Earlier this week, Dr. G handed me a book titled The Power of the Ring: the Spiritual Vision Behind The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, by Stratford Caldecott, in hopes that I might find it useful for my research, or at least interesting to look through. I readily confess that I picked it up with a fair bit of skepticism – I own a few too many books, given to me by well-meaning friends and relatives, that claim to illuminate the connections between Tolkien’s fiction and his faith. Every one of these has fallen into one of two categories: an utterly, sickeningly allegorical reading of Middle-earth; or an attempt to create a shallow, meaningless devotional out of Frodo’s journey. I was rather afraid that Caldecott’s book would turn into another one of these.
I can’t say if it does or not – I haven’t read much of it yet. A glance through the table of contents took me straight to the Appendices. One of these Caldecott has titled “Tolkien for Homeschoolers.” As a homeschooler-turned college-student myself, this chapter grabbed my attention immediately. In it, Caldecott outlines several ways in which Tolkien’s books can be taught to children, and offers examples of subjects that one could approach through Tolkien’s works: Language, Philosophy, Religion, Nature, Geography, History, Mythology, and Art. For example, Caldecott writes of Language, “Many children try their hand at making up a secret language or code. Why not give them a helping hand…Why not pick up a little Elvish, while mastering Spanish and Latin?” He also suggests that one make a study of the plants and flowers Tolkien mentions, or use Tolkien’s maps to learn the principles of geography and teach children about how land forms change over time, or compare the creation stories of various mythologies with that in Tolkien’s Silmarillion.
These are all interesting ideas, and certainly worth exploring. One can learn countless aspects of many subjects from Tolkien’s works – unsurprisingly, as he was a scholar himself. However, I disagree with Caldecott over the manner in which this learning should take place.
I believe Tolkien’s books do not need to be, and often shouldn’t be, taught. I certainly never approached The Lord of the Rings from an academic standing, and am endlessly thankful for this. My father spent many hours reading The Lord of the Rings aloud to my sister and I in the evenings, as a bedtime story. These moments were special – a reward for staying focused on school work all day, and an important time of bonding between my father and his daughters. We certainly talked about the book during the day, but it never was an integral part of our homeschooling curriculum.
The topics that Caldecott mentions, Language, Philosophy, Religion, and so forth, are all areas I have explored in relation to Middle-earth. However, this exploration and learning was done on my own time, and most of it after I reached high school (Caldecott seems to gear most of his instructional activities towards rather younger children). Because I pursued these ideas of my own volition, I developed a passion both for Tolkien’s works and for the many ways they unfold and connect with our own world. Had my parents’ motivation for teaching me about the flora and fauna of my childhood haunts been based on the plants and animals mentioned in Tolkien’s books, I would have lost interest in the stories, and also in learning about the natural world around me.
The benefits Caldecott lists that children may get from being taught Tolkien are all things I discovered on my own, and thus loved more than I would have had they been gently forced upon me as a child. I became deeply interested in Tolkien’s languages, and began teaching myself Elvish in junior high school. I share Tolkien’s dislike of Allegory, and yet came on my own to realize that Tolkien’s legendarium could teach me more about the Christian faith than many a glossy devotional. I am fascinated by maps, especially old ones, and Tolkien’s geographic work has inspired my own study of what exactly makes a good sub-created geography. I dove blissfully into the study of Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, and Old Norse because of the fascination Tolkien’s histories have given me for old things, and especially old languages. Reading The Silmarillion taught me an appreciation for Beauty of all kinds, which has developed into a love of creating Middle-earth-inspired art of my own. These are not things that can be taught through a curriculum, homeschooled or not.
There are some things that children must discover on their own. One cannot be taught The Lord of the Rings and be expected to carry that limited learning on into one’s own, wider studies with the same passion as one who discovered Middle-earth on his or her own (though I am quite sure there are exceptions to this). Rather than teaching Tolkien or integrating his works into a curriculum, as Caldecott suggests, I think these books, and others like them, are better left for exploration after the textbooks have been set aside, the table cleared of markers, pens, and notebook paper, and the whirlwind that is homeschooling cleaned up (or at least shoved into a closet with a door that closes tightly). What better way to teach children the wonder of Enchantment than to present it to them as such, rather than as a thing to be learned, studied, and tested upon? Tolkien for Homeschoolers? Yes. By all means, yes. Tolkien as curriculum? No. Perhaps it’s best to let Middle-earth teach itself in its own time instead.