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Tracing the Waste Lands

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by Susan Barton Young, Deering High School, Portland, ME, 2009

For grades 10-12 (depending on student ability/maturity)


Through exposure to a broad range of Waste Land images, from both film and text, students will learn to recognize the role of symbolic settings.

Steinbeck texts

  • Acts of King Arthur & His Noble Knights
  • Grapes of Wrath

Other texts/movies

  • The Lion King
  • The Fellowship of the Ring
  • Oedipus Rex (Sophocles)
  • The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)
  • Kite Runner, pomegranate tree imagery (Hosseini)
  • Selected Short Stories (Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River, McGrath’s “The Lost Explorer)
  • For AP Classes: “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot

Day 1: Introduction

Starting with IMAGES

  1. The Lion King
    1. Show the opening scene of The Lion King (“The Circle of Life”) Have students use the graphic organizer (MS Word) to keep track of the images of life abundant. (see sample completed organizer [MS Word]).
    2. Then show the scene where Simba returns to the Pride Land to confront Scar. Have students complete the right-hand side of the organizer with images from this Waste Land image.
    3. Discuss briefly (for those who have seen the whole movie) what led to the drastic change—Scar’s selfishness; the hyenas; drought, etc. You might ask how the Waste Land reflects both Scar’s character, and his leadership: what has been lost? What is the role of a King or Leader in maintaining abundance for a whole community? What is the role of the rest of the ecological community? What forces are WITHIN a leader’s control, and what forces might be beyond control?
  2. Lord of the Rings
    Repeat the process with two scenes from Fellowship of the Ring—the opening scene where Gandalf arrives for Bilbo’s party, and then any later scene where Saruman is cutting down trees and “mining” orcs, or scenes of Mordor from Return of the King.

    (Optional) Homework: Have students look for images of The Waste Land in their own vernacular—songs, movies, ads, etc. (“Baba O'Reilly” by The Who, for example)

Day 2: Background—“The Dolorous Stroke” from King Arthur

  1. (Optional): Discuss Steinbeck’s fascination with the Arthurian legends, to give them the background for Steinbeck’s familiarity with these stories, as well as his assessment that knowing these stories is crucial for understanding much of the symbolism in modern English and American literature.
  2. Provide students with 2-3 different versions of the story of the “Fisher King” who gets wounded/maimed by being struck with the spear that had wounded Jesus on the cross (Steinbeck’s Knight of Two Swords, Richard Cavendish’s Perceval [MS Word], Rosemary Sutcliff’s Grail [MS Word]). Have them identify key similarities and differences amongst the versions.
  3. Discuss key recurring images:
    • The spear of Longinus—from use in violence to sacred instrument to mis-use in violence once again
    • The Fisher King (Pelles/Pellam)
    • The wounding (usually between the thighs)
    • The connection between a King and the fertility of his land
    • Any hint of how the Fisher King and his land will be healed in the future?
    • The Grail
  4. Have students brainstorm any modern movies or images that use these references (for example: The Fisher King with Robin Williams, Children of the Corn by Stephen King, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, etc.)
  5. Have students read 2 different versions of the healing of the Waste Land by Percival or Galahad. What are the keys to the healing? (learning to ask the right question; achieving “perfection” as a knight, etc.)

Day 3: The Waste Land in Modern Literature

Have students read different versions of “The Waste Land” in modern literature. This can be done consecutively, with the whole group, or as a “jig-saw” activity, where a group of students becomes “expert” in one text, and then “teaches” it to another group. You might use one of the texts on an overhead or Smartboard to demonstrate how to annotate texts, and then have students do the others on their own. For each text, have students identify

  • Key waste land images/elements
  • Possible causes for the onset of the Waste Land
  • Possible links to characters’ psychological states
  • Any possible “cures”?


  1. Oedipus Rex (MS Word): Read opening speech of Priest to Oedipus.
  2. The Great Gatsby (MS Word): “Valley of Ashes” description
  3. The Grapes of Wrath: Chapter 1/Dust Bowl
  4. “Big Two-Hearted River” (Hemingway)
  5. “The Lost Explorer” (Patrick McGrath)
  6. The Kite Runner (pomegranate tree imagery) (Hosseini)

Possible Extension Activities

  1. Have students create a visual image of their own “waste land.” (Warning: this can become too “therapeutic” for some students’ comfort-zones; however, it can also elicit some powerful personal images/insights).
  2. INTERDISCIPLINARY: have students work explore the areas in the world (Sahara, Mongolia) where deserts are gobbling up prairie land, and what forces are at work in that transformation.
  3. Link to Marine Ecology—explore how/why coral reefs are being turned to waste lands, and what the “key questions” might be that could lead to “healing” these areas.