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Tolkien's Middle-earth:

Lesson Plans for Secondary School Educators



Unit Seven: Tolkien's Moral Universe


Comments for Teachers

First and foremost, Tolkien intended The Lord of the Rings to be a grandly entertaining story that took the readerís imagination to places it had never been before. As an ethical thinker and a man of faith, however, Tolkien also wanted to help his audience grapple with some fundamental moral issues. With its emphasis on the potential salvation of Gollum, not to mention its apocalyptic encounter between the beneficent Galadriel (offstage but symbolically present) and the depraved Shelob (onstage and impossible to ignore), Book Four offers students an opportunity to understand Tolkienís views on the nature of good and evil.

We suggest that you begin Unit Seven by laying out the three different definitions of evil to which Western thought is heir. The first is the "dualistic" or Manichaean view: good and evil exist in the universe as equal and opposite principles, forever at war. The second is Augustinian theology: evil is not an independent force but rather "privation," the absence of good. A third theory holds that evil is essentially an unavoidable byproduct of the laws and conditions that God laid down at the beginning of time.

Critics disagree over whether to term The Lord of the Rings a "Manichaean novel". Our foremost Tolkien scholar, Tom Shippey, believes the label is accurate up to a point. What many readers find most intriguing about Tolkien's worldview, however, is its non-Manichaean aspects. As Elrond declares during the momentous council in Book Two, "For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so" (page 261).

Indeed, the whole Quest of Mount Doom turns on the assumption that good and evil do not mirror each other. The free folk of Middle-earth know that, for all Sauronís wisdom, it would never occur to him that they might voluntarily relinquish the Ring. In the Eye's moral blindness lies the Quest's one chance of success.

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

Unit Seven Content

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

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