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Tolkien's Middle-earth:

Lesson Plans for Secondary School Educators



Unit Seven: Tolkien's Moral Universe


Discussion Topics

"Let Our Folly Be Our Cloak." Analyzing Sauron's one great weakness, poet and critic W. H. Auden noted that "while Good can imagine what it would like to be Evil, Evil cannot imagine what it would be like to be Good." In the students' view, are history's greatest villains people who lacked imagination? Why does Sauron's limited imagination give the Quest a shot at success? As the discussion progresses, ask the class to relate Auden's insight to Gandalf's declaration before the Council of Elrond: "Let our folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy" (page 262).

A Second Chance at Salvation. At the end of Book Two, Aragorn orders Boromir, recently fallen from grace, to guard the halflings (page 395). In Book Three Gandalf invites Saruman to "turn to new things" (page 568). Book Four includes one of Tolkien's favorite scenes in the novel, Gollum's epiphany when he descends from Shelob's lair and sees the sleeping hobbits, Frodo's head resting peacefully in Sam's lap (page 699). Have the class discuss the nature and outcome of these three opportunities for redemption. Why does Boromir act so selflessly and die so nobly? Might Saruman indeed have repented? What goes wrong with Gollum's near-deliverance?

The Shadow Side. Many of the virtuous characters in Tolkien's novel have perverse counterparts, and so do the sentient races themselves. The Ringwraiths are a twisted form of men, the trolls were made "in mockery" of the Ents, and the orcs are "counterfeit" elves. Have the class discuss Tolkien's evident fascination with doubling. Does Sméagol represent the dark side of Frodo's psyche? Might this account for why our hero spares Gollum from Faramir's archers at the Forbidden Pool? Is Tolkien's use of "shadow" characters the same thing as Manichaean dualism?

The Lady and the Spider. Although Galadriel is physically back in Lothlórien, she is spiritually present during Frodo and Sam's encounter with Shelob. Have students identify the devices and details through which Tolkien achieves this effect. What does the author accomplish by juxtaposing the gift-giving Galadriel and the all-consuming Shelob? Without Galadriel's metaphorical presence, might Shelob's depravity — "for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness" — seem merely lurid? Is Galadriel a goddess? An angel? Or would Tolkien prefer that we simply think of her as the Lady of Lórien?

The Orc and the Other. Throughout human history terrible injustices have accrued to the notion that entire classes of people are inferior, degraded, unenlightened — orcs, if you will. Given this sad truth, were any students dismayed or even angered by Tolkien's hordes of benighted orcs swarming across Rohan and Gondor? Would the class say that Tolkien's concept of an evil, subhuman race undercuts his nobler themes of redemption and forgiveness? What aspects of Tolkien's larger moral vision might keep us from seeing strangers and outsiders as orcs?

Unit Seven Content

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

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