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Tolkien's Middle-earth:

Lesson Plans for Secondary School Educators

Unit Four: One Ring to Rule Them All

Discussion Topics

The Irreducible Ring. Which aspects of the One Ring do students find especially compelling? Are they most intrigued by it as a psychic amplifier (enhancing weaknesses or tendencies already present in the person who wears it)? As a sentient creature (deliberately controlling the behavior of those in its vicinity)? As a psycho-physical addiction (sapping its owner’s body and spirit even as it bestows longevity)? What other labels would the class attach to this cryptic object? Is it an advanced technology? A superweapon? A malign magnet? An invisibility charm?

Lord Acton’s Insight. In 1887 the British historian John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton articulated an idea that became famous: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Some critics believe that Lord Acton's insight influenced Tolkien's conception of One Ring. From what they know of world history, can students offer instances of leaders whose regimes were poisoned by the lust for power? Of leaders who wielded great power without abusing it? Which is more common: corruption by power, or corruption seeking power?

A Responsible Hobbit. Near the end of his long conversation with Gandalf, Frodo comes to a sober conclusion: "I suppose I must keep the Ring and guard it" (page 60). A few lines later he elaborates, "I cannot keep the Ring and stay here. I ought to leave Bag End, leave the Shire, leave everything and go away" (page 61). In agreeing to protect the Ring, Frodo is evidently not acting under coercion from Gandalf or any other authority figure. How would the class account for Frodo's manifest sense of responsibility? Do most people enjoy feelings of obligation toward their fellow humans? Might Frodo's resolve to hit the road actually bespeak the beginning of his corruption by the Ring?

The Power of Pity. A curious moment in the Tom Bombadil sequence occurs when he puts on the One Ring and — nothing happens. How does the class interpret this episode? Is Bombadil invulnerable merely because he's not human? As the discussion progresses, remind students that the Ring doesn't always begin its corrosive work upon changing owners. What qualities might make a person temporarily immune to Sauron's device? In considering this question, students should reread Gandalf's observation concerning Bilbo's attitude toward Gollum: "Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil . . . because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity" (page 58). Is Bombadil's radical detachment the opposite of the pity through which mere mortals can delay the Ring’s influence?

The Way to a Wizard’s Heart. In one of Gandalf's most memorable speeches, he refuses Frodo's offer of the Ring: "Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength" (page 60). How exactly might the Ring use "pity" to unlock Gandalf's heart? Through what other routes could the Ring undertake to destroy a virtuous person?

The Burden of Obligation. From the very first, Frodo's conscientiousness causes him anguish: "I am not made for perilous quests," he says on page 60. "I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why did it come to me?" At one time or another, everyone in the class has assumed a responsibility he or she would rather have ignored. Invite students to share their experiences with such challenges. Did anyone ever shoulder an obligation — looking after a sick relative, tutoring a sibling, adopting an animal — that proved a blessing?

This Side of Paradise. With its agreeable climate, rustic charm, amiable inhabitants, creature comforts, and apparent prosperity, the Shire would strike many people as an ideal place to live. Would any students gladly spend the rest of their lives in Tolkien's quasi-utopia? Why? Who would find the place unbearable? Why?

Unit Four Content

Comments for Teachers
Preliminary Quiz
Key Terms
Discussion Topics
Suggested Activities

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