Definitely Unexpected

Several weeks ago, I asked the readers of Teaching Tolkien to have some input in shaping the direction of the site by suggesting topics they would like my students to respond to.  Today’s class focused on the topic of mythological origins, courtesy of reader and fellow Tolkien blogger, The Starry Mantle (  Starry Mantle suggested:

“One thing I’d be interesting in hearing about and might be an interesting discussion for your class are your students’ thoughts on the nature of mythology, both Tolkien’s and that of their own countries. What similarities and dissimilarities do they see? Are there any particular features of Tolkien’s invented mythology that resonate with their own cultures’ mythologies or that are particularly unusual to them?”

I presented this idea to my students to elicit some responses, assuming this would not be a difficult topic for them to discuss.  After last week’s workshops with percussive storyteller, Cory Hills (, who performed several multicultural folktales for them; I anticipated they would easily be able to draw comparisons between myths, folktales, and religious stories from their countries with Tolkien’s invented mythology.  I quickly learned that knowledge of country and culture are distinct entities and may be mutually exclusive to many of my students, due to their conflicting allegiances to both their native countries and the US.

This discussion was easier for my students that are recent arrivals to the US.  They are still very connected to their native countries and have not fully assimilated to American culture.  Many of my students were born in the US though.  They still retain my services as an ESL instructor because at home they are still fully immersed in another language, which influences the second language acquisition process.  Though this population may not be fully proficient in English, they have more in common culturally with American children than those of their native country because they have spent most of their lives being influenced by what they see modeled culturally in school and in the media.  Though many of their parents put them in language schools on the weekends, that is still not enough for them to feel fully connected to their native culture.  These are the challenges that a multilingual/multicultural child faces as they attempt to figure out who they are, where they belong, and what they believe.

After watching my students struggle to brainstorm for several minutes, I began to give examples of the types of stories or myths they could write about and then connect them to Tolkien’s mythology.  Some eventually started writing, but others still stared at the blank pages in their steno pads.  As I walked around helping them, I noticed that Bofur was nearly in tears.  I asked him what was wrong and he complained that he had no idea what to write about.  Knowing his proclivity for accepting failure before even attempting a task, I offered to assist him by allowing him to dictate to me what he wanted to say and I would scribe it for him, eliminating his need to struggle with spelling and writing mechanics.  I said, “just start by telling me something about your country.”  He began, “Pakistan is a smaller country and people there like to play Cricket.”  As he struggled to give me information, I noticed he was looking across the room at fellow countryman Ori, to supply him with the knowledge of Pakistan that he didn’t have.  As I tried to get him to respond, he kept insisting that he couldn’t and became more emotional as I persisted.  Suddenly I had an epiphany that while my students may be very aware of their native languages and even facts about their countries, most of them are unaware of their cultural history due to the interruption or invasion of its development within them.  The outside influence of residing in the US will always affect how they identify themselves culturally and thus shape who they become as emerging young citizens.  This thought also led me to connect how Tolkien’s creation of Middle-Earth mythology was partially born out of his sadness that England had lost most of its mythological literature due to the influence of its invaders throughout history.

Not wanting any of my students to feel failure at not being able to adequately respond to this question, I chose to modify it.  I suggested that they merely share something about their country, language, culture, or religion and connect it to Tolkien in some way.  Feeling confident in their ability to respond, they began frantically writing, and as a result spent more class time writing than reading today.  Due to the length of their responses, I will not share everything they wrote, but here are a few highlights:

Dwalin– “In The Hobbit, they use swords and knives, but in my country, Iraq, they use guns and weapons.  Some people there have the same hair as hobbits.  Both Middle-Earth and Iraq have wars.  In Hobbiton, they have hobbit holes.  Iraq has nice caves (not dirty).  Religion is also important to us.”

I noticed Dwalin had sketched some illustrations below his response and written some words in Arabic.  I asked him to provide a translation and he wrote, “greatest God”.  Then he wrote the question, “I wonder, do hobbits and dwarves have religions?”

Bilbo– “In The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, it’s nothing compared to Pakistan.  Because there are no such things as elves, hobbits, and dwarves.  In Pakistan, there are humans.  That means no hobbits.  We believe that there is no God but Allah.”

Bilbo‘s response reminded me that many of my Middle-Eastern students find it difficult to connect with fantasy literature.  My experiences working with students from this part of the world have led me to believe that their cultures do not encourage belief in anything that is not based in reality, unless it is religious in origin.  Bilbo also included a sketch of a “fist bump” with the caption “We love peace!  Pakistan is awesome!”  This tells me he is keenly aware of how his country is often mistakenly portrayed in the media.

Bombur– “In Korea, there are no small houses.  Just huge apartments.  Most people walk on the streets.  There are lots of supermarkets, restaurants, and in school, the classrooms are huge.  It’s a small country, but an awesome country.  In our culture we like music, playing, pets, the internet, and sharing.  In Lord of the Rings, they are living like it is America in the 1780’s.  They live in farm houses and hunt animals.  The difference in Korea is that we use electric devices to do everything.  In The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, they are living on just their own power.”

Nori, the younger sister of Bombur, chose to share a superstition from Korea, “Long ago in Korea, the adults thought if a baby boy was born, then you’re lucky, but if you don’t have a boy, sometimes you get divorced.”

Bifur, also from Korea, shared a folktale with elements of both the legends of Robin Hood and King Arthur, regarding a boy who controlled a magical sword that only those “pure of heart” could control.  He connected it to Tolkien by writing, “Like in The Lord of the Rings, there was a sword that can control everything and can see the future just like the palantir.  Only one who has a good heart and a good person should control it though.  I wonder who will win, the ring or the sword?”

Balin– “I know in my country, Afghanistan, we say ‘Allah is one’, but I can’t explain how he is 1.  I asked a kid from class, who’s also from Afghanistan, but he didn’t know either.”

Fili– “Middle-Earth and Iraq both have wars.”

Oin– “When people did not believe the prophet, Muhammad, they turned into monkeys.  In Lord of the Rings, the ring turns everyone into evil things.”

I think Oin may be hinting at his understanding that sometimes non-belief in the existence of evil may lead to destruction, after reading about Boromir’s lack of trust in the ring’s true power.

Gloin– “The prophet Muhammad was our last prophet and some people believe if you touch shoulders with someone, then the devil will come.  I don’t know if they have superstitions like that in Middle-Earth.”

Ori– “A long time ago, in the Muslim religion, people said that if you don’t respect your religion you will turn into a creepy creature.  One time a girl kicked the Quran and then turned into a weird fish-snake typish mermaid.  This story was made up so we would respect our religion.  This is similar to Lord of the Rings because Smeagol turned into Gollum, a creature.  This is different because that girl didn’t respect our religion and Gollum turned into a creature because of the ring.”

Kili– “In Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Tolkien uses creatures like hobbits, dwarves, orcs, elves, etc., but in my country, Somalia, stories don’t have weird creatures.  In Somali music, they put their feelings in the songs.  But in Tolkien’s songs, they sing about what is happening.  In Lord of the Rings, Sauron is a bad person and controls Middle-Earth, but in my religion, we believe in Allah, who controls the world and he or she is a good person.”

During our reading portion of the class, Kili was skeptical that Gandalf will go with the fellowship.  When I asked her to support her opinion with evidence from the text, she reminded me that he frequently abandoned the dwarves on their journeys in The Hobbit.  A group discussion also arose over concern of how the Nazgul would replace their horses that were lost in the Bruinen River.  Bilbo speculated that they could do it in the same way you play Pokemon.  Confused over his answer, he went on to explain to me that in the game, you throw a pok’e ball and say “go, horses, black” and then they would instantly appear.  Choosing to antagonize me by wasting reading time, rewriting Tolkien with anachronistic cultural references, they then got up and demonstrated how funny it would be if the Nazgul danced to Gangnam Style and turned it into “Bilbo Style” or did the “Hobbit Harlem Shake”.

While our discussion today certainly spun-off in a direction I definitely didn’t expect, it produced the most extensive written literature responses from my students to-date.  Their responses revealed several truths to me.  First, my students who are often viewed by their classroom teachers as inattentive or reticent, proved today that they are eager to share their thoughts and opinions, if they are given the opportunity and environment in which those views will be respected.  Secondly, the reason my students could not respond to Starry Mantle’s original question was due to the fact that their cultural and religious identities are being affected by their new lives in a new society and country.  This is the same reason Tolkien’s England was lacking in its own mythology, due to the cultural and religious influences enforced on it by historical invaders.  At the end of class, I even thanked Bofur for not being able to answer the original question.  I told him, “I’m glad you couldn’t answer that question because it helped me to answer some even better questions about all of you.”  Finally, I am grateful for the insight today’s discussion provided for me into my students’ cultures.  While it was not intended to be a religious question, many of my students’ cultural myths are intrinsically linked to their religious views.  Obviously, this will affect how they comprehend and interpret literature.  As a teacher, anything new I can learn about my students’ perspectives helps me to better reach them and present material in a way that they can understand.

At the end of class, some students were beginning to express real concern over whether or not we can finish the book by the end of the school year.  Incorporating their math skills, I noticed that Thorin had calculated in his steno pad that we had 782 pages left to read, under his doodlings of dragons and eagles.  Dwalin calculated that we have approximately 7 weeks of school left, and exactly 33 school days, not counting weekends.  They also expressed concern over the future of the blog and what will happen to it over the summer.  Very excited to have acquired some new readers this week in Malaysia and Lithuania, I assured them that we would not allow summer to impede the progress of our growing site and readership.  While the end of the tunnel is not in sight for my class yet, I encourage them to believe in themselves, their ability to complete this mission, and my ability to lead them through it.  Much as the “fellowship of the ring” must walk by faith to complete their journey, my students and I are no different and realize that some things just have to be believed to be seen.

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4 Comments on “Definitely Unexpected”

  1. John Cowan
    May 1, 2013 at 6:58 pm #

    Religion is downplayed in The Lord of the Rings, but if you look at the whole of Tolkien’s legends, you see that there is religion, but it is mostly about not believing rather than believing. The good characters know there is a God and that He created Middle-Earth using the Valar (the Powers, basically angels) as His instruments. But they know little or nothing else about him (in some ways this is like Islam), and they don’t worship him in any particular form. What they do know is who does not deserve to be worshiped, namely the Dark Lord, who essentially corresponds to the Devil/Satan/Iblis. He claims to be the Creator and insists that his slaves worship him as a god, but these claima are lies.

    • hmrodgers
      May 1, 2013 at 7:59 pm #

      Thanks, John! I figured if any of our readers could answer that question for my students, then you could. I’ll share your response with them.

  2. The Starry Mantle
    May 1, 2013 at 11:08 pm #

    Thanks for sharing my question with your class, Holly! What an interesting outcome. I didn’t realise that so many of your students were born in the US and in hindsight it makes perfect sense that that would affect their connection to the folklore and mythology of their families’ original countries.

    I was feeling so dismayed (and a bit guilty) at your student’s frustration when thinking about the question I posed but I’m glad you were able to transform the question and inspire them do so much writing. So many intriguing responses, and it seems like although the religion contained in Tolkien’s writings is not overt but “absorbed into the story”, as he put it, your students can obviously sense its presence and started thinking along those lines.

    In regard to your students’ worries about not finishing their reading before the end of the schoolyear, maybe it will be that, like the Fellowship without Gandalf, they will have to go on over the summer without the aid of their wise guide. They certainly seem dedicated enough. 🙂

    — Starry

    • hmrodgers
      May 2, 2013 at 5:20 am #

      Please don’t feel guilty at all! Like I said, the fact that they couldn’t address your question was insightful information for me as their teacher. Their responses were interesting, nevertheless. Thanks for the great idea and please feel free to share more in the future.

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