8th November 1996 at 00:00
A new package rescues the creator of Bilbo Baggins from both the fanatics and the cynics.

TOLKIEN TEACHING PACK Video, hardback copy of The Hobbit, and Teacher's Notes By John Mannion Collins Pounds 29.99 Age range: 11-plus.

The summertime donkey work of examination marking is familiar to every teacher, in school and university alike. JRR Tolkien spent all his working life as an academic and university don, but the scale of his eccentric achievement and fame might provoke any teacher to ask, Thatcher-like, "Is he one of us?" One little anecdote on the splendid video included in this teaching pack encapsulates delightfully the way he both is and isn't.

One summer afternoon in the Thirties, Tolkien was busy with his uninviting pile of examination scripts when he came across an unexpected bonus - a blank page, "nothing to read". On the spur of the moment, he scribbled on the empty sheet, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit".

An early draft of The Silmarillion already existed, having been finished by 1930; The Lord of the Rings lay ahead. In one sense The Hobbit stands alone, as a book for children detached from the more demanding fantasies that followed it. Yet that afternoon marked the true beginning of the great quest narratives of Middle-earth. And Tolkien's academic colleagues in both school and university have never quite known what to make of it.

It is very easy to write off The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as merely cult books and escapist fantasies, or as heroic celebrations of an Anglo-centric bourgeoisie, or as nostalgic hankerings for a pastoral golden age. Tolkien's severer critics in schools and universities are pushed to such dismissive judgments by what they see as the uncritical devotion of his admirers, who are legion. Tolkien scholarship is almost as hermetically sealed as the "secondary world" of Middle-earth itself.

As a consequence The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are often neglected in schools and universities. Caught between the extremes of adulation and disapproval, many teachers steer clear of Tolkien altogether.

This admirable pack could go some way towards getting the balance right. The video is excellent, rich in information and skilfully edited to steer a course between biography and criticism. The contributions of Professor Tom Shippey, who now holds the chair once occupied by Tolkien in Leeds, are a model of academic warmth and accessible critical insights, and Christopher Tolkien is, as ever, a just and intimate guide to his father's achievement.

Between them they repel the charge of escapism, as do the facts of Tolkien's life, not least his experiences of fighting at the Somme. Although Tolkien resisted allegorical interpretations of his books, they belong with the classic myths on the corrupting attractions of wealth and power, and deserve their place in the curriculum.

The Teacher's Notes are a compact and practical resource, consisting of 13 varied worksheets on The Hobbit designed for key stage 3, and more advanced programmes of work on The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion for key stage 4 and beyond. The pack effectively places Tolkien in his true position as the central figure in modern fantasy.

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