For the last two weeks, I have enjoyed daily “lunch bunches” (which is the term used at my school for when students dine with teachers instead of in the cafeteria) with my band of dwarves, while we have been watching Two Towers together. Although I’m up for a Peter Jackson film anytime, it has been really enjoyable to share the viewing experience with my students. Some are seasoned fans of the trilogy of films and others are relishing the visual realization of the events they only imagined in their minds. What entertains me the most about this experience is the conversations I get to observe taking place, as they invest even more time into Tolkien.
Though I do have parent permission to show them these PG-13 films and many of them are accustomed to seeing much more graphic movies, their juvenile reactions to the content remind me that they are still children. Jackson’s battle sequences may not be brutal, but they still garner intense emotions and cause some to turn their eyes away momentarily from the stabbing of an Uruk-Hai or two. They cheer every time a member of the Fellowship kicks butt and collectively feel that Legolas is a “skilled assassin”. Battle scenes aren’t the only thing they cover their eyes for. Even though there’s not much romance in Lord of the Rings, the rather chaste kissing scenes between Arwen and Aragorn embarrassed many and caused a few eewws to be uttered in disgust. At their age, boys and girls are still not supposed to like each other!
Oin, quite the film fan, kept shouting “spoiler alert” every time someone talked about a scene they haven’t seen yet and exclaimed “oh, that is so green-screen” at the CGI shots of Isengard’s forces. I don’t think my students truly comprehended how outnumbered the Rohirrim were at Helm’s Deep until they saw how that chapter was depicted in the film. An argument also broke out over whether Arwen’s immortality is better compared to that of a vampire or a ghost. Earlier in our journey, I had asked my students to respond to the tale of Beren and Luthien, another star-crossed couple, to decide whether an immortal should exchange eternal life for love. I don’t think they truly grasped the weight of such a decision until they viewed the poignant scenes between actors Liv Tyler and Viggo Mortensen.
Peter Jackson, a master storyteller, eloquently pays homage to Tolkien, a master of foreshadowing, in the way he chooses to reveal characters to the audience. Knowing this, I anticipate how my students will react to particular scenes. Reading about the return of Gandalf is exciting enough, but my students fell for it hook, line, and sinker when Jackson tricks the audience into believing that Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas are really encountering Saruman, the other white wizard. Deceived by the trickery of using Christopher Lee’s voice as it morphed into Ian McKellen’s, my students were utterly relieved to hear that Gandalf was back! They were fooled yet again at the first appearance of Treebeard, thinking Merry and Pippin were about to be killed by such a benign character. Bifur feels that Treebeard is like a grandpa because he’s old, prattles on and on about the good old days, and tells rambling stories that don’t seem to go anywhere and make you want to go to sleep. I suspect Merry and Pippin might have felt the same way.
Bifur was not only full of opinions today, but full of food. His mother had packed so much Bulgogi, a Korean BBQ favorite, for his lunch that he offered to share it with the other children. Ori said, “Bifur, you’re such a good little hobbit” at his random act of kindness. Almost everyone lost their appetite though as they were repulsed by Gollum ripping raw rabbit flesh with his few remaining teeth. They giggled loudly over Merry and Pippin’s beverage choices as they imbibed Ent-draught and wondered if there was really a drink that could make you grow a few inches. Another scene that made an impact was the releasing of Saruman’s spell over King Theoden. Amazed at the physical transformation actor Bernard Hill made from possessed to repossessed, some of my Christian students said that it reminded them of an exorcism, which started a conversation about their various religions. My Muslim students concluded that they have the same type of religious rite, but call it a ruqya.
Kili, who loves these films so much that her curiosity leads her to “sneak” a few peeks on YouTube, has appointed herself our resident Tolkien expert. She not only views ahead, but reads ahead and researches further into her favorite characters. Previously only liking the male characters, she has now found a strong heroine she can identify with, Eowyn. Impressed by Eowyn’s swordplay with Aragorn, she admits “it’s sort of pathetic how Eowyn follows Aragorn around with puppy-dog eyes when he clearly is in love with Arwen!” Kili also went on to explain who the Dunedain were to some of the other students. Though we affectionately refer to her as Miss Know-it-all, even Kili doesn’t know everything. The whole class laughed when she mistakenly referred to the Palantir as a “planeteer”. Having an intact sense of humor, even she laughed at herself over that one. I applaud her efforts to move beyond the text though and may even suggest she consider The Silmarillion for a summer reading selection.
My students are also noticing Jackson’s alterations to the sequences of some of the events in Two Towers, which he chose to save for the final film. As my students have already encountered these events in the book, I am anxious for them to view Return of the King. Our reading this past week also led to some great discussions. They enjoyed hearing of Saruman and Wormtongue getting their comeuppance and Ori asked why Gandalf would choose not to keep Saruman’s staff for himself rather than breaking it. Knowing that Gandalf does not seek power to serve himself, most of the children agreed that taking away his staff was a fitting punishment for Saruman. Oin connected his action to the wizarding world of Harry Potter by sharing “a wizard is nothing without his wand, so a wizard in Middle-Earth is nothing without his staff.” “Poor Saruman thought he was going to win,” Ori mocked as he sang a chorus of nah nah nana boo boo. Noticing Pippin’s insatiable curiosity over the Palantir, Oin said, “Pippin’s pupils must be magnetic” to describe his need to gaze into the formidable object. He also wondered if the Palantir would have the same powers if it were thrown underwater. Not having an answer for him, I told him perhaps one of our Teaching Tolkien readers could supply us with one. Another stumper they had for me today was asking the exact geographic proportions of Middle-Earth. Relating it to his native country, South Korea, Bifur asked “is Middle-Earth Korea-Size?” Only speculating, I told him in my opinion, I imagined it as Australia-size.
As our dialogue continues in the classroom, we hope that the dialogue will continue on Teaching Tolkien. With only three weeks remaining in the school year, our plan is to finish Two Towers this week and race to the finish to complete Return of the King in the final two weeks. The journey continues…