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Tolkien's Middle-earth:

Lesson Plans for Secondary School Educators



Unit One: Introducing Tolkien and His Worlds


Discussion Topics

Echoes of the Oral Tradition. The Lord of the Rings has been called an "epic fairy tale." Do students understand that both the heroic epic and the fairy tale trace back to the oral tradition? Can students identify vestiges of the oral tradition thriving in the popular culture and in their own lives? The possibilities include jokes, riddles, nursery rhymes, urban legends, family anecdotes, narrative songs, and the contemporary storytelling movement.

Myth, Meaning, and Motif. Oral narratives frequently outlive the societies that spawned them. After reading several handouts, and thinking about their own previous experiences with myths and folktales, the class should generate a list of common motifs. What do these themes tell us about humanity's deepest aspirations? What mythic ideas still resonate for us in the twenty-first century? Among the most ubiquitous oral-narrative motifs are several that figure in Tolkien's fiction: the impossible task, the rash promise, the wise fool, the forbidden action, the well-earned reward, the descent into the underworld, and the attempt to elude fate.

The Factual Versus the True. In a 1936 lecture called "The Monsters and the Critics," J. R. R. Tolkien spoke in praise of dragons: "Whatever may be his origins ... the dragon in legend is ... richer in significance than his barrow is in gold." Thirty-eight years later, in an essay titled "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?" the science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin offered a similar sentiment: "For fantasy is true, of course. It isn't factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy." Does the class agree with Tolkien and Le Guin? In the students' experience, do adults tend to dismiss fantasy as childish or escapist? What sense does it make to say that dragons, gorgons, and enchanted rings are "significant" or "true"?

Eucatastrophes Then and Now. Tolkien presented his original idea of the "eucatastrophe" — the sudden and felicitous turn of a protagonist's fortunes — in a 1938 lecture titled "On Fairy-Stories." Ask the class to identify the eucatastrophe in particular myths and folktales with which they are familiar. Do these amazing "lucky breaks" follow certain patterns? Can students offer examples of eucatastrophes in the Bible, Hollywood movies, presidential elections, and professional sports?

The Periodic Table of the Oliphaunts. One obvious function of myths and folktales is to make the world more comprehensible. In the present age, fanciful explanations of natural phenomena strike many people as primitive and na´ve. Do our scientific accounts of suns, storms, and rainbows make myths superfluous? What trade-offs occur when we replace PhaŰton's chariot with a ball of burning gas?

Expedience and Ethics. Folklorists have noted that many fairy tales are not "moral" in the conventional sense. The main character often prospers through cunning and deceit rather than selflessness or altruism. In his eagerness to escape a threat or attain a goal, the protagonist may resort to trickery, theft, and even murder. Can students furnish examples of what critics have termed the "amorality" of fairy tales? If these stories are "amoral," why do we tell them to children?


Unit One Content

Overview
Comments for Teachers
Key Terms
Handouts
Discussion Topics
Suggested Activities
Bibliography

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