Teenagers now can take a literature class that immerses them in the world of hobbits, fairies and wizards made popular by the “Lord of the Rings” movies. Amelia Harper, a teacher from Nashville, N.C., spent 20 months developing “Literary Lesson from ‘Lord of the Rings,’” a one-year curriculum for students ages 12 to 18. The course includes background on classics such as “Beowulf,” “The Iliad” and the “Arthurian Romances,” but its focus is on the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy written by J.R.R. Tolkien.
“In my opinion, it is one of the most powerful pieces of literature ever written by man,” Mrs. Harper said. “No other piece of literature that I have ever read can make me both feel and think the way this one does.”
Mrs. Harper first read the Tolkien series when she was 15 and read it every summer in her youth. Now 43, the home-schooling parent and teacher said she has read each of the three “Rings” volumes at least 25 times.
“I would visit Middle-earth every day,” she said. “It was a mental escape.”
When the first “Lord of the Rings ” movie was released, Mrs. Harper avoided it, fearing that the film version would not live up to the books she loved so dearly.
When “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” was released on video, however, she set aside her fears and watched the first movie in the trilogy. She was pleasantly surprised.
“When I saw it, I was hooked,” the self-described “Tolkien purist” acknowledged. “I was driven back to the books, to check my own memory of how the stories compared.”
It was not her own reaction that surprised her the most, however.
“More than anything, I saw the way that young people responded to this film — how they were entranced by it,” she said.
Teaching British literature at the time, Mrs. Harper had an idea: Because “The Lord of the Rings” was inspired by classical works, why not use it in conjunction with older texts in a high school literature class?
“I hoped to open their eyes to the wonders of literary creation in a whole new way — a way that would make them want to read and explore other books for themselves,” she said.
She made sure her new curriculum did not follow the tendency to present “old tales like trophies under glass, when students really need to see how they impact the stories that they love today.”
“It’s great to have all these kids now, as a result of this movie, reading a 1,200- to 1,500-page novel,” said Ralph Wood, a professor of religion at Baylor University and the author of “The Gospel According to Tolkien.”
Reading the Tolkien books “is a good way to work forward and backward,” Mr. Wood said. “To understand the epic world, you need to read works like the ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey.’”
Although she originally had planned “Literary Lessons from ‘Lord of the Rings’” to be used by home-schooled students, Mrs. Harper decided last year to teach it as a pilot course in two public schools in Kentucky and Colorado. She also used the curriculum to teach literature to a group of five home-schooled students, including her son.
Home-schooler Claire Polk, 15, attended literature classes taught by Mrs. Harper before she was part of the pilot group. She said she and her fellow students enjoyed meeting once a week to discuss Tolkien.
“A lot of the class like it a lot, because it’s not your average high school literature,” she said.
Under the direction of Mrs. Harper, the group spent a year reading the three books in the “Lord of the Rings” series and combing through the 620-page textbook. The curriculum explores the ways that classic literature such as “Beowulf” influenced Tolkien.
“My hope is this curriculum will help introduce young people to some of these literary heroes in a manner that is enjoyable and worthwhile,” Mrs. Harper said. “I want them not only to learn and love ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ but also to appreciate these older influences and to gain valuable literary skills that will aid them in the interpretation of all literature.”
Before taking the “Lord of the Rings” course, Jeremiah Joyner said, he didn’t find the epic works interesting.
“I just didn’t get that much out of it,” the 17-year-old North Carolina home-schooler said. However, Mrs. Harper’s course “opened a door” that made classical texts easier to understand.
Mrs. Harper hopes Tolkien’s novels can help many more children to appreciate the classics.
“I’m hoping they develop that love of literature,” she said. “They can see these stories have an influence on their lives today.”
Claire said the class focused on literature in the first semester and grammar in the second semester. The book includes a glossary of more than 600 words and a dictionary of more than 130 literary terms.
“One of my goals through this is that they learn how to interpret another form of literature,” Mrs. Harper said.
The course has some elements of a history class, she said, because it gives some biographical information about Tolkien.
“Not only does this teach literature, but it also gives bits of background about what Tolkien was thinking as he was creating his work,” she said.
“I want to learn more about him,” Claire said. “He has this really crazy imagination.”
Mr. Wood, who has taught about Tolkien at Baylor, warns that some students become so entranced by the world that Tolkien creates that it becomes more important than reality.
Costing $125 for both a student text and teacher’s edition, the curriculum was published in May.