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Tolkien's Middle-earth:

Lesson Plans for Secondary School Educators

Unit Eight: War and Peace in Middle-earth


"So Horrifying One Is Stunned"

On August 9, 1945, Tolkien wrote a letter to his son Christopher in which he shared his reaction to the news that atomic bombs had devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This handout includes the key paragraph, which students may find useful in sorting out Tolkien's, and their own, attitude toward warfare. Although the author couldn't have known the precise statistics — an estimated 150,000 Japanese citizens died in the two blasts, with thousands more eventually succumbing to radiation — he evidently intuited the magnitude of the horror.

"Your Heart Is Hard As Iron"

Here is a vivid moment from the most famous war epic of all time, the Iliad of Homer. The death of Hector at the hands of Achilles makes for an interesting comparison with the slaying of the Witch-King by Éowyn and Merry in "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields," and it stands in stark contrast to our final handout, a sorrowful record of Viking devastation from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

"The Greatest Evil That Any Army Could Do"

These pages are excerpted from those portions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dealing with King Ethelred II's struggles against Norse invaders. Collectively these entries form a laconic but poignant record of the misery that Viking raids visited on Anglo-Saxons in early medieval England. Of the various battles catalogued here, one in particular, the English defeat at Maldon, came to figure crucially in Tolkien's thinking about war.

The extensive fragment of Old English poetry called The Battle of Maldon valorized the chivalry that the English warrior-leader Beorhtnoth showed in allowing his Viking foes to leave their island camp and cross the River Pante on a tidal causeway, so that neither side would have a geographical disadvantage. Beorhtnoth's gesture proved disastrous — he was slain along with his closest followers, and the Northmen ravaged the country — but that didn't keep the poet from romanticizing what happened at Maldon.

Tolkien took a different view. Indeed, he was so troubled by The Battle of Maldon, he wrote a one-act play, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, critiquing the warrior's faux heroism. The key line belongs to a level-headed civilian named Tídwald: "Alas, my friend, our lord was at fault . . . Too proud, too princely!"

Unit Eight Content

Comments for Teachers
Preliminary Quiz
Key Terms
Discussion Topics
Suggested Activities

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