Some thoughts on reading The Lord of the Rings out loud
Last night I finished reading LotR to my daughter, who is four and a half. We had started very soon after Christmas (when we had finished The Hobbit) and finished on Easter, which comes pretty close to mirroring the time it took the Frodo and Sam to go from Rivendell to Mount Doom. I absolutely loved reading the books to Rhys and watching her reactions, and 90% of the time when I was reading I wasn't analyzing, just reading. I do a few voices for her when I read (Gimli--with a Yorkshire accent--the orcs, Treebeard, Saruman), but mostly I just read.
Now I've read LotR easily 40 times, so it wasn't likely that I'd suddenly discover anything new. And my first introduction to Tolkien was my dad reading the books aloud to me, so I'm familiar with the aural effects. And yet I did notice a few things:
Tolkien spends an enormous amount of time on physical description of geography. There is just passage after passage describing, in detailed but not purple prose, the land, and the largest portion of this writing describes topography. Foliage and water flow gets some description, but topography really takes the lion's share. I think this is particularly interesting because Tolkien gets criticized regularly for archaic or inflated style, but none of that style is evident in these many, many passages.
The Fellowship of the Ring is by far the most engaging of the three books. I have always been a lover of The Return of the King because, of course, it's the climax, with the great battles, the destruction of the Ring, etc. But Fellowship is so powerful because it all happens at a much more personal level -- at least in the eyes of a four-year-old. Fellowship is also a lot scarier: the Black Riders, the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs and the Mines of Moria are just a lot more viscerally frightening than the more intellectually frightening battles and monsters later on. In fact, rather than progressively building to more and more terrifying monsters (such as whatever is living in Minas Morgul, or even Shelob), the monsters in the Shire and on its edges are more emotionally powerful. Part of this is probably due to the hobbits being on their own at the beginning, and less experienced, etc. But I think that Tolkien does a very smart thing dramatically by building up the tension so quickly even for such a long work.
"The Counsel of Elrond" is long and difficult, but not (contra so many) boring to a four-year-old. I think, though, that if I hadn't been able to explain back story, etc., it would have been more difficult for her. The most tedious chapter for her was "The Voice of Saruman" : she wasn't impressed by the rhetoric and debate.
Lothlorien, and particularly the Lady Galadriel, is incredibly powerful. Even with all the excitement throughout LotR, Rhys' favorite chapters were in Lothlorien. Her next favorite moments were Eowyn slaying the Lord of the Nazgul and the ents destroying Isengard.
I am a far bigger sap than my four-year-old daughter. Both at Thorin's death at the end of The Hobbit and the Grey Havens in LotR, I got all misty. Not so, Rhys, though she did feel very sad about Theoden's death.
The Silmarillion? To a four-year-old? Not as big a hit.