Giving Voice to the Story: On Reading the Hobbit Aloud to my Son

This blog is part of The Hobbit Read-Along at The Warden’s Walk. I’ve been assigned Chapter 14: Fire and Water. Feel free to comment on any of the great blogs in the series.

When I jumped into the Hobbit Read-Along, I never imagined that I would struggle to read two chapters a week. I am a slow reader, but given time I’ll find my way from book cover to dust jacket. But as I launched into this merry fellowship of nine writers, I didn’t account for the fact that I would be reading aloud to my son. Since the very beginning, we’ve been scrambling to cover two chapters a week.

Reading aloud to a curious 7¾ year old has challenges beyond sheer volume. The Hobbit is more complex than some of the other books we’ve read. We have only one book left in the Narnia Chronicles, and before that we filled our bedtime hours with Lemony Snicket, E.B. White, Roald Dahl, and some of my own fiction. Tolkien’s language is older, the scenery darker and more layered, and the dialogue—what little there is—is highly accented. So each paragraph is punctuated by a question or two, and I am sometimes translating as I go, particularly clarifying pronouns (which can seem obscure to younger children). Even this book, a fairy tale of 350 pages, takes a long time in the economy of a grade 3 bedtime.

Part of the challenge of reading The Hobbit aloud, besides the intentionally archaic syntax, is the sheer number of voices. I am far removed from the skilled voice actors that read our books for posterity. Some are quite bad, like the Chinese American trying to pass herself off as Japanese in The Memoirs of a Geisha. Others impress me, like Brendan Fraser’s work in Dragon Rider or John Cleese’s pretentious interpretation of The Screwtape Letters. When it is done well, a single reader can do a marvelous job.

My goal is more modest: I just want to create a magical atmosphere for my son. As I write those words, I suppose that seems a much greater goal than sheer entertainment. But it is true: I want the stories to come alive for him, so that he is forever shaped by the literary dragons we slay together long after the words on the page have slipped in the deep stores of memory.

E.B. White’s books and the Chronicles of Narnia have very few characters, so voicing them isn’t difficult. Moreover, some of the characters have voices that emerge easily: Eustace Scrubb’s smug BBC dialect with a tinge of lip; Reepicheep’s shrill, dignified superlatives; Puddleglum’s resigned languid tones; and Sam Beaver’ (from The Trumpet of the Swan) soft, flat Montana accent which slowly deepens as he moves from his preteen years to young adulthood. Even the animals in Charlotte’s Web have literary voice that slip out easily enough.

The Hobbit, however, is a challenge.

Admittedly, I’ve done my best to steal Ian McKellen’s Gandalf voice, and it is hard to read Gollum again without thinking of Andy Serkis’ marvelous voice work in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But for the most part I’ve tried to leave Peter Jackson behind.

Bilbo came naturally: a soft rural English accent, slightly effeminate, and almost always afraid. Thorin was a challenge, but nothing compared with a dozen dwarfs in tow. I was clearly out of my element as Bag End filled with dwarfs. Ultimately I decided on an Irish or Scottish accent, unable to really keep track of the individual dwarfs. Oin and Gloin took on more of a Newfoundland lilt, and Balin distinguished himself with my best Cape Breton accent. But except for Bombur, who has a deeper, fatter, Bomburish sulk, the rest are a blur of Irish and Scottish—two cultures I’m sure I’ve managed to insult here simultaneously. Thorin rose out of this bunch with a slightly more exalted and dignified air.

Hugo Weaving, who I presume is descended from the race of elves, influenced my Elrond, though he is far less affected in The Hobbit. The trolls reveal my prejudices (or my influences) as I gave them a Cockney accent (as best I could), which I think captures a bit of what Tolkien was on about there. Beorn gets a deep, resonant, reluctantly entertained tone, with a touch of longing, like a scorned lover, and a hint of Scandinavian. The goblins get shrill and high pitch voices with wretched cackles.

By midway through the book, though, I’ve used all my voices. I managed to pull a growling, haughty character for Smaug, but it is really just a reworking of the Wargs. The spiders are a wispy recycling of the goblins. And by the time I come to the elves in Mirkwood or the people of the Lake-town, I am spent. I tried to lace the Elvenking’s voice with hubris—a subtlety I’m sure my one audience member missed—the Master of Lake-town is overly indignant and the only American voice I included, and I’ve got nothing but a rural Prince Edward Island accent left for Bard, the hero of the lake. Perhaps that is fitting—my province has long been under the spell of Anne of Green Gables. Perhaps some dragon slaying would do us good.

I am out of voices and I still have four chapters left—I’d love suggestions for voices of what is coming, if you have them (without revealing the end, which I know but willingly forget). But my hope is that, even with my great limitations as a reader, I will have intrigued my son enough to catch the bug that is fantastic or romantic (in the old sense) literature. Somehow, I hope the warmth of bodies together, the dim light of bedtime, and the strange voices of the characters permanently map his future literary world.

And perhaps it is working. “Fire and Water,” my chapter, includes an absolutely key moment and the last stand of the timid villagers against the wrath of Smaug. Through the great battle and the politics of restoration that followed, my boy was entirely silent. And when the chapter ended—it was a short one—he tried to prevent me from turning over the page, protesting greatly as I closed the book. It makes me suspect that he has been ruined already.

I mourn the day when he is too old for our “snuggle reading,” as we call it. But in the meantime I’m pleased to leave him wanting for more. The chapters in The Hobbit have been long, but tonight he asked if we could read the Lord of the Rings next. I don’t think he’s ready for that yet. We’ll see. In the meantime, we’ve left the residents of Mirkwood and Lake-town looking north to the Lonely Mountain, where thirteen dwarfs and a Halfling hero are shivering while they wait in great expectation their fate.

If I am right about my son’s interest in the book, they aren’t the only ones waiting.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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20 Responses to Giving Voice to the Story: On Reading the Hobbit Aloud to my Son

  1. robstroud says:

    When I spent a year stationed in the Republic of Korea, I left my wife and three young children behind. I recorded several of the Chronicles of Narnia on cassette, and my kids (especially my youngest son) listened to them for a number of years after my return home. Reading to our children is a wonderful privilege we have as parents!


  2. Emily Reddon says:

    Great post, thanks! My dad read The Hobbit and all seven Narnia books to me, one chapter a night, with all of the “translations” that you’re talking about (ie. “The children inherited, which means received from their parents…”). He would come home from work, see my mum, read to me and then to each of my three younger brothers and then go back out to work again. The man deserves a medal. Anyway, I have such fond memories of curling up with my dad and reading The Hobbit that even though I loved the Lord of the Rings films I almost don’t want to see the new Peter Jackson Hobbit films coming out because I don’t want to ruin the precious memories. Keep reading to your kids; it changes their lives!


  3. Jessica says:

    My SON, then in high school, read The Hobbit (and the entire Lord of the Ring Trilogy) aloud to ME–while I sat on the couch stroking the cat. One of my best memories–and surely one of the cat’s. :o)


  4. David says:

    Reblogged this on The Warden's Walk and commented:
    The joys and difficulties of reading aloud to children; also, how much fun Tolkien must have had reading The Hobbit to his kids.


  5. Mary says:

    I am beyond impressed that you attempt different voices for the characters. I recently read the first 2 Narnia books to a friend during a long car drive; I ended up sounding slightly English by the end of it, but anything more than that was beyond my skills.


  6. David says:

    Excellent! I’m glad you get to read the whole book to your son — I too have fond memories of my dad reading it and the trilogy to me. I also compliment you on commanding so many different accents! Myself, while I enjoy trying them out, especially for my niece and nephews, I am limited to perhaps three English ones, two Scottish, one odd Irish (I used to be able to distinguish a bit between Irish and Northern Irish accents, but not so much anymore), and…frankly, it’s not long before they all begin to interweave and I’m just another American speaking in a who-knows-what accent, but it doesn’t matter so long as I communicate enough of the character’s personality. (Or I’ll start sounding like Duncan MacLeod in the Highlander series.)


    • Man, that’s a blast from some epic past! Yes, my accents get muddled all too frequently.
      What age did you first go through the LOTR books? They seem a jump up from this little fairy tale.


      • David says:

        Oh gosh, I must’ve been in third of fourth grade when we started The Hobbit. We pretty much went right into LOTR after that, so throughout junior high. The trilogy was really spread out, because we didn’t read every day. While I certainly didn’t get every detail at that age, I could follow the story well enough, and I loved it. Didn’t matter if a few character names or details got lost in the shuffle — rediscovering those are what re-reads are for. +)


  7. emilykazakh says:

    Reblogged this on WanderLust and commented:
    Ladies and gentlemen, this is my absolute favorite post in this series yet. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


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