newman

Statue of Sir Henry “Harry Hotspur” Percy in the Alnwick courtyard. Photo by Gabrielle Newman

“You just watch the light kind of come into them,” said Spencer, a senior lecturer in the Department of English and the Mississippi Humanities Council UM Teacher of the Year. “And that first excursion puts students in touch with a childhood sense of wonder and creativity that has become less accessible in today’s society.”

The trip includes a five-day stay at 700-year-old Alnwick Castle, home to the Duke of Northumberland; a tour of literary Edinburgh; high tea at the Balmoral Hotel; Magdalen College; and Wolvercote Village. In London, they take a double decker bus tour, visit Mary Shelley’s house, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the British Museum, the British Library, and experience evensong at Westminster Abbey and a bankside walk along the Thames. The students also take a side excursion to Oxford for essential Tolkien/Lewis related sites.

At each location, Spencer assigns journal entries and writing exercises. “Students get to walk in the steps of these great fantasy authors. Of course, we get back on the bus, and I say, ‘Okay, everybody, get your notebooks out. I want you to write down what you’re thinking about.’”

Fantasy Fiction in the UK students on Hadrian’s Wall.

Some of the Fantasy Fiction in the UK students on Hadrian’s Wall, from left to right: Azurrea Curry, Abby Kate Boyer, Gabrielle Newman, Caroline McCutchen, Olivia Bacon, Nya Thompson, Casey McCarthy, Kaci Wilcox, Izzy Arthurs, Breanna Sewani, and Anna Dickerson.

While Spencer has taken this trip for many years, this trip was special, and students got to have a taste of wonder. Because the place where they go on Hadrian’s Wall is close to the coast, it doesn’t tend to snow. “What was really magical about this time was there actually was snow,” Spencer said. “Students just reveled in it, it was magical.”

The result is an expanded point of view, explained Caroline McCutchen, an English major. “Going abroad takes the class to another level. The trip took us out of our own worlds and let us focus on the things that matter in life. As writers that helps us build a new perspective.”

Spencer agrees. “There is an Outward Bound element to this that I love. Because it pushes students creatively, physically, and I would say there is definitely a spiritual dimension to it. There is an awakening to a creative spirit that’s within all of us and that we are simply not afforded time to explore. It’s why I want to take people out to these places. It’s the landscape and the place that evoke the sense of I am a creative being. I need to write and create.”

For Spencer, this trip is more than just touring and teaching, it’s about getting at something deeper. The students are “transported back to a time in their life where the access to not just wonder but pure wonder… we don’t have to think about our adult life coming at us rapidly.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Students are given an opportunity to hone their creativity and to create something new.”