This is what actually happens when you read to children.
Cue June 2012: my eldest child asked about The Hobbit. Could we read it together? It was written in 1937 and I wondered if the language might not be very accessible, but a lovely 75th anniversary edition had just been published and anyway, what was to lose?
So I gathered up my two elder children and proceeded to read 351 pages of prose aloud, paraphrasing as I went so that Middlest could understand too. The old prose was charmingly out of their reach.
Middlest: ‘What’s an engagement tablet?’
Eldest: ‘Is it a pill you take before you get married?’
Me: ‘I think it means a personal calendar.’ (Shelves other tempting responses.)
Now Tolkien was not a man afraid of words and when he wrote The Hobbit, in between the goblin action and the great bear man, he included a lot of details and landscapes — hills swathed in trees, gradual slopes to the east, escarpments to the north, that kind of thing. Tolkien did not sacrifice the dawdles of rivers for the sake of plot pace, and why should he? The charm of this is often lacking in modern stories, so I read every last syllable, and translated it all for Middlest.
I love reading but even so, reading that much density aloud is like eating dry Jacob’s Crackers. Perhaps it was because Youngest was still a baby and demanding more energy than my body could muster, or perhaps it was because we were busy with a house refurbishment, but either way, exhaustion set in. Night after night my eyeballs rolled back into my head, and I woke in the wee small hours with a sleeping child’s elbow in my eye socket, small feet pressed into my belly, and The Hobbit up my nose, only to realise the next night that they’d gone to sleep before I’d finished so we’d have to backtrack until we found the story point at which their memories stopped.
It took weeks to finish it.
‘Cor, that was long,’ Eldest.
Wasn’t it just.
But anyway, they’d enjoyed it. They reviewed it with gratifying enthusiasm.
I loved The Hobbit because it’s a long-winded, good natured story. The adventure is exciting but the descriptive bits in between make it a long read and the language is old-fashioned because it was written 75 years ago. So it’s brilliant but takes ages to read.
I like the bit where they were captured by the elves and escaped in barrels.
I have got loads of favourite characters, one of them is Gandalf. The others are Frodo, Sam, Pippin and Merry. Smaug is one of my favourites, he can’t help being a dragon.
Their enthusiasm was contagious and I felt it was a literary landmark — hurray, we’ve read The Hobbit. (Just The Lord of The Rings trilogy to go — although I find that an easier read anyway). So happy days.
That was 2012.
Let’s fast forward past the years it took to unpeel my parched and exhausted tongue from the roof of my mouth and head right on up to this actual week.
We’ve just finished Grandpa’s Great Escape and we’re halfway through War Horse.
Middlest, ‘Mum, Mum, can we read The Hobbit next, please, because I’ve never read it!’
‘Yes you have.’
‘No, I haven’t.’
‘YES YOU HAVE, I READ IT OUT LOUD TO YOU. ALL 700 PAGES*.’
‘Have I? Did you? Can we read it again, please?’
It will be worth it. Even if they don’t remember it, even if I have to read it over and over… some of it will sink in, right? I’ll do it anyway. If only for the cuddles, the elbows, and the feet… which might, after all, be my favourite memories.