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Tolkien's Middle-earth:

Lesson Plans for Secondary School Educators

Unit Five: "The Tides of Fate Are Flowing"

Comments for Teachers

In their consideration of The Hobbit, students learned that unseen cosmic forces affect the affairs of Middle-earth. As Gandalf tells Bilbo at the end of the novel, "You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?" With these lines, Tolkien begins a conversation that will resonate throughout The Lord of the Rings. To what degree are humans, hobbits, and other sentient creatures the authors of their own destinies, and to what degree are they players in a drama whose outlines they cannot fully perceive?

Early in Unit Five, you may want to clarify that the mystery of free will has obsessed philosophers for centuries. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien refracts the problem through the prism of epic fantasy. There is plenty of evidence that the author does not regard human beings as the robots of fate or the puppets of chance. Freedom in Middle-earth is no illusion. "It is a heavy burden," says Elrond in conferring the Ring on Frodo. "But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right" (page 264). "I count you blessed, Gimli son of Glóin: for your loss you suffer of your own free will, and you might have chosen otherwise," says Legolas by way of consoling the dwarf as they leave Lothlórien behind (page 369).

At the same time, it's clear that Tolkien believes in a patterned, providential universe whose deepest workings are beyond human influence. "Bilbo was meant to find the ring, and not by its maker," Gandalf tells Frodo during their long conversation at Bag End. "In which case you were also meant to have it" (pages 53–54). "It has been ordained that you should hold it for a while," Aragorn informs Frodo in Rivendell, a sentiment echoed later by Elrond: "I think that this task is appointed for you, Frodo" (page 264). "In the morning you must depart," Galadriel tells our hero at the end of his stay in Lothlórien, "for now we have chosen, and the tides of fate are flowing” (page 357).

Evidently Middle-earth is a world in which cosmic determinism and human determination have achieved a kind of dynamic equilibrium. For every pronouncement about fate or destiny, Tolkien offers an affirmation of free will. Throughout Book Two we witness Frodo, Gimli, Aragorn, Gandalf, Galadriel, and Boromir making authentic moral choices in the face of loss, temptation, and danger.

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

Unit Five Content

Comments for Teachers
Preliminary Quiz
Key Terms
Discussion Topics
Suggested Activities

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