February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

From Exploring Tolkien’s Symbolic Language to Making Furry Feet, Teachers and Librarians Gear up for ‘The Hobbit’

A copy of a letter J. R. R. Tolkien wrote in runes to a fan requesting an autographed copy of The Hobbit. Photo credit: Margie Hanssens.

Throwing Middle-Earth parties, translating runes, creating a Hobbit infographic project, and contemplating the heroic qualities of Bilbo Baggins: All of this and more is happening at libraries and schools this week, as Hobbit fever runs high leading up to release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey this Friday.

Organizations from the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh to the Santa Clarita Public Library in Valencia, CA, to the Cedar Rapids Public Library, to name just a few, are organizing book readings, painting murals, and hosting events to celebrate The Hobbit. At the Greenwood (IN) Public Library, making furry Hobbit feet, participating in a “One Ring Toss,” and sharing the book with the community are on the agenda for patrons of all ages, says Emily Ellis, head of reference and teen services, and a Library Journal 2012 Mover & Shaker.

At schools, Tolkien’s 1937 novel about a genial homebody from Bag End who reluctantly embarks on a quest to extract treasure from a dragon offers teachers and students an opportunity to muse on the nature of heroism and delve into mythology and philology, exploring Tolkien’s rich world of languages. Tolkien, a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, based his symbolic language of dwarvish runes, scattered through The Hobbit, on ancient English runes.

More generally, “the sense of adventure” in The Hobbit is what appeals to Darby Parker, a 10th grader at St. Andrews Episcopal School in Ridgeland, MS. Parker recently started a fantasy club at her school just to celebrate all things Hobbit.

Parker likes “how Bilbo, this little creature of habit, inches out of the blue and gets thrown into an awesome adventure,” she says. “He’s a cool archetype. He didn’t want to become a hero, but he became one.”

Seventh grader Chyna M. reads an edition of The Hobbit, illustrated by Michael Hague (1984, Houghton Mifflin), this week at the Murray Hill Middle School library in Laurel, MD. Photo credit: Gwyneth A. Jones.

Kids relate to Bilbo “because he doesn’t like to do things, but he does them anyway,” says Karen Copley, an English teacher at the McCracken Middle School in Spartanburg, SC.

Parker’s 30-member club is celebrating The Hobbit all week—and will for years, since this movie is the first of three that director Peter Jackson is carving out of Tolkien’s novel. For now, the club has plans for archery day, riddle competition day, dress-up day, and Hobbit food day.

While The Hobbit is already a curriculum staple in many schools, the film allows educators to engage more deeply with students like Parker, who says that the fantasy club “likes the fact that Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were buddies in college, and that they wrote their books in competition.” (Her club will also plan Narnia-related activities, she said.)

Hobbit feet made from brown packing paper, double-sided tape, and eyelash yarn. Photo credit: Becky Arenivar.

The Spartanburg (SC) County Public Library (SPL) is throwing a Middle-earth party on Friday, and Copley, whose school is nearby, is offering her eighth graders who are reading the book for extra credit if they go. Not that they need pushing: Copley’s imaginative curriculum already includes composing Hobbit-inspired riddles, creating Hobbit and elf character bookmarks, and delving into Tolkien’s symbolic language.

This month, she’s also charging her students with writing 12 riddles, one for each day of Christmas, inspired by the riddles Bilbo asks of Gollum in the book. Runes are featured on the Middle-earth map at the beginning of the book, and some editions also feature publishing data conveyed in runes. “They love the runes,” said Copley. “They’ve been writing their names in runes on everything.”

“Even kids who say ‘I hate fantasy’” are drawn to the book because “The characters seem so real,” Copley adds.

Making thematic bookmarks is part of the curriculum for an 8th-grade class reading The Hobbit. Photo credit: Karen Copley.

Middle-earth name translation sites like The Barrow-Downs and a Hobbit name generator helped Prescott (WI) Public Library programming specialist Becky Arenivar organize her Middle-earth “faire” this week. In addition, Online resources like a downloadable Teacher Pack form HarperCollins, featuring a word search and age-appropriate lesson plans, along with teaching materials from the Tolkien Society offer ideas for teachers.

“The idea of creating a language has a lot of power to it,” says Arenivar, adding that Tolkien’s language appeals to kids who like solving puzzles. While activities like creating hairy Hobbit feet are also part of her library event, Arenivar says that the story is ideal for readers who aren’t drawn to the complex plot intricacies of the “Lord of the Rings.” The Hobbit “reminds me of an oral story,” she says. “‘The Lord of the Rings’ is very complicated. This is a much easier world to enter into.”

SPL teen services assistant Jennifer Annis is planning archery, (blow-up) sword fighting, Hobbit trivia, and costume contests on Friday. She will also post a translation key to Tolkien’s runes in the library. Annis says that kids “love to be able to write something that no one else can read.” One teenager she knows, already versed in Star Trek language, was eager to learn more about Hobbit dialect.

Margie Hanssens, a language structures teacher at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York, delves deep into Tolkien’s love of language and mythology while teaching The Hobbit. She has her students translate the runes on Tolkien’s map and, in a related assignment, charges them with inventing their own language of symbols and writing a story in which they reveal clues about how to decode that language. Another student  reads the story and writes a letter to the author in the invented language, Hanssens says.

“The assignment is a way for the children to experience the pleasure of communicating through their own language of symbols,” said Hanssens. “Inevitably, the way in which they construct their symbols has meaning for them. They are rarely purely arbitrary.”

A translation of Tolkien’s letter. Photo credit: Margie Hanssens.

In addition, Hanssens has her students translate a letter that Tolkien wrote in runes to one of his fans who had requests an autographed copy of The Hobbit. In the letter, Tolkien refers to his “next book” which he explains will “co[n]tain more detailed information about runes and other alfabets in respo[n]se to many encwiries (sic).”

“There is clearly a linguist at the heart of this book,” said Hanssens. The Oxford scholar “was influenced by the mythologies of many cultures—Norse, Celtic, Greek, etc,” she added. “His love of these stories played an important role in his creation of Middle-earth.”

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Sarah Bayliss About Sarah Bayliss

Sarah Bayliss (sbayliss@mediasourceinc.com, @shbayliss) is associate editor, news and features, at School Library Journal.



  1. My student, media helper, & champion reader Chyna looks awesome reading the Hobbit! SO Proud! Thank you for using my picture SLJ – LOVE this article!
    ~Gwyneth Jones