Hey, hey, hey! Greetings to Jonah Sutton-Morse, the only father we have weighing in on our discussion of parenting and reading and representations of mothers in fiction this week. You can usually find him blogging on Yelling at my Bookshelf, but today he’s here to talk about sharing the story of The Hobbit with his children. Take it away, sir!
“In a hole, in the ground, there lived a Hobbit.”
I hope I’m quoting Tolkien correctly here. It’s been a while since I’ve actually read The Hobbit, but I’ve been repeating the story (along with The Lord of the Rings) to my 4-year-old during car rides for months.
It started as simple desperation. Every car ride seemed like a fight: Tadpole had no interest in listening to music or NPR and having a conversation was like pulling teeth, so one day I told her, “In a hole, in the ground, there lived a Hobbit.” I went on to specify that the hole was not a dry, sandy scrape in the ground or a nasty, dirty muddy hole full of roots (we’ve later added that it’s also not a grand, cold Dwarven feasting hall), and launched the story of Bilbo Baggins (a woman in my telling), Gandalf the Wizard, and a band of dwarves. We’ve been sharing this story (and others—it is possible to tell The Hobbit too many times) ever since.
This wasn’t the plan. I’m insecure about voices, and despite Tadpole’s unprompted statement that “you sound like a Hobbit daddy” pretty much everyone sounds the same. I like to read books, and Tolkien in particular. I grew up reading The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and had been looking forward to reading them to Tadpole when she got older. I have no idea what her experience will be like when she finally reads the books, but I am a bit worried that I’ve spoiled them for her. Will report back in a few years, I suppose. Instead, I’m telling these stories as I remember them, eliding a few pieces I don’t really want to engage a four year old with (why don’t the elves and dwarves get along? And why did Thorin throw Bilbo out for having the Arkenstone?), and we’re developing a new tale along the way.
Pacing takes on a whole different meaning when the story is told during the intervals between home and school or the grocery store.
I’ve learned a lot as I tell the stories: Gandalf always disappears with flimsy excuses. Tadpole is fascinated by differentiating “real” and “just story” elements. When you’re telling a story, it’s useful to have a recurring series of key phrases: whenever the dwarves want to send Bilbo somewhere—towards trolls (who are ogres in our story because Tadpole had pre-existing troll associations), up a tree, across the black river, or into Smaug’s lair, it helps to have Bilbo ask why everyone is looking at her and to have Thorin point out that You are the burglar, aren’t you? Isn’t this what burglars do? Which Bilbo is of course suspicious of until her final march into the mountain.
Pacing takes on a whole different meaning when the story is told during the intervals between home and school or the grocery store. For months now, we’ve measured those commutes in terms of the story elements of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings (Tadpole particularly enjoys the Balrog and recently wanted to clarify that the palantir were the seeing stones), and most recently a story about giant eagles inspired very loosely by Kate Elliott’s Crossroads trilogy.
Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I’ve been enjoying this immensely. I like to brag about little successes like connecting the palantir and seeing stones; Tadpole’s map of Mirkwood with important elements like the black river, spiders, elf palace, and river ride all marked; and playing out the Bilbo/Gollum riddle exchange.
Sharing these stories with my daughter is an incredible experience.
Sharing these stories with my daughter is an incredible experience. The baffled looks (or occasionally delighted grins of recognition) from other parents are a nice bonus. The real wins, though come when Tadpole shares the story with her little sister, or corrects me as I’m telling the tale. The times where she mashes up the story of The Hobbit with her beloved Octonauts and decides to tell me a bedtime story where they all appear.
I didn’t plan to tell my kid these stories. For a while my telling was rough. I am still terrified that when she encounters the books (however she does), I’ll have somehow ruined them for her. But at this point, I think it’s safe to say it would be worth it. We were outside enjoying the spring weather recently and Tadpole ran up with a couple sticks: “Can you hold Glamdring daddy?” she said, and we were off on a game in which I was Gandalf, she was nearly everyone else, and we had to save her baby sister from…someone. The details got fuzzy.
There’s a lot that I expected to love about sharing Tolkien with my kid: it’s wonderful to hear her identifying the characters and objects I’m so attached to. I’m also much more attuned to the rhythms of the stories having told them so many times. It’s fascinating to figure out how best to transfer this written story into an oral form. But it’s the unexpected joys that I really treasure. These stories have been a way for Tadpole to practice differentiating “real” and “story” and to practice being scared in a safe setting. They’ve given her an imaginative and narrative framework to build her own stories and games. They’ve saved car rides for us. Even if she can never experience Tolkien “fresh,” all of those wins will have been worth it.