My husband found this delightful lecture series on Itunes U by Dr. Corey Olsen, a literary critique of Tolkein’s The Hobbit. We quickly devoured the first 3 lectures during a recent road trip. I highly recommend it. To find the series, simply search for “Exploring The Hobbit” on the ITunes U app.
We enjoyed so much in just the first lecture that I had to share a bit. Dr. Olsen points out that Tolkein models the behavior that he expects of his intended audience, children, in the protagonist, Bilbo himself. Bilbo is gradually exposed to Tolkein’s Middle Earth, thus allowing readers to acclimate to it themselves. Like Bilbo, readers are led to believe this world that is in many ways outside of their own, to accept it, and eventually, to explore and experience it firsthand.
This is significant, especially in children’s books. Children who read The Hobbit may not even recognize just how closely they are following Bilbo, as Tolkein’s model works so well. Contrast this with a heavily moralized piece of children’s fiction-most kids aren’t going to buy it. In children’s literature, it is most often the modeled behavior of the characters, rather than bald-faced statements, that the children will accept. It’s simple, and it works with adults too: show me, don’t tell me, and I’m much more likely to follow.
One particular experience of Bilbo stands out in my mind, and that is his reaction to the dwarves’ song in chapter one. To paraphrase Dr. Olsen, this song is the first thing that makes Bilbo consider the possibility of going on the adventure, even making adventure appealing. I observe that here Tolkein gives strong witness to the influence of music and poetry. Though the dwarves’ song isn’t what propels the hobbit out the door, it is in a sense the first thing that opens the door to something foreign to Bilbo, something he was until now bent on trying to avoid.
Later when the company arrive at Rivendell and hear the elves sing their joyful and ridiculous song, the reader is only allowed to see how this song affects Bilbo. It so strong an affect, that “tired as he was, Bilbo would have liked to stay awhile (p.50).”
I love this. I love how instrumental (sometimes literally) songs and poetry are in the story. I love that, for Bilbo, they add depth and texture to the characters that sing them and the places of which they speak. In this way, the songs of Middle Earth invite us to enter in as well, enabling us to suspend judgement in perhaps a different way than prose does.
Finally, I wandered to the importance of singing to and with my children. It’s obvious we remember words in songs much easier than by mere memorization. I’m looking forward to singing with my littles as a way to enrich, influence, and hopefully point to both truths I pray they hold dear one day as well as paths for them to explore on their own.
Song and story. They provide vast worlds for exploration, and often remarkably clear mirrors into our everyday lives, enriching inner worlds and the way we view the world around us.