‘The Hobbit’ is a tale that begs to be read aloud

Categories: Chicago Tribune

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Tribune

3:18 p.m. CST, December 21, 2012

Bilbo Baggins, the head hobbit in J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 novel, may be diminutive in stature, but the marketing blitz associated with this month's film treatment of his adventures is as tall as the starting lineup of the Chicago Bulls: a Middle-earthsmartphone from Microsoft, "Hobbit"-related block sets from Legos, video games for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 and even a "Hobbit"-inspired menu at your neighborhood Denny's.

"Gandalf's Gobble Melt" anyone?

Of course, when Tolkien first published "The Hobbit," all of this was hard to conceive. Marketers had faint reach into living rooms, and besides the radio console and phonograph, the greatest mass entertainment families turned to for enjoyment in the home was reading.

The magical lure of "The Hobbit" is that, despite its continued stature as a fantasy classic, it remains decidedly old-fashioned. Tolkien was a classics scholar intent on creating an adventure tale that incorporated elements of epic Norse and Anglo-Saxon legends — "Beowulf," "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" and others. But while the archaic prose of those works continues to weigh down English lit majors as much as their hardbacks of "The Norton Anthology of English Literature," "The Hobbit" is immensely readable, especially out loud and to another person hungry to hear a story.

Tolkien meant it that way. The narrative voice in "The Hobbit" is similar to that of other children's literature of his day: A.A. Milne's "Winnie the Pooh" stories, J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan" and George MacDonald's "The Princess and the Goblin." But Tolkien pushed his narrator one step further by fashioning him as a kind of gentle intruder to the reader's inner circle. Starting with the novel's opening paragraphs, Tolkien's narrator speaks directly to us, pausing to ask questions we might ask — "What is a hobbit? I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us." Then he is off, making the unfamiliar perfectly recognizable, so much so that a hobbit hole sounds like a place we might want to retire to someday.

Corey Olsen, an English professor at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., who operates a website on Tolkien research, considers Tolkien's voice as "very distinctive from other books of his day because it speaks to the reader as a modern person," Olsen says. "That's why 'The Hobbit' is so good read out loud."

Throughout the novel, Tolkien takes the reader aside to whisper a secret, warn them of what danger lies ahead, assure them there are consequences to the described action and even console them when tragedy strikes. The voice is often written to sound breathless, as if the narrator himself can't keep pace with the latest crisis to pivot into the path of his heroes.

"Indeed he could do lots of things, besides blowing smoke-rings, asking riddles and cooking, that I haven't had time to tell you about," the narrator says of Bilbo as a nasty spider horde prepares to devour his friends, trapped in cocoons of webs. "There is no time now."

His narrator gets so intimately bound with us, he is not immune to scolding at certain points, lest there is the sense we begin to feel superior to the First World dangers of Middle-earth.

Just when Bilbo helps the dwarves escape the elves by concealing them in barrels, Tolkien writes: "It was just at this moment that Bilbo suddenly discovered the weak point in his plan. Most likely you saw it some time ago and have been laughing at him; but I don't suppose you would have done half as well yourselves in his place."

Tolkien's narrator also moves things along by borrowing metaphors from modern-day life to frame the action — telling us that the pine trees Bilbo and his dwarf companions scramble up to escape a wolf pack resemble "an enormous Christmas tree" with branches "sticking out at intervals like the spokes of a wheel." Another time, when Bilbo wails at the prospect of never returning to the shire, his shrieks "burst out like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel."

Bilbo isn't likely to recognize cars and freight trains, and would have no idea how to celebrate Christmas, but no matter: His readers would.

"Just as a parent telling a story to a child might pause and explain things, the metaphors help the child relate to the action, possibly even answer questions the child might ask, or anticipate questions they might ask," says Olsen.

While sculpting the Hobbit, Tolkien tested sections out by reading them out loud to his four children, a scenario that makes me think of a friend who works for a truck dispatch company on Chicago's West Side. Every week, during a lunch break, he heads to the nearby library branch to stock up on children's books. Last month a co-worker spied the stack in my friend's back seat and asked what gives. When my friend replied that they're for reading to his precocious 4-year-old son, the co-worker frowned.

"I never thought of that," he said.

How far we've come from Tolkien's time, when families came together through the recitation of words, says Anita Silvey, the editor of "Children's Books and Their Creators," an overview of 20th century children's books and a former vice president at Houghton Mifflin Co., also Tolkien's publisher, where she oversaw its children's books division.

"Tolkien himself comes out of the age when families read together in the evening and books were considered valuable for being read out loud," she says. "There is no question, 'The Hobbit' is a book created by somebody who came out of that tradition, and he felt he was exercising that tradition when writing it."

As any early child development will tell you, reading out loud to children fast-tracks their critical thinking skills, which come in handy for future tasks such as getting into very important colleges or impressing co-workers at cocktail parties.

But nighttime storytelling also has a valuable consequence in the here and now: It makes imagined worlds very real, and entering them a shared ticket.

"We're drawn into those worlds together" when adults read to children, says Carolyn Brodie, president of the Association for Library Service to Children and a professor at the library school program at Kent State in Ohio.

"Especially if the reader reading has a dramatic flair for reading, we can experience the emotion of the book's excitement and the scariness together while being in a comfortable environment," she says. "It provides a real connection between the reader and the listener, which provides a model for children. If we see adults reading, it looks good, and we want to read on our own."

Getting parents to understand the power they possess in this simple and unassuming way may be as great a challenge as anything Bilbo faced on Lonely Mountain, especially with the specter of visual and interactive media looming in every room, on every wall, in every palm.

Even Tolkien, late into his life, had a moment where he didn't trust the potency of his narrator. After the success of his epic work "The Lord of the Rings," he returned to "The Hobbit" in 1960, determined to rewrite the novel with the narrator rubbed out, so as to strengthen its appeal for adults and make it more consistent with "Rings," a work in which the narrator remains largely invisible.

After showing the reboot to a friend for thoughts, Tolkien abandoned the project immediately. According to Olsen, the feedback that helped preserve one of the most remarkable works of children's literature was polite but succinct.

"It's very interesting," the friend said. "But it's not 'The Hobbit.'"

Mark Guarino is a staff writer with the Christian Science Monitor.

Share this story on your favorite platform: