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Tolkien's Middle-earth:

Lesson Plans for Secondary School Educators

Unit Three: There and Back Again

Discussion Topics

The Inner Quest. In many quest stories, the protagonist undertakes a double search. Even as he labors to complete his mission, he seeks some possibility buried deep within himself. Have the class discuss Bilbo's struggle to keep his timid Baggins side from overcoming "the Tookish part." How does the Bilbo of Chapter XIX differ from the hobbit who hosted "An Unexpected Party"? Is our hero's inner quest complete when he enters the Lonely Mountain? (On page 192 we learn, "Already he was a very different hobbit from the one that had run out without a pocket-handkerchief from Bag-End long ago.") Or does he still need to grow in curiosity, courage, or compassion?

From Grocer to Burglar. In Chapter I, the dwarf Gloin speaks of Bilbo in disparaging terms: "As soon as I clapped my eyes on the little fellow bobbing and puffing on the mat, I had my doubts. He looks more like a grocer than a burglar" (page 18). Ask students to recapitulate the episodes through which Bilbo earns the dwarves' respect and friendship. At what moment in Bilbo's journey does he complete the transition from grocer to hero?

The Metaphorical Quest. The plain meaning of quest is a search, and yet the concept enjoys loftier connotations. Which of humanity's hopes and dreams would students exalt with the word quest? (Possibilities include world peace, a cure for cancer, and contact with extraterrestrials.) What pursuits are students unwilling to call quests? Can the class think of controversial enterprises that have nevertheless been labeled quests? (Students might cite the Human Genome Project, for example.) What distinguishes a quest from a conquest? If you know exactly what form your desired object will take, does that mean you arenít really on a quest?

The Crutch of Invisibility. Throughout The Hobbit Bilbo performs brave and sometimes foolhardy actions, often after becoming invisible via the magic ring. Do students think Bilbo's use of the ring was necessary in every case? Whom do we admire more, the person who wields a powerful object or the person who cultivates his natural gifts? Which of Bilbo's interventions struck the class as particularly heroic? Which did the students find disturbing? Is Bilbo responsible for Smaug's murderous rampage?

Symbolism versus Allegory. Most students are familiar with the concept of symbolism in poetry and fiction. As the class discusses The Hobbit, you can help students distinguish true literary symbols (objects, characters, and events whose meanings evolve as the story progresses) from mere allegorical equivalences (objects, characters, and events whose meanings are fixed from the outset). What symbolic significance do students find in Tolkienís use of swords, water, magical objects, and the dragonís hoard? What rescues these elements from the purely allegorical realm?

Destiny on the Wing. Like Tolkien's other works, The Hobbit implies a world of mysterious forces operating beyond human understanding and hobbit ken. Have the class discuss the ordering principle that evidently hovers over Middle-earth. What moments in the story might trace to providence or destiny rather than mere chance? Is the eagles' climactic appearance a eucatastrophe? In confronting these questions, students will want to reread Gandalf's final speech to Bilbo: "Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?"

Magic Sword, Enchanted Loaf, Golden Road. This discussion spins off from the handout called "The Water of Life." Begin the conversation by presenting W. H. Auden's six basic elements of a quest adventure: 1) a precious object, 2) a heroic seeker, 3) a long journey, 4) fierce guardians, 5) tests that screen out the unfit, and 6) supernatural helpers. Next have the class map "The Water of Life" onto this model. If students are familiar with Arthurian romance, they might also explore the congruity between Auden's list and a Grail Quest story. Finally, invite the class to fit The Hobbit to this scheme. What tests does Bilbo face as the journey progresses? How close does he come to being weeded out?

Unit Three Content

Comments for Teachers
Preliminary Quiz
Key Terms
Discussion Topics
Suggested Activities

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