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Tolkien's Middle-earth:

Lesson Plans for Secondary School Educators

Unit Six: Treebeard's Lament

Discussion Topics

The Soul of the Ent. At one level Treebeard is an anthropomorphized tree, and yet this shepherd of the forest obviously doesn't see the world the way Pippin and Merry do. Ask students to identify those aspects of Treebeard's physiology and psychology that make him seem arboreal. What does Pippin find significant about Treebeard's eyes? Why is the Ents' word for "hill" — of which a-lalla-lalla-rumba-kamanda-lind-or-burúmë is but a part — so long?

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. In a 1956 reply to a reader, Tolkien wrote, "If there is any contemporary reference in my story at all it is to what seems to me the most widespread assumption of our time: that if a thing can be done, it must be done" (Letter No. 186). Does the class agree with Tolkien's acerbic assessment of the modern mindset? If Tolkien is right, does this mean we shall eventually witness human clones or a full-scale nuclear war?

A Dwarf's Paradise. Have the class reread Gimli's rhapsody on the caves beneath Helm's Deep, which begins, "Gems and crystals and veins of precious ore glint in the polished walls; and the light glows through folded marbles, shell-like, translucent as the living hands of Queen Galadriel" (page 534). Would students infer that Tolkien's reverence for nature extends even to the inanimate? What is Legolas getting at when he says, "One family of busy dwarves with hammer and chisel might mar more than they make" (page 535)? Does Gimli's reply — "We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them" — suggest that dwarves value the natural world no less than they do their own creations?

Tools, Artifacts, and Machines. Evidently Tolkien places the products of conscious ingenuity in different categories. Most of the supernatural devices in Middle-earth, including the palantíri and the wizards' staffs, seem not to alarm him. Certain crafted artifacts, notably the elven rings, Aragorn’s sword, and Frodo’s mithril coat, even become objects of awe. Only full-blown technologies — Saruman's "precious machinery" — inspire Tolkien's manifest mistrust. In the students' view, are these distinctions among tools, artifacts, and machines valid? When does a tool become a machine? When does a machine become an industry? How might we differentiate "good progress" from "bad progress"?

The Tongue as Talisman. Middle-earth's inhabitants wield many implements, but for Tolkien one tool reigns supreme: language. In the author's view, when a person engages the full majesty of words — writing a powerful poem, composing a moving story, sustaining a great conversation — he or she is engaged in "sub-creation," fashioning a "secondary world" that parallels our observable, primary reality. Does the class agree that language is the most significant tool of all? What evidence do we find in Book Three that Tolkien was concerned with the misuses of language? In discussing this question, students will want to consider Wormtongue's verbal manipulation of Théoden, as well as the deceptively "melodious" and "kindly" voice Sauron deploys during the parley at Orthanc (pages 564–571).

Is Technology Neutral? Defenders of technology cite manifest advances in human health, freedom, and comfort. Critics of technology argue that all these benefits involve trade-offs. Where do students stand on this complex and thorny issue? Do they feel that technologies are fundamentally neutral, so the challenge is to use them wisely and appropriately? Or have some technologies become so pervasive that it is meaningless to speak of controlling them? What does the class make of the adage "We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us"?

The Faces of Wisdom. In describing the Rohirrim to his friends, Aragorn emphasizes their oral culture: "They are . . . wise but unlearned, writing no books but singing many songs" (page 420). Does the class agree with Aragorn that literacy is not essential to wisdom? Have students known people who lacked a formal education but nevertheless knew much of the world?

Treebeard’s Revenge. The last march of the Ents is certainly a satisfying fantasy — an army of ambulatory tree-beings avenging their hacked and hewed brethren — but might this scene also reflect a real possibility? Ask the class to ponder the ways in which human assaults on the environment might ultimately invite retribution by nature. How many acres of rainforest can we lose before our planet's atmosphere becomes unbreathable? Might the greenhouse effect eventually trigger a contemporary "drowning of Isengard"?

Unit Six Content

Comments for Teachers
Preliminary Quiz
Key Terms
Discussion Topics
Suggested Activities

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