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The Educational Value of the Lord of the Rings



by Amelia Harper

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I have long been a Tolkien fan. I was introduced to the book when I was 15 years old and found it to be my most magical literary experience. Since then, I have read the book over 25 times. When I needed a mental vacation, I visited Middle-earth, for I knew that I would find comfort in its beauty. If I was under terrible stress, I visited Middle-earth, for I could be assured of a good cry in Shelob’s Lair and at the Grey Havens. Even after more than 25 trips to Middle-earth, I could still fall under its spell.

When the movie came out, I had not read the book in about three years. I was not particularly excited about the movie. I knew it could not touch the images I had in my heart. I was even afraid that Hollywood would spoil the magic. But when the Fellowship came out on video, my kids bought it and I was curious. I watched the movie with them and was hooked. Sure, it was not as good as the book, but it was marvelous. Of course, I was a little perturbed by the liberties taken with the action and dialogue, but I understood the limitations of cinema. Yet the settings they created were nearly perfect. I found myself driven back to the novel once again. Between the book and the movie, I was becoming obsessed.

I was also teaching British Literature to secondary level home schooled students at the time. We were reading Caedmon’s Hymn, the oldest recorded English poem, which makes reference to Middle-earth. We were studying Beowulf and the story suddenly seemed more familiar. We were covering Spenser’s The Fairy Queen and I again I was struck by the similarities. Was this part of my obsession? Was I losing my mind or were there really this many parallels between The Lord of the Rings and the subject matter that was being presented in the literature textbook?

I began to read Tolkien’s Biography and his Letters, both produced by Humphrey Carpenter. I had always known that Tolkien was an Oxford professor, but more research into his life brought home to me the impact of his studies of Old and Middle English on the creation of his own world. Why are we presenting all these ancient forms of literature to kids as if they are trophies under glass, I wondered? If they could see how the old stories can inspire such wonderful new ones, perhaps students would be more interested.

I could not find any high school curriculum that set out to do this in an organized and complete fashion. So I began to do it myself. I became swept up in the project, channeling my love for Tolkien into a new study and appreciation of his literary sources. As I did research, I found that some colleges taught Tolkien. When they did, this was the approach that many took: to study his sources. As I mentioned the idea to colleagues in both home school and traditional school settings, the response I got was overwhelmingly positive. One public school teacher even said that she felt a thorough teaching of Tolkien should be required of all high school students!

I have written a complete one-year literature curriculum that teaches The Lord of the Rings. This one-author approach to a curriculum could not be done with anyone else but Tolkien.  But through a study of his sources, we can introduce students to Beowulf, the Arthurian Romances, and the epic conventions. Through a study of the impact of his philology, we can introduce students to the basics of linguistics. Through the study of his poetry, we can introduce the students to the poetic meter and composition. Through the study of his world, we can show a student how to create a marvelous setting. I think that Tolkien would be pleased to see his greatest work lead young people to the study of the things that he loved best.

In my curriculum, the subject matter is often presented from a writer’s point of view. Supplemental chapter notes give fascinating insights into where Tolkien gleaned ideas for the chapters and the comments he made about his own work. I hope that this will demystify the writing process and make students feel more willing to create for themselves. Literary terms are defined throughout the work and are introduced in subtle ways in the teaching of the text. Degreed professionals in Education, Old English scholarship, and Reading Instruction aided in the process.

I love many types of literature. Dickens and Austen are other literary heroes of mine. But it was Tolkien that captured my heart and cemented my desire to study English in college and to someday write. Through him, I saw the power that a pen could truly wield. Now, I write for newspapers and magazines. I write poetry. I am also working on a novel of my own, though my fantasy world pales in comparison to the richness of Middle-earth. But it was Tolkien who inspired me to try. My hope is that, through this curriculum, he will inspire a whole new generation as well.

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The Educational Value of

the Lord of the Rings

by Amelia Harper

Unless you live under a rock, you are probably aware of the recent media hype over the release of The Lord of the Rings in its newest film version. In an act of sheer marketing genius, the remake of the classic book by J.R.R. Tolkien is being doled out to the public in the form of a trilogy of films. The first two films, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers are now available in video and DVD formats. The final dramatic installment, The Return of the King, will be released in theaters in December 2003 and on home video in the summer of 2004. In the meantime, those who are in suspense as to the conclusion are being “forced” to read the book, which is far better, richer, and more complex than the movie version. In addition, lovers of the films find that reading the book increases their understanding of the background of the films.

Some Christians are confused as to the proper response to The Lord of the Rings. Many have loved the books from their childhood, or have at least heard positive statements concerning them. However, recent comparisons to J.K. Rowling’s popular Harry Potter series have caused concern over whether The Lord of the Rings is proper fare for Christian minds. The use of the terms magic and wizards sends up red flags to some. For those Christians who have read both authors, the ultimate differences are clear, but they may be hard to explain to others. Is it acceptable for a Christian to enjoy a literary classic such as The Lord of the Rings? What effect will it have on our young people?

To have an understanding of the issue, it will first be necessary to give a brief synopsis of the plot of the novel, The Lord of the Rings. (Since the complete work extends over 1000 pages, any synopsis will, of course, be far short of the vast richness of the complete text.) The Lord of the Rings is the story of an imaginary history of England and Northwest Europe before the time of Christ. In this fantasy realm, there lives a hobbit named Frodo who was sent on a perilous quest to save the world from the power of evil. In case you are not familiar with hobbits, they are much like humans except they are only about half the size of a normal man and have tough, hairy feet (perhaps like your Uncle Ned.) They have no special powers or skills, are not particularly wise, and love to eat (like your teenaged son.)

This world is also peopled by men and by dwarves, who are a little taller than hobbits and love to mine. This fantasy world also contains elves: creatures who are wise, immortal, and fair. The elves also have very limited “magical” powers that enable them to create beautiful objects from nature and to protect their homelands. The elves are interesting creatures because, according to Tolkien biographer Humphrey Carpenter, they are actually what Tolkien envisioned the powers of man would be like if he had not fallen in the Garden of Eden.

In addition, there are a few beings who are called “wizards” by the unlearned people in the book. The learned peoples, such as the elves, know them to be created beings sent by the One God to help protect the peoples of Middle-Earth from evil, much as we understand the concept of angels. Of course, Tolkien’s image of “angels” is much more down to earth, for wizards can make errors in judgment and are not above enjoying an occasional pipe or two. They are also capable of falling into evil, even as Satan did, when tempted by pride or the desire for power. Tolkien’s world also contains a host of more unpleasant creatures who symbolize the forces of evil at work in the world.

In this classic good-against-evil struggle, Frodo is given, and accepts, the responsibility to destroy the evil ring of power before Sauron, the evil enemy, can use it to enslave all of Middle-Earth. The wizard Gandalf hints that Frodo was “chosen” for this task by the force of good in the universe precisely because he is not wise or strong or powerful. He comes from a race that does not typically desire power, and so is not as readily corrupted by the ring as men, Gandalf himself, or other more powerful creatures would be.

With a heavy heart and a desire to save his world from ruin, Frodo sets off on this mission with three other hobbits, an elf, a dwarf, Gandalf, and two men: Boromir, a Beowulf-type warrior, and Aragorn, who is the secret heir to the throne of men. They face many (about 900 pages worth of) strange and wonderful adventures including orcs, water monsters, trolls, and giant spiders, not to mention cold, hunger, and fatigue. By some miracle, some of them survive (read the book to find out who) and Frodo accomplishes his mission, though not in the way expected.

“Magic” is treated in the book in a very responsible manner. Tolkien himself did not like the term “magic“, and it is rarely used in the book. He preferred the term “power” when dealing with an event that was supernatural in nature. In Tolkien’s world, this power was not something you were taught: certain powers were inherent in your race. The elves possessed some “supernatural powers,” but they could only be used to protect, to communicate and seek wisdom, and to beautify, and even then the powers were only used in very limited ways. There was generally no attempt to increase their powers and no attempt to teach it to others outside their race.

Never are these powers placed in the hands of a child, nor is any character encouraged in its use. In fact, the weaker characters such as the hobbits, with whom children are most likely to identify, are repeatedly warned to not seek such knowledge, lest the temptation to use such power for evil be too great for them or lest it prove too strong for their minds and destroy them.

Gandalf also has limited “magical” powers used primarily to protect himself and his charges from the forces of evil. Even then, these powers are sparsely used. Otherwise, many of the adventures in the book would have never occurred, because Gandalf would be constantly rescuing them! Instead, the characters are encouraged to solve most of their problems by courage, wisdom, wit, persistence, and faith in the importance of the task before them.

The power possessed by the good creatures of Middle-earth produces events that are more closely connected with what we think of as miracles. For instance, in one scene, Frodo is pursued by evil Black Riders who seek to wrest the Ring from him. Frodo flees on a horse to a river on the boundary of the land of the elves, where their power can protect him. As the Riders cross the river on the boundary of the elf stronghold, Gandalf and the elf-lord cause the waters of the river to rise up and engulf the pursuers in a scene strangely reminiscent of the Red- Sea incident in Exodus.

The ultimate test of a good book is its impact on the reader. Does the work motivate you to good or evil? Works such as the Harry Potter books sometimes encourage young people to experiment with magic and often portray the control of others as a positive power to be sought. The line between good and evil is often blurred and the reader is left with the idea that good and evil are very relative terms.

In The Lord of the Rings, the choice is clear: whose side are you on, anyway? The characters are tempted to do evil, but they know that it is evil that tempts them. The reader goes away with the notion that a hero is one who endures pain and suffering in order to help a friend, to save their home, or to conquer evil. In this present age of the world, our children need to understand this concept. Some of the images in the book and the film are frightening- in fact children under twelve may get nightmares from either. However, the evening news is even more frightening to older teens and adults. Evil exists and we need courage to deal with it.

Is The Lord of the Rings a Christian book? Tolkien, who was a Catholic, thought so. In a letter to poet W.H. Auden, Tolkien once wrote, “I don’t feel under any obligation to make my story fit with formalized Christian theology, though I actually intended it to be consonant with Christian thought and belief.“ The book is filled with biblical imagery and concepts throughout. However, the gospel is never given and no religious system (Catholic or otherwise) is ever espoused in its pages. God is never mentioned, but the hints at the power of a Higher Being in the universe are pervasive.

Tolkien did not feel that overt religion had a primary place in the telling of fantasy or “the fairy story.” This element was what bothered him most about the legends of King Arthur with their strong Catholic teachings. Fantasy can teach us moral lessons and important truths, but it is, after all, fantasy. Would imposing a Christian religious system on dwarves, elves, and hobbits really increase the credibility of the Scriptures?

No one on earth can know Tolkien’s true relationship with God. However, his writings indicate that he took the Bible to be literally true; that he believed in creation; in the fall and depravity of man; in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and in the notion that belief in these things was necessary for a hope in heaven. In fact, C.S. Lewis, who hailed the novel as a great literary achievement, credited Tolkien with helping him to understand the role that Christ paid in the redemption of man.

The Lord of the Rings was written by an Oxford professor who spent nearly fifteen years in its creation. There is much of educational value in The Lord of the Rings because of the care with which it was crafted. Tolkien gathered most of his source material for the ideas in his book from the classical works that he studied and taught, such as the Greek and Roman epics, the medieval Arthurian romances, and the Old English poem Beowulf. He created two complete language systems which are used in the book and invented an impressive amount of imaginary history, poetry and literature as a backdrop for this incredible world. The book is intended for an intellectually mature teen or an adult to read and stretches the imagination as well as delights the soul.

Overall, the book is a masterpiece. There are one or two objectionable words in the last book spoken by Orcs (who are not nice creatures.) The discerning parent may wish to remove those. Otherwise, there is no objectionable material for the emotionally mature child or adult. There is however, plenty of joy and sadness and edge-of-your-seat excitement. Tolkien created a world of outstanding depth, pathos, and beauty rivaled by few novels. It would be a shame to miss the chance to visit Middle-earth.

This article originally appeared in the Fall, 2003 issue of The Old Schoolhouse Magazine and was also featured on


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