Thursday, August 15, 2013

Reading Aloud and The Lay of Leithian

I’ve spent the past few days with my husband, who had four wisdom teeth yanked with just local anesthetic. In between sipping broth, taking prescription narcotics, and feeling dizzy, he somehow found the energy and jaw strength to finish reading me The Lay of Leithian by J.R.R. Tolkien. (Zachary is, in short, fantastic beyond all reason.)

I had forgotten how comforting and exciting it is to have a story read aloud to you. When I read by myself, my eyes skim the page at an almost speed-reading pace, and I have to place a bookmark under the line I’m reading if I want to savor the prose. Reading aloud slows down the story. It lets me take in each word. Since I have a hard time processing things by listening to them (I’m a visual learner), I have to listen intently, focusing all my energy on taking in the meaning and hearing to the flow of the words. It’s a lot more energy-intensive than reading for myself. And a lot more exciting.

If you haven’t read The Lay of Leithian, and you like poetry, I highly recommend finding a copy. (Disclaimer: Tolkien never actually finished the poem, so you’ll have to discover how it ends by reading the chapter about Beren and Luthien in The Silmarillion.) The story follows the tale of Beren, a mortal man, who falls in love with a half-elf, half-angel maiden named Luthien. Their love is strong, but Beren must fulfill a seemingly impossible task to win her hand in marriage: journey to Hell and back and return with a holy stone, a silmaril.

The story, even aside from the incredible prose and spell-binding imagery, has everything good stories have: true love, a noble hero, a beautiful maiden, a forbidden romance, friendship, torture, prophecy, battle, the triumph of beauty, and the sorrow of fate. It’s one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever heard. I’ve already decided I’m going to tell it as a bedtime story to my children someday, especially to my daughters, who need to see that beauty has worth because it springs from goodness, courage, devotion, and strength.

In On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien wrote that before we grow weary of detailed and gritty and lifelike stories, “We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses— and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make.”

In The Lay of Leithian, I looked at green again— and it startled me in the best possible way.

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