Reading The Hobbit to Lytton (just turned 6) – Beorn has just sent the party Mirkwood-bound and re-ponied, and this (plus recent Hobbit-discussion on here) seems a good place to take stock.
The Hobbit is a degree tougher going for kids than anything I’ve read aloud so far – there’s notionally 19 chapters but many are very long and the whole thing might well take three times as many nights to finish. I read it absurdly young – yes, I was precocious, but I must have done an outrageous amount of skimming. I’ve read it since – including aloud, to my wife – but as ever reading to kids, with their infinite potential for not listening, really forces you into an awareness of the pace of a book: all the bits I’ve etched into my head happened, but quite a lot happens (or doesn’t really) around them or in between too.
Case in point, the Beorn chapter (“Queer Lodgings”): one of several sections where the heroes get to enjoy a pit stop, and Tolkien gets to limn out a few details of his world – though Beorn and his household of walking dogs and copious mead feel like they have wandered in from a different part of the Medieval entirely. From the rescue by the eagles to the entry into Mirkwood will end up taking me five nights viz.
1. Eagle journey to Gandalf’s announcement that he’s leaving.
2. Discussion of Beorn, trip to the edge of his bee-pastures.
3. Two-by-two intro of dwarves to Beorn*, recap of story so far.
4. Feasting and sleeping at Beorn’s gaff.
5. To the edge of Mirkwood and Gandalf’s actual departure.
This is a dense five nights of story, but not really in terms of action. I remember finding Beorn’s hall as strange and haunting an intermission as JRRT probably intended it, but I think the impact is greater taking the chapter as a whole, and while useful plotwork happens here (Beorn introduced; Goblin military plans discussed), there is also a sense that the entire chapter is devoted to introducing and promising a dude who turns into a bear who then very much does not turn into a bear ‘on camera’.** (I did notice L’s eyes widen at the snuffling and growling at the door – a foolproof ghost story trope – so this slight anticlimax was diverted)
Despite the occasionally langorous pacing The Hobbit still feels packed with incident. This read has really brought home how well Tolkien portions out his world to us – each chapter introducing at least one thing new until the Dwarves get to the Mountain and all the various elements can be stewed up together. Hobbits and Dwarves; Trolls; Elves; Goblins; Gollum (and the Ring); Wargs and Eagles; Beorn; Spiders; Wood-Elves; Men – and then we’re at the dragon. This episodic storytelling is sometimes held up as something that makes the Hobbit a lesser achievement than Lord Of The Rings – a sense perhaps that Tolkien was improvising. But a) he wasn’t and b) the gradual drawing back of the curtain – “expanding wonderment” as Swanstep neatly put it on the film comment thread – is enormously effective, not least because it gives this Dad plenty of carrots to dangle if the bee-pastures or Elfsongs prove less than thrilling.
*read oneself this is funny, read aloud it induced great restlessness, so either my delivery was off or there was no real need for a recap quite yet.
**though I’m sure he will.