Michael J. Murrin, University of Chicago literature professor and dragon expert, dead at 83
For half a century, he taught great epics and allegories from ancient times to the Renaissance and was a scholar of fantasy and romance.
Michael J. Murrin had so many books that he rented a second apartment to hold them all.
A literature professor for half a century at the University of Chicago, he taught great epics and allegories from ancient times to the Renaissance, including Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” Beowulf, Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene” and John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”
Most of the time, he and his students discussed how literature illuminated history, human nature and the cosmos.
But Mr. Murrin also was the university’s resident dracologist — an expert on dragons. At one point, the school even included him on its list of specialists under “Dragons,” right between “DNA” and “Drama.”
He once told the Chicago Daily News his favorite beast was Siegfried’s dragon.
“That’s the great mythic dragon, standard in old Norse stories,” he told the newspaper. “It was a bit more primitive than more developed dragons. It didn’t have wings. It looked like a big worm.”
Mr. Murrin, who lived at Montgomery Place, a retirement community in Hyde Park, died of Alzheimer’s disease July 27, according to his brother David. He was 83.
He read the great epics in the languages in which they were written: classical Greek and Persian, Latin, Old Norse, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, according to Joshua Scodel, an English professor at the university.
Mr. Murrin taught his students how the Silk Road, the growth of trade and advances in weaponry and warfare reshaped literature.
He had an abiding interest in C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, including “The Lord of the Rings.”
Former students say he combined erudition with empathy.
“He just really had a politeness and kindness to everyone, without a distinction of rank,” said Rachel Eisendrath, who chairs the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program at Barnard College of Columbia University.
In a speech he gave at his retirement party, he thanked “the cleaners, the people who organized the setups, all of the behind-the-scenes people,” said his friend Clarence Shallbetter.
“When I was a graduate student in the ’90s, he would regularly — I’m talking once, twice maybe three times a week — have lunch with students,” said David Wilson-Okamura, an English professor at East Carolina University in North Carolina. “He was a second father to me.”
In interviews, Mr. Murrin said his fascination with dragons began, growing up in Minneapolis, when he read about them in books by L. Frank Baum, who wrote “The Wizard of Oz.”
“Throw in a dragon, and you have an entirely different kind of fiction,” he once told The Wall Street Journal. “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.”
“Michael gave a famous dragon lecture about distinguishing two-footed from four-footed and flying two-footed or four-footed,” said Charles Ross, a retired Purdue University literature professor. The most important takeaway, though, was this: “Best to avoid drowning in blood if you stab one from underneath.”
Young Michael attended Nazareth Hall, a Catholic prep seminary, where he considered becoming a priest. After getting a bachelor’s degree at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., he went on to Yale University, where he got his master’s and doctorate in English.
In 1963, he started at the University of Chicago, where, in addition to myths and sagas, “He taught popular classes on the history of literary and Biblical interpretation, fairy tales, science fiction and fantasy,” Scodel said.
Sometimes, Scodel said, “He would suddenly climb upon a table to declaim a Homeric speech.”
Mr. Murrin wrote four books. His first, “The Veil of Allegory,” had a dragon on the cover. He also wrote “The Allegorical Epic: Essays in its Rise and Decline,” “History and Warfare in Renaissance Epic” and “Trade and Romance.”
He rented a second apartment in the Vista Homes co-op to house his vast collection of books, according to friends and family.
At his university office, books lined the walls and filled the closet.
Over the years, he took trips that retraced Marco Polo’s journey from Italy to Asia and back.
His brother said he returned each year at Christmas to visit family in Minnesota, where he loved the lakes and trees at the Itasca and Schoolcraft state parks.
Visitation will be at 9 a.m. Aug. 23 at Calvert House Catholic Center, 5735 S. University Ave., followed by a funeral Mass there at 10 a.m. A memorial service is planned Sept. 2 in Hopkins, Minn.
Scodel said Mr. Murrin liked to quote a line from T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”: “Old men ought to be explorers.”