J.R.R. Tolkien and the First World War: Extension module

KS2RECross-curricular links
This material provides cross-curricular activities around the issues of war and peace to support independent learning for extending More Able KS2 pupils in RE, Literacy, PSED, Art and History.

Introduction

This material provides cross-curricular activities around the issues of war and peace to support independent learning for extending More Able KS2 pupils in RE, Literacy, PSED, Art and History. Teachers will need to select appropriate material for their pupils' age and abilities, bearing in mind their school's scheme of work for RE when planning cross-curricular lessons, so pupils get the most out of the material.

Preparation

Pupils will need to have individual copies of the worksheet J.R.R. Tolkien and the First World War. This combines a fictional story about J.R.R. Tolkien's war service with non-fictional background material and relevant quotes. Pupils will also need access to a copy of The Hobbit, a Christian Bible and the Internet. As always, care is needed when sending pupils in search of relevant images or other material from the Internet.

Development

RE: Middle-earth and the big Christian story

1. As a Christian, Tolkien believed that the world's greatest myths and legends always pointed in some way towards the big story of God and human beings. He wrote: The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic (Christian) work... for the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.

Try thinking of the big Christian story as three 'acts' in a drama:

  • God had it - the creation of all things including people.
  • God lost it - 'the fall' - creation is spoiled when people try to be like God.
  • God found it again - coming to earth as Jesus to bring people back to him, reclaim what was his, but paying a heavy price for doing so.

Could you illustrate this story in simple diagrams? (Or compose a piece of music that retells it all in sound?)

 

2. Consider the Middle-earth stories outlined in the table below.

  • Which of these stories do you think best explains a key Christian idea? Write about it.
  • Using images found on the Internet, pick a Bible passage that best fits an image or illustration from The Lord of the Rings. Use this to create a mini-poster that Christian fans of Middle-earth might want to have on their wall. Explain your choices - connecting the words and images - and annotate a reduced-size poster with your thoughts.
Middle-earth story Key Christian idea
Gollum and the Ring
Gollum wants the Ring, his 'Precious', but his desire gradually turns him into a pathetic monster who will even murder to get what he wants. The Ring makes its users feel powerful - it is like an attractive drug that tries to take over anyone who uses it, such as Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.
The power of sin
In the Bible, James says: ... each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:14-15, NIV)
This could be the story of many Bible characters who allow something wrong to take over their lives - including Adam and Eve, Cain, Samson, David, Saul, Ahab, Judas Iscariot... and others.
Good out of evil
Middle-earth is full of battles and conflicts, but Gandalf uses them all to bring about a greater good - and even Gollum has a part to play in defeating evil near the end.
Spiritual welfare
Christians believe God helps everyone who struggles against sin, and can make good things come out of bad mistakes:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world... (Ephesians 6:12, NIV)

Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8, NIV)

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28, NIV)

Small hands can do great things
Middle-earth contains many powerful and heroic figures, but the one chosen to carry the Ring to be destroyed in Mordor is a Hobbit, the smallest and apparently weakest of the Fellowship.
Heroes - in the Bible?
Bible 'heroes' don't normally fit the picture of a typical 'hero'. The stories of Moses and Pharoah, David and Goliath, Gideon and the Midianites, all start with God using someone not thought to be very important, to do a very important job. (Does this apply to Jesus of Nazareth too - or the disciples?)

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. (1 Corinthians 1:27, NIV)

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8, NIV)
Gandalf and self-sacrifice
In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf the Grey willingly goes forward to face a hideous monster, allowing the Fellowship to escape, and sacrificing his life in the process. His friends are shocked, but they see him alive again, transformed as Gandalf the White, who guides his people to victory.
Jesus and self-sacrifice
Christians believe Jesus allowed himself to be captured and murdered on the cross, as a way of rescuing people from sin - all the wrong things that separate people from a loving God. His friends were deeply shocked, but found their lives transformed when they saw Jesus alive again, who then sent his Holy Spirit to power them up to do amazing things and share the news with others.

Christ carried the burden of our sins. He was nailed to the cross, so that we would stop sinning and start living right. By his cuts and bruises you are healed. (1 Peter 2:24, CEV)

... this is the same message we preach about faith. So you will be saved, if you honestly say, 'Jesus is Lord', and if you believe with all your heart that God raised him from death. God will accept you and save you, if you truly believe this and tell it to others. (Romans 10:8-10, CEV)

3. Tolkien fell sick when he was serving as a soldier and started writing fantasy stories as he recovered in hospital. Which of the Bible passages above do you think might have been the most important to him as a soldier? Why?

4. Jesus created short stories (called parables) to explain big ideas - for example, Matthew 7:23-27, Matthew 18:10-14, Matthew 18:21-35. Find and read these stories in a Christian Bible.

  • What do you think are the key messages in these stories?
  • Challenge: retell one of these parables as a tale from Tolkien's Middle-earth, introducing new names, locations, characters and creatures to expand the story, but with the same key message.

Literacy: Thinking about fantasy literature

1. Tolkien was a storyteller who believed stories could say powerful things about God and his world without mentioning them by name.

  • Do you agree?
  • Could fictional fantasy stories such as The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings say anything useful or inspiring for people in the real world?
  • Does a story have to be 'true' for it to say something important?
  • 'Hidden messages in fantasy': the most powerful stories often contain a hidden message or piece of advice for the reader. Choose three of your favourite fantasy stories, write down their titles and try to summarise each story in ten words or less. Finally, explain what you like about them. What 'morals' might be hidden in your favourite stories?

2. Tolkien created his own 'world' (Middle-earth), kingdoms and peoples (elves, dwarves, hobbits and so on), each with their own different qualities - some good and some evil.

  • Create your own world with its own 'map'.
  • What would you call your kingdom of evil?
  • What would you call other kingdoms?
  • Invent peoples for your world, describing their 'qualities'.
  • Plan and write a story about your world, which describes someone who has to travel from one part of your map to another part, meeting different people on the way - why? - to discover something, to escape or something else? How will your character travel? What strange things might your character see and hear on the way?

3. Tolkien hated the idea that machinery could be taking over the world. This has been a common theme in science fiction and fantasy writing, from its beginnings in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein right up to the modern day with concerns about the powers of artificial intelligence in films like The Matrix.

  • Plan and write a story about the day everyday computers and devices really do try to take over the world.
  • What would you notice first?
  • What would happen next?

 

PSED/Thinking skills: Thinking about temptation and power

Read Chapter 5 'Riddles in the dark' of The Hobbit.

1. The Ring is a symbol of power in Tolkien's Middle-earth and in The Fellowship of the Ring, each of the main characters (Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, Frodo Baggins, Boromir, Aragorn, The Lady Galadriel, Gollum) is tempted to use or claim its power.

  • How do they respond?
  • How does this affect them afterwards?
  • Using a dictionary, find and write a definition for the word 'temptation', then write about how some of these characters handled it.

2. Everybody sometimes has to make a choice between doing the right thing and the wrong thing.

  • When was the last time this happened to you?
  • What did you do? Write about it.
  • Are there ways in which people can prepare themselves to face temptation and then do the right thing? What do you think? Create a 'Temptations' board game with clear written rules based either on Tolkien's world or your own.

3. Power is about having the ability to control your own life and the lives of others.

  • If you could have a super-power, what would it be, and why?
  • What real powers do people have to make their lives better? When might that go wrong?
  • Do you think it would be right or wrong to control the lives of others?

Art: Fantasy designs

During the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the British Army first tried using tanks as weapons, some close to the place where Tolkien was serving as a soldier, but there were problems. One tank broke down in the mud nearby and the abandoned wreck was left there for months. Tolkien later wrote a story 'The Fall of Gondolin' which featured mechanical dragons attacking a walled city. These creations could breathe fire, carry orcs (evil soldiers) inside and were strong enough to break down a castle gate.

  • What do you think these mechanical dragons looked like?
  • Find a picture of an early British Infantry Tank Mark 1 or 2, then design your own fantasy 'dragon' that uses all these ideas.

Design Technology: Sending signals

Tolkien discovered that it could be very difficult to send signals in the middle of a battle.

  • With a partner, research Morse code, then develop a way to send and receive messages, using electrical circuits, buzzers and/or lights.
  • Experiment with semaphore signals, or the classic two-plastic-cups-and-string method for sending a sound message along a piece of string. Which method works best? What are the problems?
  • As an extension, try using a simple substitution code for the messages too (A=B, B=C and so on).

History: Middle-earth and the First World War

After reading the story and accompanying article on the worksheet, pupils should read Chapter 17 of The Hobbit from (five pages in) ... So began a battle that none had expected, and it was called 'The Battle of Five Armies' and it was very terrible... to the end of the chapter.

1. 'Middle-earth' is actually an old English name for 'our world' or 'this world we live in'. Anyone reading The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit (or watching the films) will encounter moments familiar to soldiers like Tolkien from the First World War - especially during the various battle encounters that take place on Sam and Frodo's journey and in the land of Mordor itself. List as many similarities as you can under the heading 'Middle-earth and the First World War - similar?'.

2. The story on the worksheet is based on a moment in October 1916 during the Battle of the Somme when the British Army was trying out new methods of fighting, including the use of bulletproof 'tanks' to cross trenches and barbed wire.

  • Research what happened when tanks were first used.
  • Use your research to write a short report (100-150 words) about what happened, explaining the key details.

3. Tolkien noticed how the first 'tanks' panicked men and animals when they were used, and he believed machines were taking over the business of fighting.

  • Do you think he was right?
  • Read Siegfried Sassoon's poem 'Blighters' which says something else about the new weapons.
  • Do you think having new and more powerful weapons makes warfare easier or better? What could be the 'down' side of using more and more powerful (and expensive) weapons in a war? Write about your thoughts.

Acknowledgements

Photo by Jeff Finley on Unsplash