March 6th is World Read Aloud Day! I wrote a read-aloud post last fall for the Hobbit Read-Along, a merry fellowship of nine writers. When I began the blog project, I didn’t account for the fact that I would be reading aloud to my son. As a result, I was always scrambling to cover two chapters each week. Reading aloud slows down the process, but it is amazing how it changes not just the readee–the child listening–but also the reader. I saw new things in The Hobbit, and am now reading him The Lord of the Rings trilogy–books that would be too complex for a grade 3 student to read on his own. It is a marvelous experience, and here is an account of my challenges.
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’s (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.
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 films. 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 genuinely 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 side by side, 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. 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.