Review: Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings

Curricula come and go around here, especially language arts curricula. While we’ve enjoyed Michael Clay Thompson’s series for grammar, vocabulary, composition, and poetics, we’ve not settled into a literature program. I was an English major in college and remain prolific reader of fiction and nonfiction. My children, especially my older son, view fiction with a somewhat condescending eye. Why, my older said years back, would you want to read a bunch of lies?

Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings, by Amelia Harper and published by HomeScholar Books, has breathed new life into teaching elements of fiction to my nonfiction-reading boys. At 477 pages, the student guide is initially an imposing tome, but those pages are rich with content centering on a story my boys adore. Each chapter of Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings begins with a summary of the chapter in cloze style (fill in the blanks). A page reference follows each blank, making it easier to find the answer if you’re stuck. The summary that results is quite helpful for those instructors (myself included) who can’t seem to find time to read the book along with the students.

Following the summary is a vocabulary study of five to fifteen or so words in one of two styles, multiple choice or open answer. Each word comes with a page and paragraph reference so the student can read the vocabulary work in context and give the corresponding definition. A glossary in the back of Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings makes for easy reference.  The words are suitably challenging for most middle schoolers, and, I’d venture, the majority of high school students.  Butteries, dromunds, and ironmongery were new to me, and I consider my vocabulary relatively developed. 

The third portion of each chapter study, titled Additional Notes, is a mix of summary, deeper explanation of chapter events (with references to supporting Tolkien writings and commentary by other Tolkien experts), and lessons on literary terms. The explanations are clear with concrete examples. Terms brought up in previous chapters recur in context, generally assuming the student will recall them from their initial presentation.  Simpler terms, such as protagonist, foreshadowing, and theme, accompany more advanced ones, like, aphorism, kenning,  and extended metaphor. 

The chapter work concludes with a handful of questions that generally ask the student to put the literary terms learned into context and a few that ask for critical thinking from the reader. These aren’t simple comprehension questions, as that has been evaluated in the summary portion of the lesson. Some are suitable for essay assignments, as they could be explored in greater depth.

After each “book” (each volume of The Lord of the Rings is divided into two so-called books), curriculum designer Amelia Harper present two to three unit studies that cover literary topics that relate to The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s biography, the fantasy genre, epics,  poetry, the Old English lanugage, Beowulf, and King Arthur receive complex treatment in these sections, which can be quite challenging but are truly the distinctive element of this study. These sections make Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings a study unlike any other literature study I’ve seen, bringing Tolkien’s work into a greater context, creating connections to the wider world of literature.

Designed for middle and high school learners, Literary Lessons from Lord of the Rings is intended to be used over the course of a full school year. Jamie Smith, of Online G3, teaches the class in 18 weeks, a brisk pace but pleasing to my older son, age 13. Not every portion of the unit studies are addressed, but I’m impressed by how much she fits in. My younger (age 9), who had to tag along on his now-favorite books, will complete the course after about five months of study (and with more minimal focus on the unit studies). For complete treatment, including time to deeply explore the unit studies, the nine months recommended by the author would likely be required.

As I mentioned initially, this study has breathed new life into literature for my boys. It’s opened the door to fantasy literature in my younger and whetted his appetite for more classics (he adored Beowulf). We do the student guide together, with me reading the Additional Notes aloud, which leads to some discussion of the new terms. We’ve used less of the end-of-unit studies, largely due to his desire to “get on with the book,” but I plan to return to some of the ones we’ve missed after the trilogy itself is finished.

One portion of the program we’ve not used is the tests. Each of the six books concludes with a test of terms, characters, and events, written as true/false, multiple choice, and fill-in-the-blank style. There are separate vocabulary tests for each chapter as well. Aside for math and science for my older son, we don’t bother much with tests, so I can’t review these other than to say they seem fairly comprehensive. The tests are only in the Teacher’s Edition, but even if testing isn’t your plan, I’d recommend buying this along with the student guide, unless you really want to hunt down each answer along the way. I’m grateful I made the additional investment.

I highly recommend Literary Lessons for The Lord of the Rings for any family wanting to use classic fantasy literature to springboard into literary analysis and medieval British literature. If fully utilized with all the end-of-unit studies and some of the writing assignments (essays, research papers, etc) suggested in the teacher’s edition, this can certainly count as a full year of high school English. If you’re looking for a bit less rigor, pick and choose from the end-of-unit studies, as I’ve done with my younger son, and adapt writing assignments into discussion topics, decreasing the output load for younger or writing-resistant students. If your youngster would like to discuss the topics with other students and investigate the ideas in the guide with fascinating web links, consider Jamie’s online version of the class through Online 3G. The class is aimed at gifted children, many pre-teen, and has minimal output requirements. It’s not high-school credit material, but it’s served my 13-year-old well, and Jamie’s a fine teacher.

My only complaint with the Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings is that I’m not sure what should follow it. Here’s to hoping Amelia Harper can bring some other classics to life in similar depth. Thanks to this program, fiction enjoys higher regard from my boys, and for that, I’m grateful.

I’ve received no financial or material incentive from HomeScholar Books or Amelia Harper for this review.

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6 thoughts on “Review: Literary Lessons from The Lord of the Rings

  1. Thanks for the thorough review Sarah…we may go into this in the future if kiddo is interested. I’ve always wanted to know how it is set up and you’ve been so helpful to explain that here.

  2. Thank you, Sarah, for the review. My daughter is 9 and reads Tolkien, but I see I need to wait with this curriculum a few years.
    I hope that within a few years this curriculum will be available outside the US.
    Many thanks, Paula

  3. Your review of this curriculum is one of the best written reviews that I’ve ever read. You did such a good job of explaining how the program is laid out; I didn’t find very many details about the curriculum anywhere else on the net. I certainly wouldn’t have purchased it without your excellent, descriptive review…. so now we wait with excitement for the books to arrive…can’t say we’ve felt that way about any language arts curriculum in the past! 🙂 thank you for taking the time to write the review. just thought you’d like to know that folks are still finding it helpful!

    • I’m glad it’s been helpful to you. I do hope it lives up to your expectations! My younger son has asked to use the book again, this time with the corresponding G3 class. As much as I know he enjoyed it, I’m instead encouraging trying something new. Good luck!

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