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Tolkien's Middle-earth:

Lesson Plans for Secondary School Educators

Unit Three: There and Back Again


"The Water of Life"

Jacob of the Brothers Grimm inspired Tolkien in several ways. Beyond his interest in traditional stories, Jacob was a pioneering comparative philologist and the author of "Grimm's Law," which describes how consonant sounds change in a predictable manner from one language to another — an insight that enabled Tolkien and his fellow philologists to recover words from long-lost languages. The class may wish to use the Auden paradigm not only in analyzing "The Water of Life" but also two stories from Unit One, "The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs" and "The Charmed Ring." What similarities and differences do students notice among these three quest adventures?

The Slaying of Fafnir
(Excerpts from "Reginsmol" and "Fafnismol" in the Elder Edda)

The Old Norse poems that constitute the Elder Edda represent just one facet of a far-ranging oral tradition celebrating the dragonslayer Sigurd (Sigurth) and the accursed treasure — including a notorious ring — of the dragon Fafnir. Scholars assume that the original version, since lost, emerged in the German Rhineland some fourteen centuries ago and was brought to other parts of Europe by migrating tribes. The retellings took the form of heroic epic in Germany (the Nibelungenlied) and prose saga in Scandinavia (especially the Volsungasaga). Beowulf includes a reference to the story, which was evidently known to everyone in the audience. Students may be familiar with another work in which Sigurd appears, Richard Wagner's opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung. The present handout includes the famous conversation between Sigurd and Fafnir, which Tolkien had in mind when he wrote the encounter between Bilbo and Smaug.

The Odyssey of Homer
(Excerpts from Book VII)

The Odyssey is the archetypal "there and back again" epic of Western literature, recounting Odysseus's decade-long quest to reach his home in Ithaca after the Trojan War. In adapting novelist Samuel Butler's public domain translation, we restored the Roman names to their standard Greek forms. With its emphasis on domestic virtues, as opposed to the martial ethos of the Iliad, Butler theorized that the Odyssey was written by a woman.

The present handout includes the scene in which Odysseus, having reached the country of Phaeacia, relates his adventures to Princess Nausicaa and her royal parents. Students may be amused by the snide remark about young people — some prejudices never change.

Note especially Odysseus's assertion that his host will "win an imperishable name among mankind" for assisting him. To be praised and celebrated by all is the traditional aim of the epic warrior. The Achilles of the Iliad was possessed by this ambition, and so was Beowulf. In the last two lines of the Old English epic, as the hero is laid to rest after defeating the dragon who had devastated his kingdom, the poet tells us, "Of men he was mildest and most beloved, to his kin the kindest, keenest for praise."

Unit Three Content

Comments for Teachers
Preliminary Quiz
Key Terms
Discussion Topics
Suggested Activities

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