I recently launched my limited-interest, single-member book club, based on Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book so Great. I’ve focused on the books Walton discussed that I’ve yet to read, which is ironic as the basis of Walton’s essays is the rereading of books. I hadn’t planned to reread any. I completely forgot that even at the time of writing the original post, I was reading my oldest son the Hobbit. So here is a bonus post, about Tolkien, fatherhood and where my love of reading began.
But first here’s Walton’s essay.
She talks about the wonderful rhythm of reading the Hobbit aloud, and it’s instantly recognisable. From the moment I started with,
‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.’
we were both mesmerised by the beautiful cadence, and richness of the language. I was immediately transported back to the time I was eight and my dad sat on the edge of my bed reading me exactly the same words. That magical introduction is the very reason I’m sitting typing these words. In these nineteen chapters my love of books was born. Not only that, a love of fantasy and a lifelong addiction to boardgames and roleplaying games.
I must confess, although having the book read is one of my most cherished childhood memories, my respect for The Hobbit had waned over the years. Whilst I remember being read to with crystal clarity, my recollections of the story were rather hazy. I berated the film version for messing up the bit with the trolls, but actually it was closer to the book than the version I’d remembered. I was amazed how quickly the dwarves arrived in Rivendell and how little they did there. Did Beorn always have animal servants? I realised for the first time that the path on the map the cleaves straight through Mirkwood, that’s not the one they take. (Considering how many maps and atlases of Middle Earth I own this proves my mum was right; it was all a waste of money.)
I think the biggest spike in my love of the book came from a terrible stage production I saw many years ago. From necessity it stripped out all of the travel, so Bilbo and the dwarves crashed from one unlikely escapade to the next. The whole thing was condensed to a procession of incompetent pratfalls followed by implausible escapes. It showed the limits of the story. If you rip out the history and description there’s not much left. (As a digression, I think the 2nd two LOTR films do this too.) Now having reread it, I was surprised how sophisticated the story is. Bilbo’s sleight of hand with the Arkenstone, I’m sure was lost on me in my early readings, likewise, the cleverness of the thrush being instrumental in Bilbo saving the day. I had to explain both to Ethan, as they had passed him by, although he did guess what Bilbo was going to do with the stone.
I worried about reading him The Hobbit, more specifically concerned about how it would compare to the mighty juggernaut that is Harry and Hogwarts. My recollection is that in 1980 I’d had zero exposure to fantastic literature. The Hobbit was unlike anything I had ever encountered. These days just about every kid over five has heard of Harry Potter. Ethan has read them all, and loved them, consuming them like an addict. I was afraid the more verbose language of the Hobbit would feel leaden compared with that of JK Rowling’s books.
Beyond that, the commercialism of everything popular could well dent his love of the books. When you can buy a Lego Gandalf with a key chain sticking out of his head, it rather ruins the mystique. I need not have worried, by the time the dwarves were threatening to ‘Chip the glasses and crack the plates!’ he was hooked. There’s nothing like having a child begging you to read just a bit more to tell you how much they are enjoying it.
He loved it from start to finish, quite possibly because I was so animated reading it to him, but everything interested him. The maps (clearly a chip of the old block), the place names and the battles. He was practically jumping off the bed when Bilbo was creeping down the passage towards Smaug, and he was fascinated to know where Gandalf had gone. I seem to remember being disappointed once the wizard had left, because he was one of my favourite characters.
So, that’s one child indoctrinated with a passion for Tolkien. Just two more to go. It’s hard to sum up just how much pleasure reading his books has brought me over the years, but nothing compares with sharing them with my children. At the time of writing, we have inevitably embarked on a bigger project. We stand at the beginning of chapter 3 of The Lord of Rings. With Ethan, myself and one of the finest books ever written, three is definitely fine company.