The Lord of the Rings is certainly one of the most popular novels of the last three decades. Amelia Harper, author of Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings, cites an Amazon.com readers' poll in which Tolkien's work was voted the best book of the last millennium. Obviously the Amazon.com reading public isn't familiar with the canon of Western literature—and have apparently never heard of guys like Shakespeare or Milton or Dante—but LOTR is surely a modern classic.
Harper's goal was not simply to illuminate Tolkien's fantasy epic—it was to lead students to further study and appreciation of literature in general. Tolkien, an Oxford professor, drew on Germanic, British, Celtic and Norse mythologies to create an entire world and to populate it with races having their own languages, customs, etc. Harper illuminates the connections between the novel and these older works, introducing students to the works themselves as well as to literary analysis.
How Does This Work?
Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings is a one-credit high school literature course to be completed over one school year. There are six sections in the curriculum, corresponding to the six "books" in the novel, each containing six chapters; for each chapter in the novel there is one lesson. At the end of each section are 2-3 unit studies covering aspects of literary analysis or important works like Beowulf, Homer and Vergil.
For each lesson, students read a chapter from the novel and a selection from the textbook, and complete a series of comprehension and vocabulary exercises. The comprehension exercises gauge the student's understanding and retention of the material read. The vocabulary exercises not only help students add to their word-horde, they introduce them to 130 key literary terms. For each section there are two vocabulary quizzes and one review test. Throughout students are expected to respond to short answer and essay questions, and in some instances to write complete essays.
In the unit studies, students learn the elements of an epic, historical information pertinent to many of the classic epics like The Odyssey and The Aeneid. Not only are there significant portions of text provided for students to read, resources are suggested for further research and study. These are the most important parts of the course from a literary standpoint as they shift the focus away from a single novel and onto the broader context of classic literature.
The course can be primarily teacher or student directed. Teachers or parents will need to grade tests, quizzes and papers at the very least, and while students could do the rest on their own any input or help you can offer is always helpful. This is not intended to replace a survey of British or classical literature, though it could be used as a good introduction to either. If your student has already completed one of these courses you could use the unit studies as segues to really in-depth investigation.
Our Honest Opinion:
Harper states in the course introduction that one of the goals of the program is to breed a love of all good literature in students who already enjoy LOTR, and to provide them the tools needed to understand and analyze that literature. If your student loves Tolkien's novel but doesn't venture too far beyond that this course is probably exactly what you're looking for. If your child already loves literature, however, they'll probably want something more broad and thorough.
The main weakness of the course is that it only adequately covers a single novel, and as far as the study of literature goes not the most important novel, even of the twentieth century. The student text alone (barring the novel itself and the supplementary reading) is huge, and to have it all focused on a single work seems like a lot of misdirected energy. Sure, The Lord of the Rings is fun and worthwhile, but a whole year of high school is a long time to study it when so much great literature exists. But if your student loves LOTR and is at the same time hesitant to investigate the broader realm of literature, this is a good choice.
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