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Tolkien's Middle-earth:

Lesson Plans for Secondary School Educators

Unit Eight: War and Peace in Middle-earth

Comments for Teachers

The bulk of The Lord of the Rings was composed during World War Two by a writer who’d fought in World War One. While the book is not a war novel in the sense that Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front or Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms are war novels, some critics have argued that we cannot fully comprehend Tolkien's masterpiece without considering the violent historical events that touched his life.

The author's attitude toward armed conflict was complex and perhaps paradoxical. On the one hand, The Lord of the Rings includes several overtly pacifist moments, such as Sam's reaction in Book Four when an enemy Southron falls dead at his feet, slain by Faramir's archers: "He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home" (page 646). On the other hand, the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in Book Five features many blood-stirring episodes, among them Éomer's bold song and subsequent thoughts: "Once more lust of battle was on him; and he was still unscathed, and he was young, and he was king . . . And lo! even as he laughed at despair he looked out again on the black ships, and he lifted his sword to defy them" (page 829).

The author addresses the theme of despair as thoughtfully as he explores the subject of war. In Tolkien's universe fatalism is not automatically a fault. As the Unit Four handout, "The Light Before the Sun," demonstrates, he actually admired the gloomy courage that underlies Norse mythology, with its central vision of Ragnarök, the doom of the gods. Tolkien believed that a noble individual might experience and even entertain despair — but he will not succumb to it, as Denethor does when he throws himself on the pyre. Much of Éowyn's heroism lies in the fact that, before the story is over, she conquers her despair.

You may want to launch Unit Eight by commenting on the author's war experiences. In 1915, shortly after graduating from Oxford with honors in English language and literature, Tolkien was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. He soon found himself in the trenches, and in 1916 he saw action as a signal officer during the Battle of the Somme. For further information, we highly recommend John Garth's recent biography, Tolkien and the Great War.

While studying Unit Eight in class, students should be reading Book Six of The Lord of the Rings at home.

Unit Eight Content

Comments for Teachers
Preliminary Quiz
Key Terms
Discussion Topics
Suggested Activities

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