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Tolkien's Middle-earth:

Lesson Plans for Secondary School Educators

Unit One: Introducing Tolkien and His Worlds


"Rumpelstiltskin" (Brothers Grimm)

With the help of a strange little man, a young woman accomplishes the impossible task of spinning straw into gold, but she must promise to give him her firstborn child in return. This famous fairy tale features two eucatastrophes: the appearance of Rumpelstiltskin and the discovery of his secret name.

"The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs" (Brothers Grimm)

To prove himself worthy of the King's daughter, a young man must enter Hell and bring back three golden hairs plucked from the Devil's head. This tale contains several classic motifs, including the lucky child, the impossible task, the well-earned reward, and — when the King seeks to circumvent a prophecy concerning his daughter’s future husband — the attempt to elude fate.

"Orpheus and Eurydice" (Greek myth)

When Eurydice, wife of the great musician Orpheus, dies from a snakebite, her husband descends into the underworld and, through the beauty of his singing, persuades the rulers of Hades to release her. He is permitted to take Eurydice back with him on one condition: he must not turn around and look at her until they have reached the surface. Apart from the biblical narrative of Lot's wife, "Orpheus and Eurydice" is the most famous example of a story centered on the "forbidden action" motif.

"Creation of the World" (Norse myth)

In this excerpt from "Voluspo" ("The Sibyl's Vision"), a wise woman relates how Othin (Odin) and his fellow gods created the world from the body of the frost-giant Ymir. These cryptic verses, written down in Old Icelandic but originating in the ancient Teutonic oral tradition, begin a collection of poems called "The Elder Edda," a crucial document in northern myth and a fount of inspiration for Tolkien.

"Khodumodumo" (African folktale)

Hiding from a shapeless ogre who is devouring every creature in its path, a woman gives birth to a boy who immediately grows to adulthood, slays the beast, and cuts the people and animals free from its body. Many variations of the "swallowing monster" motif occur in African folklore. The idea of a live person being recovered from a vanquished beast is familiar to us from the story of Little Red Riding Hood. In the European tradition, Hercules and the Irish hero Cuchulain are other examples of the child who displays adult powers.

"The Charmed Ring" (Hindu folktale)

A merchant's son is thought a fool for spending his inheritance to save the lives of three animals. But these very creatures help him gain a magic ring and the hand of a beautiful princess. The idea of doing the right thing for its own sake characterizes a folktale type called "the grateful dead," in which a hero starting on a journey gives his last penny so an anonymous corpse can receive a decent burial. Soon the traveler is joined by a companion, sometimes in animal form, who helps him gain his desires and is eventually revealed to be the ghost of the buried stranger. This theme of unforeseen benefits accruing to unselfish actions appears in The Hobbit and is especially prominent in The Lord of the Rings.

"Thomas the Rhymer" (Scottish ballad)

Thomas goes willingly to Faerie when the Queen of Elfland entices him to spend seven years with her. During their marvelous journey, the lady shows him three roads: one to Heaven, one to Hell, and one to Elfland. He chooses the third path. Upon returning home, Thomas becomes a famous prophet, called "True" for the accuracy of his predictions. This ballad, like those about Robin Hood in England and John Henry in America, is supposedly based on actual events.

Unit One Content

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