Can Lord of the Rings Be in High School Curriculum?

jrr tolkien quoteAs the hype over the final Hobbit movie begins to fade and the original Lord of the Rings movies are now cinematic history, some educators are wondering if its appropriate to introduce Tolkien into high school classrooms across the country.

The thought is not without precedent, as there are a number of educational models that encourage students to pursue their own interests within some loosely established guidelines (think Montessori, for one example), but the issue here isn’t whether the books are appropriate for a high school level reader – certainly they are, as that demographic forms the largest set of the fantasy series’ fan base – but whether or not the books are valuable enough to merit inclusion in a high school English curriculum.

Defining Literature in the Modern Age

There are a few ways you might think about this question. The first is whether or not we should consider Tolkien’s works “high literature.”

Literature, as an art form, is somewhat loosely defined. While there are obvious works that fall into the status of art literature without question, including a range stretching from Heller’s Catch-22 to Morrison’s Beloved, there is not any clear rule about when a book is and is not “worthy” of being considered great literature.

Not only that, but sometimes the perspectives change with time. Dickens was a magazine writer in his day, and published many works through a series of subscription papers, hardly the mark of high literature, and yet he is read by every student in American high schools.

Could you imagine a David Baldacci novel, or John Grisham novel being taught in schools? Probably not, and the same goes for many other contemporary populist writers.

Similarly, Joyce’s Ulysses, by today’s standards, is very obviously high literature, and thought it isn’t generally taught in high schools because of its complexity, no one denies the appropriate label of high art. And yet, when it was published, it was considered scandalous.

Thus, why wouldn’t The Lord of the Rings be appropriate? It is filled with allegories, metaphors, and complex literary styles. How is it different than any other work we read, just because it happened to be made into a blockbuster film, which by the way, is true of most books these days.

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