The initial topic for this research project was a culturally-based analysis of a text of our choosing. Each group was expected to examine sections of their choice that would highlight the novel’s root culture in addition to paralleling it to our own. As a group, we decided on The Hobbit because it was beloved by each of us and we each had a personal interest in British culture. We began by assigning sections based on creating a well-rounded examination of the novel. For the assignment, our introduction included a brief overview of our own cultures and our experiences with other cultures, including our ideas about the culture of the novel. Overall, I feel that our cooperative endeavor was a fruitful and mutually edifying experience, and I hope that it manages to provide a sense of engagement for those new to The Hobbit, as well as a new perspective for those that already cherish The Hobbit.
As the intended audience of this assignment is undergraduates, the staging of the paper may need to be slightly adapted, either by the instructor serving as a mediator between the students and the information presented via instruction, or by the class reading the piece, or sections of it, together while taking time for discussion.
Students working in a unit where this specific novel is being discussed would benefit most from the information presented in the research paper. For example, I teach a high school-level mythology course, open to sophomore, junior, and senior level students; this particular paper would be applicable in this course as we read and discuss chapters from The Hobbit. For this particular unit, while introducing the text, students would read the “History behind The Hobbit: The Story” section in order to gain background knowledge on the text and Tolkien’s life as well as his intentions for the novel. As a class, we would discuss how the various aspects of Tolkien’s life influenced the text and we would then apply this to other texts we have covered in class.
The following idea could be turned into an additional assignment, appropriate for any literature unit and course. In regard to the mythology course mentioned previously, the students have read the Iliad – which could be substituted for any other piece of literature – and they have background knowledge on the culture and historical events of the time. With this in mind, students could be put into groups and construct the history behind the Iliad based on speculations about Homer’s life (as not much is known about him, students would be free to be creative with their conclusions) derived from the text. Possible assumptions might include his being a Greek soldier, a slave, a carpenter, or a priest. Students could then research the author and compare their speculations to the information they find, adding these results to their final paper. As a group, students would then use this information and their speculations – citing specific examples from the text as support – to create a “History behind the Story” section of their own.
Additionally, for a college-level, AP course or adapting for students exceeding the standard, students may be asked to create a section focusing on the cultural importance behind the text, citing specific examples from it; a possible prompt for this section might look as follows:
What do we learn about the culture in which the novel was written?
How did/does this novel shape/influence its culture?
How does this text reflect your culture? Or, how doesn’t it?
Furthermore, an additional project for such students, if students are enrolled in a foreign language course or familiar with one, may regard the language section of the project and, using their background knowledge in language, attempt to create a small project – consisting of one language and a few paragraphs – that imitates Tolkien’s creation of new languages.
Another project idea stems from the section regarding the creation of The Hobbit’s geography. Students may want to review this section of the project, and then, while reading from the novel, the teacher could highlight sections from the book concerning geography. Students could then create a map for the text based on the information provided as well as what they find throughout the novel and, as a class, students would reflect on the how the author’s experiences have shaped the topography of this world – is the author from this area? If the place is fictional, how might/does it reflect the author’s real world? What experiences has the author had that played a role in the shaping the story-world? Again, this idea could be adapted for any novel in which the landscape of the story is described.
For a college-level or AP course, or for students exceeding the standard, instead of creating a map, students might write a brief essay reflecting on how the geological background is reflective of the protagonist or the character’s inner journey. In addition to this, students may read the mythological section of the document, choosing to either write an in-depth character analysis based on what they have read and information they have gained, or to write an essay making connections to a myth; for the mythology course previously mentioned, students could relate the story to numerous tales covered throughout the class. Furthermore, an additional project for such a course might allow students to create their own character for the novel (as seen in Jackson’s addition of the White Orc in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) that is reflective of an ancient mythology covered in the course.
Considering religion plays an exceptional role in influencing literature, it is also important for students to gain background knowledge in this area of the author’s life. Students may want to consider how the author’s religious beliefs are reflected in the text, or not reflected and why not, and also how these beliefs may be similar to or different from the cultural majority. As is noted in Alicia’s section on religion in The Hobbit – is the religious influence of the text subtle or blatant? Why might an author choose to do this: for personal reasons; a fear of criticism and/or alienation; to promote inclusion?
With regard to any of the above ideas, this research paper serves as an example of working collaboratively via technology. While developing this paper, Alicia, Kevin, and I worked collectively utilizing such technological tools as Google Documents, GroupMe, Vocoroo, and Prezi as we were unable to meet in person due to distance. In order for this to happen, leadership, drive, and communication were required. This type of work serves as an experience for students to develop and hone these necessary real-world skills.
In a high school environment, I suggest that the teacher provide roles (e.g. group leader: responsible for formatting, final editing, and submitting the paper; monitor: in charge of scheduling, ensuring group members keep due dates; etc.), as well as require the group to comprise a list of norms and expectations (e.g. all members’ voices will be valued, all members will peer edit, etc.), in addition to consequences for violating the group rules (e.g. required time to work with the instructor on missing sections, a reduction in individual grade, etc.). As represented in our paper, it is also beneficial for each student to select a specific section of interest to research; in this case, students could choose from a variety of the ideas presented previously in this essay. In addition to these suggestions, it might behoove a high school-level instructor to familiarize the class with various technologies available for group work and presentations. Students might also publish their work via a site like Lulu or Frodo’s Notebook.
Regardless of whether one is teaching The Hobbit or not, our project could serve as a sample of a new type of research paper – one that does not simply propose students research a topic, but that they research with a specific focus, in this case culture, while applying their own perspectives and experiences. While culture plays a significant role in literature, other aspects could be chosen, such as style, genre, or gender. Most simply, this paper might serve an instructor or class in gaining background information on The Hobbit, and how to craft a collaborative and more thoughtful research paper, but, as noted above, I see its purpose not only to inform, but also to spawn new project ideas rich in an appreciation for The Hobbit, in addition to the exploration of literature.
*It is worth noting that the above lesson ideas, depending on how and which the teacher chooses to utilize, meet the following Minnesota State Standards for high school English language arts:
Additionally, some of the concepts, while altered, are derived from Dr. William Dyer’s online “Selected Studies in World Literature” course, ENG 4/533, offered in Fall Semester 2013.
Learn more about Gillian Singler on our Contributors page