Friday, January 20, 2012

Tolkien Aloud

As the previous post suggests, we do a lot of reading aloud in our house even though both children like to read on the own. My daughter may be 11-going-on-17, but if you are wise, you won't mess with her bedtime reading, and my son likewise thinks it doesn't matter what else has gone on that night, where we've gone or how tired he is: if he doesn't get reading, something is wrong.  I hope we can hold on to this family tradition as they continue to grow up.

A while back I published a piece in the journal Silver Leaves about reading The Lord of the Rings aloud to a four-year-old. That was my daughter, and we read the books again when she was six. Since then she's wanted to read other things (unlike me, who would force my father to start right in again on The Hobbit as soon as we got to the end of Return of the King), and we've done a lot of fantasy and science fiction. Over the past two years we've read Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising; Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books (just the original trilogy. I'm not reading Tehanu to my daughter, well, ever); the Anne McCaffrey Harper Hall dragonrider books; the Lloyd Alexander Chronicles of Prydain (she loved these more than anything else); some of the Heinlein "juveniles"; and the first two Hitchhiker's Guide books by Douglas Adams.

My son wasn't interested in The Lord of the Rings books when he was four, though he did like The Hobbit and we read it a couple of times, but last year, after he turned seven, we started on Fellowship and are now to the very end of The Two Towers.

So I've read Tolkien's work aloud two and a half times, plus probably four times for The Hobbit, and have a pretty good comparison group of other writers. Tolkien is by far, massively by far, the easiest of the major fantasy and SF authors to read aloud and the one whose work gains the most from oral presentation (Lloyd Alexander would probably be a fairly distant second).

Now that's the kind of evaluative statement that needs something to back it up. But one of the problems with trying to defend such an evaluation is that we have no agreed-upon metric, and so people end up quoting particular passages, pointing, and saying "See!  See how great that is!" But often passages that are great out loud are also great when read silently, so the argument is hard to make in detail.

I think, though, that I've come across one minor technique in Tolkien that really makes a difference, and I think this aspect of his work arises from his having read so much of The Lord of the Rings to the Inklings: you never, when reading Tolkien, are in any doubt about who is talking in dialogue. There is always some kind of information, either in the set-up, the dialogue itself or the description, so that you never have the experience of reading a block of text and then realizing "Wait! That's Eomer talking, not Gandalf."

In contrast we might look at Frank Herbert's Dune.  I just finished reading this out loud to my daughter, and almost every night there would be some large passage of dialogue that I'd start reading, thinking it was one character, and then, after it was finished, you'd get a bit of description or a "said X" that showed  that it was an entirely different character speaking.

I'm particularly sensitive to this because I do "voices" for most of the characters in a text, and so when you start a passage thinking that it's in Gurney Hallek's accent, and it turns out to be Duke Leto or Stilgar, you have to go back and re-read the whole thing in the correct accent.  Many of these passages in Dune are too long to scan to the end and find out who is speaking without losing focus on the part being read and drifting.

But this disorientation never happens in Tolkien, even in minor works like Farmer Giles. It's always easy to read his texts aloud, not only because you know who is talking, but because the writing--even the description of landscape--has a rhythm to it, and rise and fall that keeps you from having to stay at one pitch and speed all the time.  There are rushing passages, but then also slower, more graceful ones.

Perhaps this orality (both in terms of oral roots and ease of oral presentation) is another aspect of Tolkien's work that makes it appealing to such a wide range of readers and draws people back to re-read the books over the courses of their lives.


John Cowan said...

Le Guin makes some of the same points in her essay on reading Tolkien aloud (pereant qui ante nos nostra dixerunt!). She also notes that alternation of tension and relaxation (what Frye I think calls "rocking-horse rhythm") in the L.R. applies at all scales, from periodic sentences up to the book as a whole.

Andy said...

I completely agree that it is the rhythm of Tolkien's narrative makes it a joy to read aloud.

A dear friend was reading "Return of the King" to his two children and I was fortunate enough to be there to hear the very end of the novel (complete with voices). Hearing Tolkien read aloud is an exquisite pleasure.

I may have missed the opportunity with my (now grown) daughter but someday there will be grandchildren... :-)

Evan said...

Boy, this really resonates with me on so many levels.

I am at the start of the Return of the King for my son (14) and daughter (12 [and yes, going on 17]). Reading aloud is just the best.

Of course, my daughter is also a huge Nancy Drew fan, and if she doesn't get a chapter a night, there is trouble.

Jason Fisher said...

I read Tolkien aloud to myself. An incomparable experience. The author was so obviously steeped in the oral saga tradition ...

Sarah said...

I entirely agree. I think Tolkien crafted his writing very carefully for being read aloud.

When The Silmarillion was released, I rushed home with it and proceeded to read away ... and found myself slogging along. And got very puzzled, because I love Tolkien's writing. I couldn't figure out what the problem was. Until I went back to the beginning and began reading it aloud to myself. Then everything fit into place - even the chapter of geography was filled with wonder.

Tolkien was a master at letting the language build up a tension, and then dropping us down (which made us want to keep going).

"A shadow swept over him. He felt the blow. He fell to the ground and knew no more." (My attempt at a Tolkien-like chapter ending.)

Amelia said...

This is so true. I think people often stumble upon the "greatness aloud"-factor while reading passages to patient friends or spouses.

Luckily the translator who did the Norwegian translations of Tolkien's books was tuned to this, and they are great read-alouds in Norwegian as well.

Robert Sterbal said...

I guess this as good a place as any for this... I'm listening to the Drout Way on grammar (the red panda audio cd lecture series) during my commute to work. It turns out that the person who introduces you also read the audiobook of Richard Feynman's letters. The unintentional effect is that it sounds like you are being introduced by Richard Feynman.

Ahmed Aldebrn Fasih said...

(i) How do your kids like Dune? [My sister-in-law (who loves Tolkien) claims Herbert's ouvre is for boys (all her brothers-in-law like Dune).]

(ii) Do they like Neal Stephenson?