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Riddles, Runes and Tolkien in the “At-Risk” 8th Grade Classroom
By Christina M. Fitzgerald
The Once and Future Classroom, Vol.6:1 (2008)
Introduction: At the University of Toledo, we have fairly long standing relationships with a number of local high schools and junior high schools through our Humanities Institute, which runs programs providing visiting scholars from the university to the schools. When one of our local junior high school teachers asked if someone could work with her and her class on teaching The Hobbit and its medieval influences, the Humanities Institute came to me, and I cheerfully obliged. Community engagement is an important part of UT’s mission statement, and there aren’t many opportunities for a medievalist to practice such engagement except through educational activities. And while I’m more a Tolkien admirer than scholar, I do regularly teach Old English language and literature. The Hobbit, perhaps more so than Lord of the Rings, is clearly indebted in part to Old English literature and culture, notably in its use of runic writing in the map illustrations and in the story itself, and in the important role of riddles in Bilbo’s confrontation with Gollum, from whom he somewhat accidentally wins the ring so central to the story of Lord of the Rings. This was my opportunity to take something that younger students might already be familiar with from popular culture—Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories—and introduce them to much older, much stranger literature that they surely wouldn’t have encountered. It was also a chance to perhaps instill an interest in Old English culture that could blossom later—in high school, where textbooks frequently include Beowulf, or in college.
But as I was soon to find out, the class to which I was asked to contribute my expertise was not only a much younger crowd than I was normally used to, but was also the “at risk” class, a population I had no previous experience with at all. Would these students be at all interested in what I had to teach them? Are Old English riddles and runes too “hard” for such a class? And how would I adapt my college-level teaching experience to capture their interest, imagination, and attention? The following essay narrates what I did in two visits to this class and suggests ways you might adapt the lessons for your own classes. In both visits I focused on the Old English influences on Tolkien’s imagined world, and though I made clear connections to where this influence can be found in The Hobbit, I left discussion of and lessons about the novel to the class’s regular teacher.